With the news coming yesterday that the NHL will reorganize itself next into four conferences (as opposed to two conferences with three divisions each), it’s only natural to examine how the changes will affect an underachiever like Washington. The new plan slots the Capitals and Hurricanes into the current Atlantic Division, which under next year’s composition will look like a re-boot of the 1982-1993 Patrick Division. As an observer and a Caps fan, I am thrilled that I will get to see more Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and New York Rangers, and less Florida Panthers (who downed the Caps 5-4 last night).
Looking at the yet-to-be-named Conference “D,” it’s too tempting not to look at a crude power ranking of where the seven teams in the division stand. Did things get easier or tougher for the Caps main body of schedule compared to this year, and even if they got tougher, are there benefits to changing up the main set of opponents?
There are still details to be hashed out in this plan, but what we do know will be different is that the top four teams in each division will qualify for the playoffs. This still leaves us with 16 playoff teams, but it means that in the first round you are guaranteed to play someone in your own division (1 vs. 4, 2 vs. 3) before an undetermined re-seeding/shuffling process takes place.
New Conference Power Rankings
1. Pittsburgh Penguins (Currently in Atlantic Division, OUT: Tampa Bay Lightning)
The Penguins have the best player and the best coach in the league. Remember how that felt, ever so briefly? While more Sid and Ovie games are good for people who like seeing Caps-Pens on national television, it also puts a tremendous amount of pressure for the Capitals to rise to the more-frequent challenge. In terms of competition level, losing Tampa hurts the Caps, as they seem to have taken a step in the wrong direction after such a great season last year. Alexander Semin in particular has made a career of feasting on the Lightning.
2. Philadelphia Flyers (Currently in Atlantic Division, OUT: Florida Panthers)
The Flyers sold the farm last season for Ilya Bryzgalov and have experienced mixed results after the transition. Still the Flyers traditionally present one of the great lost rivalries of the old NHL and both fanbases will be excited to be at each other’s throat’s more often. With all of the Caps-Pens hype of the last few seasons, it’s easy to forget how heartbreakingly the Flyers ended the Caps season in 2008 and how great the clashes of the 1980s were against Philly. I doubt the Caps will miss their frequent trips down to Sunrise, Florida to face a Panthers team that is definitely trending up.
3. New York Rangers (Currently in Atlantic Division, OUT: Winnipeg Jets)
Some cliches in the NHL prove themselves to be true so often you eventually just accept them as a fact of life. If you have a good goaltender who can stay healthy, you will always be in the playoff hunt. Enter Henrik Lundqvist and the Blueshirts. This move also adds some spice to the schedule as the Caps have become familiar with the Rangers after a couple of playoff matchups in the past three seasons. Losing Atlanta/Winnipeg will be a thorn in the side of absolutely nobody, except those who annually searched for the cheapest Verizon Center ticket of the season.
Sigh. A new conference might mean it’s time for some reinvention. But where to begin? If next season looks anything like this season, the Capitals would struggle to earn a playoff spot in this format (or any format really). Surprising? No. Troubling? Absolutely.
5. New Jersey Devils (Currently in Atlantic Division)
The Devils will need to answer several questions in the new-look NHL, namely a) What is the plan for a world without Martin Brodeur? b) Where is our next wave of top-6 talent going to come from? and c) Who is going to coach the team for more than a season and a half? I could go either way on having the Devils as a new foil. It would be much more interesting if countryment Ilya Kovalchuk and Alex Ovechkin were the players they were two years ago (and their agents were still fighting in Russian nightclubs).
6. Carolina Hurricanes (Currently in Southeast Division)
Carolina is a team with a lot of young talent that cannot play consistently and like Tampa appears to have taken a step back after a strong campaign last year. Jeff Skinner is as fun a hockey player to watch as any, but he’ll need to mature quickly against the Pittsburghs of the world while Cam Ward is still in a window that keeps the Canes competitive. If there had to be a holdover for the Caps from the defunct Southeast Division (a.k.a. The NASCAR Division, The Waffle House Division, or the SouthLeast), I prefer Carolina over Tampa/Florida/Winnipeg. They’re scrappy and fun to watch without being too much of an immediate threat to Washington.
7. New York Islanders (Currently in Atlantic Division)
My mother always told me if you don’t have anything nice to day, don’t say anything at all. Here is what I can tell you about the Islanders: 1) John Tavares is an excellent all-around player. 2) Michael Grabner is extremely fast. 3) Their fights with the Pens last year were entertaining, to say the least. 4) Nassau Coliseum is the saddest place currently in existence to watch a hockey game. The Caps will do well to prey on the Islanders for as long as they are “rebuilding”/preparing for a move/stockpiling draft picks and potentially being a dangerous team down the line (a la Edmonton).
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