Cupcakes and Hockey – Never the Twain Shall Meet

The Washington Capitals are in what many hockey pundits brand as the weakest division in the NHL. Despite the fact that two of the past four Stanley Cup champs are Southeast denizens, never have more than two Southeast teams made the playoffs in a given year. In four of the nine seasons since the Southeast sprang to life, only the division winner made the post-season.

Every sport has a “SouthLeast” equivalent, some division perceived as soft . . . though as pro sport parity increases such distinctions are fading. Even so, these divisions are not inherently bad for the sport, nor for the fans. Sometimes, as was the case last NHL season, a division perceived as weak can provide the most compelling competition during the race to the playoffs.

The NFL’s NFC West may very well send an 8-8 team to the post-season this year ‚Äî and the fact that the Arizona Cardinals currently sit alone in first place (even after just one week) is, if I recall correctly, the third sign of the Apocalypse ‚Äî yet that division race will likely come down to the wire with games that still have playoff implications in Week 17.

Major League Baseball’s National League West may yield a .500 division winner in 2008, yet the race between the Dodgers and Diamondbacks is a tightly contested one and likely to remain so as the season’s end approaches. Last year the Colorado Rockies’ improbable run captured the attention of fans and media alike. In 2006 that same division showcased an exciting down-to-the-wire regular-season finale, as the Padres and Dodgers battled for the division crown.

Winners of these weaker divisions often find new life in the post-season; they are by no means one-and-done by default. While the Capitals have yet go from Southeast Division Champs to the Cup (it’s coming, though), their division-mates in Carolina and Tampa hoisted the Cup despite being “mired” in the Southeast. The NFC West’s Seattle Seahawks lost a close (if boring) Super Bowl just 19 months ago. The NFC North has been weak for a while too, yet the Chicago Bears were the only team to record a win in February 2006.

The pros and cons of divisional weakness are certainly up for debate; yet they are nothing when compared to the NCAA football factory schools. While professional clubs choose neither their schedules nor their division — for if they did, the Patrick Division would still exist — big Division I-A football programs frequently bake up cupcake schedules.

Looks great, but leaves a bad taste in your mouth

Looks great, but leaves a bad taste in your mouth

Articles appear each year about powerhouse programs padding their seasons with underpowered opponents, and about schools that somehow arrange 7 or 8 home games in a 12-game schedule. Yes, the little schools benefit financially from their on-field beat-downs, and the resulting name recognition often helps their programs (bad press is better than no press). But one can be certain that the I-As aren’t scheduling said opponents altruistically; rather, they want a blowout win to impress fans, donors, and the BCS.

Of course, it occasionally backfires when the intended palooka doesn’t follow the script and upsets the heavy favorite (Appalachian State and ECU spring to mind); then the cupcakes become “just desserts.” Some might say that the trend of the patsy teams fighting hard and winning ‚Äî or, like my I-AA alma mater Delaware, losing but scaring the bejeezus out of Maryland in College Park‚Äî might make teams decide that the appeal of lower-skilled opponents is outweighed the risk of an embarassing loss. That is a possibility; but I think we’ll see schools simply schedule even further down the talent ladder to find that easy W.

With such a short season, an easy victory over a lightly-considered opponent can harm the winning team by fooling young players into thinking the season will be a cakewalk. This issue is less prevalent among seasoned professionals, 99% of whom know how hard one must work every shift, every down, just to compete as a pro. But at the college level, where players are just learning that their high school prowess won’t guarantee success in the NCAA, a no-effort win often leads to a stunning loss the following week. And yes, West Virginia, your 48-21 shellacking of Villanova (I-AA) followed by stumbling to ECU 24-3 the following week is a terrific example.

So say what you will about the Southeast Division, or about divisions perceived as weak in any pro sport. A soft division can lead to exciting finishes; and even when it does not, the teams do not choose their opponents so one can hardly blame a dominant team in a division of also-rans. Finally, playing weaker opponents in the pros does not harm the development of players who, for the most part, already understand that taking a game off will come back to haunt them.

Division I-A football schools serving cupcakes as opponents? No thanks, I’ll skip dessert . . . give me the Southeast Platter instead.

This entry was posted in Carolina Hurricanes, Eastern Conference, National Hockey League, Southeast Division, Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Cupcakes and Hockey – Never the Twain Shall Meet

  1. pepper says:

    Yes, OC, the Blue Hens did scare my alma mater Maryland, unfortunately Maryland doesn’t scare anyone else in turn.

  2. ThunderWeenie says:

    I’ve ranted about these things before, OC, but since you’ve opened the door once again… 🙂
    1) This whole crap about building cupcake schedules (plus the business of deciding rankings by polls) perfectly illustrates why I generally don’t follow US college sports. When the teams do everything they damn well can to fix the outcome ahead of time, I just can’t bring myself to care that much.
    “Integrity? We don’t need no steenking integrity…”
    2) Point well taken about how “weak” divisions can still be worth watching. However, a strong team in anotherwise weak division can produce some pretty un-interesting results.
    Exhibit A: the Detroit Red Wings, who have long been able to feast on such powerhouses as the Columbus Blue Jackets, Chicago Black Hawks, and St. Louis Blues. True, Detroit has proven itself in so many other ways, but the Wings have been so dominant in the NHL Central that intra-division games in that division are often snoozers.
    Exhibit B: MLB’s National League West, where the divsion is just a dot in Anaheim’s rear-view mirror (as of today, they’re 16.5 games ahead of Texas!!!!!!). Angels fans are loving it, I’m certain, but it sure doesn’t make for very good watchin’ for the rest of us when a divisional title is decided before Labour Day.
    My $0.02 worth,

  3. ThunderWeenie says:

    Make that the AMERICAN League West…

  4. Grooven says:

    I may not remember right, but I seem to recall The Maple Leafs decrying something about an unfair advantage to a team that got to play the Caps eight times… and then the Leafs proceeded to blow each game.

  5. More support for the idea that scheduling cupcakes hurts teams in the long run, from Austin Murphy on today:
    “USC dominates games against top-tier non-conference foes because it has the cojones to schedule them in the first place. “To conquer without risk,” wrote the French tragedian Pierre Corneille, “is to triumph without glory.” It is, in other words to play out the ’08 non-conference schedule of Texas (Florida Atlantic, UTEP and Rice); or LSU (App. State, North Texas, Tulane and Troy.)”

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