We’ve not heard the last of realignment, friends.
Though a new schematic for the NHL was ironed out by the board of governors and the players association earlier this year, the specter of more haggling over who plays where and against whom how often is no further away than the end of the three-year trial period that was agreed to.
If past is precedent, something will change again come 2016. But in the mean time, the new status quo does mean some big adjustments for standings-watchers and travel-planners.
Two divisions were blown up in the creation of four larger groupings, and a new desire to get all players to all arenas means every team will play in every city for the first time since 1998. Three teams jumped from one conference to another, and a lopsided structure means more than half the teams in the West (eight of 14) will be involved come playoff time, while exactly half of the East (eight of 16) stays home.
Such upheaval means different things in different places. Some teams will spend less time in airplanes traipsing time zones. Some teams will benefit from a new gaggle of day-in, day-out divisional opposition. Some teams will remain the best of their respective bunches, regardless of all the commotion.
But, in my view, a few clearly made out better than others.
Here’s who and why:
Winnipeg: Welcome Back to Canada
Realignment couldn’t have come too soon for Winnipeg, where the new league template puts the brakes on what might have been the silliest divisional grouping since baseball’s Atlanta Braves were in the National League West.
Upon inheriting the tatters of the failed Atlanta Thrashers two years ago, the Jets were forced to maintain their predecessor’s schedule until the league figured out a better idea. That meant Winnipeg, roughly 60 miles north of both North Dakota and Minnesota, remained in the Southeast Division with Carolina, Florida, Tampa Bay and Washington—a round-trip just shy of 5,000 miles (or 8,000 kilometers).
The Jets respectably finished with their heads above .500 both seasons—going a combined 61-56-13—which bodes well for their ability to compete in the new Central Division, where it’s matched with Minnesota, Chicago, St. Louis, Nashville, Dallas and Colorado.
Winnipeg’s 57 points last season would have been good for a playoff-bound third place against such a collection.
Pittsburgh: The Penguins (Still) Are Who We Think They Are
While Winnipeg has cornered the market on a lessened frequency of, ahem… Jet lag, the Penguins benefit from realignment simply because it didn’t upset the good thing they had going.
Pittsburgh retains its same four playmates—the Philadelphia Flyers, New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders and New York Rangers—from the old Atlantic Division, which it won by 16 points en route to the Eastern Conference final in 2012-13, in the new Metropolitan Division.
It also adds three new friends from Carolina, Columbus and Washington, only one of whom—the Capitals—would have come any closer to challenging their first-place status, and that was by exactly one point.
So long as Sidney Crosby and Co. remain healthy and perhaps more motivated after the one-sided playoff loss to Boston—a few extra visits per year from Alex Ovechkin won’t hurt—there’s nothing about realignment that seems any more challenging than simply remembering the new division’s name.
Dallas: Back Among its People
There was always something that didn’t quite feel right about a team from Dallas—the signature city of the Lone Star State—being tucked away in a division with a team from Phoenix and three more from, gasp…California.
But that’s exactly the fate that had fallen to the Stars since 1998-99, when the last league-wide realign plucked them from the old Central Division to the Pacific. Gone were traditional (from their days in Minnesota), logical rivalries with St. Louis and Chicago, in favor of the aforementioned non-geographical set out west.
The new setup restores both tradition and sanity for the Stars, who’ll comprise the new Central with those very Blues and Blackhawks, along with Colorado (794 miles), Nashville (664), St. Louis (630), Chicago (925), their successors in Minnesota (946) and Winnipeg (1,296).
In terms of standings, Dallas’ 48 points last season would have put them within seven of the third-place Wild in a playoff chase, which would have made for some interesting loyalty issues among Minneapolis/St. Paul fans old enough to have rooted for the North Stars.
Detroit: The Perception of Reality
When it comes to the Red Wings, the benefit of realignment is as much from perception as reality.
Detroit finished third in a competitive Central Division behind Chicago and St. Louis—then pushed the Blackhawks to a 3-1 brink in the postseason’s second round before an ill-timed three-game losing streak ended their season and propelled Chicago to their second parade in four years.
The defending champs are just a memory as the Red Wings head to 2013-14, surrounded in the new and dubiously named Atlantic Division along with fellow inlanders Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto and Buffalo, along with the more aptly positioned Boston, Tampa Bay and Florida.
And while Detroit’s 56 points from last season would have put it similarly in the middling region behind the top-gun Canadiens (63) and near-miss Bruins (62), the rest of the crew they've now joined with get a largely “mediocre” score on the eye test—meaning at least a top-three finish seems a viable reality.
Even better news…the next time the Red Wings see the nemesis Blackhawks in the playoffs, it’ll mean a big trophy is up for grabs, not just a third-round conference date.
Western Conference: Seven is Company, Eight's a Crowd
Each of the 14 teams in the West, divided into seven-team collections that retained the old Pacific and Central names, has a better chance to make the playoffs than their 16 contemporaries out East, split in pairs of eights—simply thanks to the new NHL math.
Each conference will send the top three teams in each division and a pair of wild cards on to play in April, May and June, meaning the West will have a 57.1 percent penetration into the postseason as opposed to the dead-even 50 percent (eight teams in, eight teams out) in the East. At least 42 percent of each Western division is guaranteed entry, compared to the East's 37.5.
One 2012-13 playoff participant (Detroit) and another team that missed the dance by a single point (Columbus) have left the Western front and been replaced by Winnipeg, which was an also-ran in the East last season and whose playoff total wouldn’t have earned a berth out West either.
The changes don’t impact the top of the conference, where the last two Stanley Cup champions—Chicago and Los Angeles—reside and where five of the last seven league kingpins have originated.