Much has been made of realignment and the impact that will have upon the Caps making the playoffs for a seventh consecutive season.
There is every reason to be concerned. The Caps are leaving the friendly confines of the now-defunct Southeast Division and moving to the resurrected Patrick Division, renamed the Metropolitan Division.
There, they will be joined by former divisional rival the Carolina Hurricanes. Another newcomer will be the improving Columbus Blue Jackets, transferring over from the Western Conference.
The other members of the Metropolitan Division are all old rivals of the Caps from the good old days, when the Patrick Division existed and fierce rivalries were the norm. We are talking about the New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins.
Without question, the road to the playoffs will be much rougher than in previous seasons. And, to be sure, the Caps—on paper anyway—look to be weaker this season than in seasons past, while several of the other teams in the Metropolitan Division look stronger.
But when you break down Eastern Conference realignment, you will see that the road to a seventh consecutive playoff berth is actually very attainable.
For those unfamiliar with realignment and how it works, it is best explained by Dan Rosen of NHL.com:
The top three teams in each division will make up the first 12 teams in the playoffs. The remaining four spots will be filled by the next two highest-placed finishers in each conference, based on regular-season points and regardless of division. It will be possible, then, for one division to send five teams to the postseason while the other sends three.
In the Eastern Conference, the other division is the Atlantic Division, which consists of the defending Eastern Conference champions, the Boston Bruins, along with the Buffalo Sabres, Detroit Red Wings (the other Western Conference team transferring to the Eastern Conference this season), Florida Panthers, Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators, Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs.
If realignment had been in place this past season, the Caps would have actually finished second in the Metropolitan Division, although they would have been a good 15 points behind the division-winning Pittsburgh Penguins. The Caps would not have even been a wild-card team—they would have been one of the automatic qualifiers.
The only difference from the actual 2013 Eastern Conference playoffs would have been that the Pens would have opened the playoffs against the Red Wings, while the Islanders would have missed the playoffs yet again.
This is not to suggest the Caps will have an easy time of it, not by a long shot. The Caps will be playing the Western Conference teams this year after being able to avoid them thanks to the lockout last season. Beyond that, though, thanks to realignment, the Caps play each Western Conference team twice.
That means two games against the Chicago Blackhawks, Los Angeles Kings, St. Louis Blues, Anaheim Ducks and other very good Western Conference teams. Roughly 35 percent of the Caps' schedule will be against Western Conference foes, and that alone will make the road back more difficult.
As for their old Southeast Division rivals, the Caps only play them 12 times this coming season. That means the remaining 42 games will be against divisional opponents or Atlantic Division foes.
Clearly, that will be no easy task. But have the Caps really regressed so much that they are no longer one of the eight best teams in the East?
I think they will rise to the occasion, and I believe Adam Oates will solidify himself as one of the best new coaches in the NHL as he guides the Caps back to the playoffs for a seventh consecutive season.
What happens once they get there is, as always, the million-dollar question.