Ranking the best (and worst) divisions in the NHL

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Despite the fact that the Eastern Conference now has a newly minted respectable division – the resoundingly revamped Southeast – the Western Conference still reigns supreme. Yet ESPN’s Scott Burnside decided to take the conference debate a step further and instead ranked the NHL’s six divisions from first (the rough and tumble Central) to last (the somewhat hopeless Northeast) in this column. Here are a few observations, with Burnside’s findings in bold and teams listed in order of their rankings as of today.

(For the record, I agree with his rankings.)

1. Central Division (Detroit, Nashville, Chicago, St. Louis, Columbus)

2. Pacific Division (Dallas, Phoenix, Anaheim, Los Angeles, San Jose)

I was leaning toward the Pacific, but Burnside makes a good point that the Central division includes two of the last three Stanley Cup winners (not to mention the last three finalists for the West) in Detroit and Chicago. They also have the best team of the 10 in Detroit.

After the top teams, I might like some of the Pacific depth teams a bit more from a talent perspective, although the Kings and Ducks are in a free fall right now.

3. Atlantic Division (Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, N.Y. Rangers, N.Y. Islanders, New Jersey)

The Atlantic includes two teams that are serious Cup contenders as well the Rangers, a scrappy bunch who just beat the top team in the NHL last night (that would be Vancouver). Yet they also house the two worst teams in the league, so middle of the pack seems reasonably fair.

4. Southeast Division (Tampa Bay, Washington, Atlanta, Carolina, Florida)

Fourth place might seem like an insult, but the Southeast was once just the Capitals, two awful teams and the hot-and-cold Hurricanes. In other words, they were probably the worst division in the league. Two spots is a solid jump.

5. Northwest Division (Vancouver, Colorado, Minnesota, Calgary, Edmonton)

The Northwest includes the best team in the NHL and the flawed but fun Avalanche, but their bottom three teams leave much to be desired. The Wild and Flames seem like they’re stuck in neutral while the Oilers are still in dress rehearsal mode with their band of youngsters.

6. Northeast Division (Boston, Montreal, Buffalo, Toronto, Ottawa)

It’s tough to argue with this choice. Ottawa and Toronto are mostly horrible. Buffalo is paying dearly for relying too heavily upon Ryan Miller after his super 2010-11 season. Even their two best teams are a little limited offensively, although the Bruins are showing signs of developing into a serious Cup contender.

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    Canucks’ Ilya Mikheyev to have season-ending knee surgery

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    VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Vancouver Canucks right wing Ilya Mikheyev is set to have season-ending surgery on his left knee.

    Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin said Friday night the 28-year-old Russian forward tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the team’s first preseason game Sept. 25. Mikheyev will undergo surgery next week and is expected to be ready for training camp in the fall.

    Mikheyev was originally listed as week-to-week with the injury and played 45 regular-season games, finishing with 13 goals and 15 assists. He scored in his final appearance Friday night, a 5-2 home victory over Columbus.

    Mikheyev signed a four-year, $19 million contract as a free agent last summer.

    Maple Leafs’ Matthews out at least 3 weeks with knee injury

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    Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews will miss at least three weeks with a sprained knee.

    The team announced the reigning MVP’s anticipated absence Friday, two days after Matthews was injured in Toronto’s victory against the New York Rangers.

    Matthews is expected to miss at least six games and could be out for a few more. The timing of the injury coinciding with the NHL All-Star break and the Maple Leafs bye week prevents this from costing Matthews more time out of the lineup.

    After being voted an All-Star by fans, Matthews is now out of the event scheduled for Feb. 3-4 in Sunrise, Florida. The league announced Aleskander Barkov from the host Florida Panthers will take Matthews’ place on the Atlantic Division All-Star roster.

    Matthews, who won the Hart Trophy last season after leading the NHL with 60 goals, has 53 points in 47 games this season.

    Caufield opted for surgery with Habs out of playoff race

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    MONTREAL — Montreal Canadiens winger Cole Caufield said Friday he wouldn’t be having season-ending surgery on his right shoulder if the team were in playoff contention.

    But with the Canadiens near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, the 22-year-old Caufield said he decided to have the surgery to protect his long-term health. The procedure is scheduled to be performed by Dr. Peter Millett on Wednesday.

    “I didn’t want to stop playing,” Caufield said. “I had a couple tests done to look at it more clearly but, in the end, like it could’ve been one more fall and it could have been even worse.”

    Caufield, who leads the Canadiens with 26 goals in 46 games, had three different medical opinions on his shoulder before concluding that his season was over.

    “I think they’ve seen a lot more than I have and they know the differences and what they like or don’t like about it,” he said about the medical opinions. “Long term, I think this is what’s best but for sure it was tough to sit out that game against Toronto on Saturday night.”

    Caufield initially felt the injury in an awkward fall during Montreal’s 4-2 loss at Dallas on Dec. 23. He said his right shoulder popped, and he replaced it himself.

    Caufield felt it again in the Habs’ 4-3 loss at Nashville on Jan. 12. The club announced on Jan. 21 that Caufield would miss the rest of the season.

    Caufield is nearing the end of his three-year, entry-level contract and will be a restricted free agent this summer.

    All-Star Matty Beniers to miss next 2 games for Kraken

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    SEATTLE — Seattle Kraken rookie All-Star Matty Beniers will miss the team’s final two games before the All-Star break after taking a big hit from Vancouver’s Tyler Myers earlier this week.

    Seattle coach Dave Hakstol said after morning skate Friday that Beniers would not play Friday night against Calgary or Saturday against Columbus. Hakstol did not speculate on Beniers’ availability for next weekend’s All-Star Game in Florida.

    The team has not specified what kind of injury Beniers sustained from the hit. He was barreled over by Myers away from the play early in the second period in Wednesday’s 6-1 victory over Vancouver. Myers was penalized for interference on the play. Beniers returned briefly for one shift later in the period but did not play in the third period.

    Beniers is Seattle’s lone All-Star selection this season. He leads all rookies in goals (17) and points (36), and is fifth in total ice time for rookies.

    Seattle also placed defenseman Justin Schultz on injured reserve and recalled forward Max McCormick from Coachella Valley of the AHL. Hakstol said Schultz is improving but there’s no timeline on his return.