Across the hockey world, not many will mourn the demise of the Southeast Division, a collection of ne’er-do-well teams in tenuous markets that played less of a role in the NHL’s postseason over the 13 years of its existence than any other division, yet somehow still managed to win a pair of Stanley Cups.
The Carolina Hurricanes, who accounted for one of those two championships, will miss it. They will miss it deeply.
Sunday night’s game at the Tampa Bay Lightning represents the end of an era for the Hurricanes, who have played in the Southeast for their entire tenure in North Carolina but will move to a powerful new eight-team division next year. It’s their final “Southeast Showdown,” as the teams once tried to brand their games, without gaining any traction.
Were it not for the training wheels provided by the also-rans of the oft-maligned “Southleast,” with a schedule heavily loaded with division opponents that annually ranked among the worst in the NHL, the Hurricanes would have an even worse record of postseason qualification. As it is, they have missed the playoffs in six of the past seven seasons and made it in only five of their 15 seasons here.
You can toss out 2000-01, when even against that weak schedule the Hurricanes wouldn’t have had enough points to qualify under the new groupings, and that playoff series against the New Jersey Devils was absolutely pivotal to the franchise’s future.
That’s the future the Hurricanes face in their new division. The presence of teams like the Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers will be a convenient boon for ticket sales on the eve of a price hike (if not the Hurricanes’ home-ice advantage at PNC Arena), but it could be devastating to the team’s postseason prospects.
The Southeast Division sent a mere 21 teams to the postseason in 13 years under a format where more than half the teams in the league qualify for the playoffs. (Only eight even managed to get out of the first round.) The other five divisions? 43, 40, 39, 34 and 31.
As a group, the Southeast Division has a 19-19 playoff series record since 1999. To put that in some perspective, the Detroit Red Wings alone have won 18 playoff series over the same span, the Devils 17.
It’s the only division that has never sent more than two teams to the playoffs. The Atlantic Division, which will join the Hurricanes’ new division in its entirety, has never sent fewer than three.
Things only get tougher off the ice.
During the past four years, the Washington Capitals were far and away the spending leader in the Southeast, but the Hurricanes, Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers and Atlanta Thrashers/Winnipeg Jets have all been clustered within $3.5 million per season of each other in terms of payroll.
In the new division, the Hurricanes would rank seventh out of eight teams in average annual spending, ahead of only the New York Islanders – a team that has padded contracts with extra bonuses just to get to the cap floor – and behind some of the NHL’s biggest spenders. It’s an expensive new neighborhood, and the Hurricanes have never flashed that kind of cash.
There were plenty of negatives about the Southeast for the Hurricanes – surprisingly harsh travel to all those games in Florida, not to mention milquetoast opponents that failed to captivate new fans – but those negatives may look pretty positive in hindsight.
So long, Southleast. You won’t be missed by many, but you’ll be missed very badly by a few.