Realignment Redux: What it Means for Canes
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After the NHLPA gave its blessing, the NHL’s Board of Governors yesterday approved a two-conference, four-division realignment plan. The Hurricanes will be a part of a yet unnamed eight-team division, which will include the Columbus Blue Jackets, New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals.
The other eight-team division in the Eastern Conference will include the Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres, Detroit Red Wings, Florida Panthers, Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators, Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs. The Western Conference will feature two seven-team divisions across the central and pacific United States and Canada.
The schedule matrix gets a bit convoluted, but it is as follows:
- The Hurricanes will play 30 games within their division, playing five games against two teams (three at home and two on the road against one team and two at home and three on the road against the other team) and four games against the remaining five teams (two at home and two on the road); the teams will rotate on a yearly basis.
- The Hurricanes will play 24 games against the other Eastern Conference division, playing three games against each of the eight teams (two at home and one on the road against four teams and one at home and two on the road against the other four teams; the teams will rotate on a yearly basis.
- Finally, the Hurricanes will play 28 games against the Western Conference, playing a home-and-home set with each of the 14 teams.
The playoff structure will be as follows:
- The top three teams from each division will qualify for the playoffs, a total of six teams from either conference.
- The remaining two spots in each conference will be decided via wild cards. Regardless of division, the wild cards will be the two teams with the most points. For example, if the teams in fourth and fifth place in one division have more points than the fourth-place team in the other division, the fourth- and fifth-place teams in the former division would claim the wild card spots.
- In the first round, the division winner with the most points in the conference will be matched against the wild-card team with the fewest points. Likewise, the other division winner in the conference will be matched against the wild-card team with the other wild card team. The second- and third-place teams within each division will face each other to round out the first-round match ups.
- In the second round, the remaining two teams from each division will face off to determine a division champion. The wild card creates a scenario in which, for example, a team from Division C could compete in Division D's "division championship."
The playoffs will then proceed as usual, with the winners of the divisions meeting in the conference championships, the winners of which will then advance to the Stanley Cup Final.
How to Make Sense of This
This adjusted realignment plan is based off one proposed by the league in December 2011, and while it corrects some concerns of the previous arrangement, there remain pros and cons with the new system.
The Hurricanes are in a high-profile division with the likes of the Penguins, Flyers, Rangers and Capitals. This alone should generate more national media attention for the team. While some may have concerns with the spending discrepancy between the teams that push toward the cap ceiling and the Hurricanes, this shouldn’t present a competitive imbalance. In fact, this season, the Canes are just 3-6 within in the Southeast Division and are 12-4-1 against teams from the Northeast and Atlantic Divisions.
For the first time in PNC Arena history, every team in the NHL will come through Raleigh in one season; the last time each team played in each city at least once was 1997-98, the Hurricanes’ first season in Greensboro.
With Washington being the only Southeast Division hold-over, gone will be the days of playing Tampa Bay and Florida at least six times a season, notable perhaps only for how weird it might feel at first. The Canes will also only have to travel to Winnipeg once, a much more sensible scenario than the current configuration.
The two main concerns expressed with realignment include the imbalanced conferences and the wild cards. With just 14 teams in the West and 16 teams in the East, 57.1 percent of teams in the West will qualify for postseason play, while just 50 percent of teams in the East will advance to the postseason. Obviously, the imbalanced nature of the conferences sets the table for future expansion, but currently, it creates an unfortunate unlevel playing field.
The wild cards are also potentially concerning. The system was introduced to safeguard against teams with higher point totals not qualifying for the playoffs based on their division. But, if one division is weaker than another, teams’ records and point totals could be bloated, creating a situation where just three teams from the more competitive division and five teams from the weaker division qualify for the playoffs.
This, of course, will be a work in progress and will require monitoring over the three seasons (through 2015-16) in which it was approved.
With the playoffs primarily division-based, fans will see rivalries intensity beyond even what is seen today. The NHL can only stand to benefit from this, as the Stanley Cup Playoffs already signify the pinnacle of postseason play.
Head Coach Kirk Muller and Players React to Realignment
Muller on the new division: “I’m hearing, ‘Oh it’s going to be a tougher one,’ but so be it. If you want to get to a level where you want to compete with everybody, you’re going to have to play good teams somewhere along the line.” … “It’s going to make you better if it pushes you to be a better team because you’re in a better division, then you’re better off in the long run.”
Muller on if the new division will reshape the team’s structure: “I think the big thing is that our core group is our core group here. And I think we’re showing right now that we can play with any other core group in the East. We’re built for playing this year, but of course you would assess your opponents and say there areas you might want to change your identity a little bit or personnel to come in, but that’s always been the same way.”
Muller on the playoffs being primarily division-based: “It’s good for rivalries. It’s pretty much back in the old Patrick Division. It does have a natural competitive rivalry. It was great before, and it’s going to be good again. It’s going to be exciting for fans.”
Jordan Staal on being in the same division as Pittsburgh: “If we keep improving, it could be a tough match-up every time. Good teams always make good rivalries.”
Staal on the playoffs being primarily division-based: “It will intensify the rivalries. In the playoffs, you don’t forget series, and you don’t forget teams. When you start playing against your own division, it will be that much more intense. It will make for some exciting and tough hockey.”
Kevin Westgarth on the NHLPA’s concerns regarding realignment: “We’re still very concerned about the playoff inequality.” … “We’re going to give it a shot and see how it works.”
Westgarth on the playoffs being primarily division-based: “I remember growing up in the early 90’s, you’d have Montreal-Boston almost every year it seemed like. It was just fantastic. Those were some of the greatest series.”
The Bottom Line
Without the Atlanta franchise relocating to Winnipeg, there wouldn’t have been a strong case for realignment. And instead of making an easy Winnipeg-for-Detroit, Columbus or Nashville swap, the NHL took a more radical approach to realignment, one that will reshape the league going forward.
Overall, the Hurricanes stand to benefit from a division with high-profile, competitive teams and light travel. Fans will enjoy seeing the league’s star power and Western Conference teams regularly make their way through Raleigh.