In the not-so-distant-past, the Wild was in a five-team division with Edmonton, Vancouver, Calgary and Colorado. It made very little geographical sense, and fans were constantly griping about all of the late start times when the Wild played road games against division opponents — and they were teams Minnesota seemed to play every game (six times each during non-shortened years … so 24of 82, which isn’t close to every game but felt like it).
It was not perfect for fans. It was not ideal for the Wild, which had to travel all over North America into distant Canadian lands and time zones when there were teams like St. Louis, Chicago, Detroit and Winnipeg who were much closer.
This lasted through the 2012-13 season and then the NHL got wise. It realigned its franchises into two divisions in each of the conferences, some with seven and some with eight teams. The Wild was matched up with St. Louis, Chicago, Nashville, Winnipeg, Colorado and Dallas — none more than a time zone away, most in the same time zone. It made sense, even if we could all see the inherent down side: that division had the potential to be a bear competitively, particularly with the implementation of a new playoff system that created in-division matchups in the first two rounds.
In the final year before realignment, the Wild was a fringe playoff team, making it as the lowest seed before getting thrashed by Chicago in the first round in five games. Since realignment, the team has grown better — winning a playoff series each of the past two years before again being sent to the golf course by Chicago.
The question now is whether the Wild can take the next step in the playoffs. And the hypothetical within that is: would Minnesota be better off competitively if the NHL had never realigned?
The assumption is that the answer is “yes” because Minnesota wouldn’t have Chicago and St. Louis — two teams that figure to be somewhere between good and great for years go come — standing in its way. That said, I’m not so sure it’s cut and dried.
If the old divisions were still in place in 2013-14, the Wild could have beaten up on Edmonton, Vancouver and Calgary, all of which finished toward the bottom of the conference standings. But Colorado had 112 points, second-most in the West, and would have been a formidable foe. Maybe the Wild — which was a No. 7 seed two seasons ago before upsetting No. 2 Colorado in the first round — could have moved up a spot or two in the seeding had it been in the old division, but it’s hard to imagine the Wild of two years ago making it any further than it did in the playoffs.
This past year, Colorado slid back and missed the playoffs while Edmonton was again awful. But Calgary and Vancouver both made the playoffs with a similar number of points as the Wild. Maybe Minnesota would have been good enough to win the division and get one of the top three seeds under the old format. But it’s still questionable to think the Wild would have gone further than the second round.
The future is where it gets the most interesting. On paper, I’d like to think the Wild — with a full season of Devan Dubnyk playing at least close to the level he played over the course of the last half-season — would be favored to win a division that included Colorado, Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton next year. Then again, that doesn’t take into account the wear-and-tear of travel that has been at least somewhat abated by realignment. And even if Minnesota did win the division and get one of those top three seeds and got past the first round, the Wild would almost certainly be facing the likes of Anaheim, St. Louis or Chicago in the second round next year and for years to come.
Long story short: the old alignment might be more favorable than the “division of death,” but that wouldn’t do the Wild muchg good when it came to the ultimate prize of getting to the Stanley Cup Finals (and winning it all). You still have to beat the best sometime. Even if it wouldn’t have meant a matchup with Chicago every year, which it feels like is set to happen as it stands, the Blackhawks and other great teams of their ilk still would have been significant road blocks. It’s less about the division and more about the conference, and in the old or new format that was going to be constant.