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Tuesday, December 6, 2011

NHL realignment: what it means for Carolina

Posted by on Tue, Dec 6, 2011 at 10:07 AM

Goodbye, Panthers and Lightning. Hello, Penguins and Flyers. The Carolina Hurricanes will have different division rivals as early as next season.

The National Hockey League's Board of Governors ratified a realignment plan on Tuesday at their annual meeting in Pebble Beach, CA that both acknowledges the past and looks to the future. Twenty-six of the league's 30 owners okayed a four-conference configuration of teams that corrects for geographical oddities that team relocations and league expansion have caused over the years.

In a proposed realignment of the NHL, the Canes would tussle with new rivals six times a year.
  • Image courtesy CBC
  • In a proposed realignment of the NHL, the Canes would tussle with new rivals six times a year.
The Canes would be part of a seven-team conference with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers, New York Rangers, New York Islanders, New Jersey Devils, and Washington Capitals. Overall, the league would shift into four conferences of seven or eight teams.

The top four teams in each conference would make the playoffs. The first two rounds of the playoffs would stay within each conference. The final-four conference winners would be re-seeded based on their regular-season records for the final two rounds of the playoffs.

This playoff tournament sheds the idea of east and west. In other words, the Canes could potentially meet current Eastern Conference teams like Boston or Montreal in the Stanley Cup finals.

Currently, the league consists of two three-division conferences. But teams in Nashville, Columbus, and Detroit have complained for years about the excessive travel they incur by being in the Western Conference. And when the Atlanta Thrashers fled to Winnipeg over the summer, the realignment dominoes needed to start falling.

And they have fallen like this:

Conference A
Anaheim
Calgary
Colorado
Edmonton
Los Angeles
Phoenix
San Jose
Vancouver

Conference B
Chicago
Columbus
Dallas
Detroit
Minnesota
Nashville
St. Louis
Winnipeg

Conference C
Boston
Buffalo
Florida
Montreal
Ottawa
Tampa Bay
Toronto

Conference D
Carolina
New Jersey
NY Islanders
NY Rangers
Philadelphia
Pittsburgh
Washington

Under this plan, which still needs to be approved by the NHL Players Association, the league returns to a structure very similar to the four-division configuration it had from 1974 to 1993. The Hurricanes franchise, at that time, was still in Hartford.

Old-school hockey fans are, no doubt, excited by the prospect of reinstating the long-revered division names (Adams, Patrick, Norris, and Smythe) lost in the 1993 geographical renaming. Hartford had been in the Adams Division but Carolina's new mates reflect almost exactly what had been the Patrick Division.

Hockey fans can be depressingly—and even spitefully—insular about their sport and will probably clamor for the reinstatement of these arcane names. It's an interesting subplot to follow in all this.

The NHLPA is expected to ratify the plan despite some concerns about teams in seven-team conferences having a better mathematical shot at a playoff berth than teams in eight-team conferences.

Although the Canes now find themselves in more competitive company, the realignment should help sell tickets as relocated Northeasterners would see their childhood favorites more frequently. The RBC Center was at 95 percent capacity when the Penguins visited last Saturday. The seats were just over two-thirds full for the division-rival Panthers' visit earlier in the week—new coach Kirk Muller's first game with the Canes.

Realignment also will raise the profile of the Canes, who have been somewhat Balkanized in the Southeast—often snidely called the "South-least" by fans who believe that cities never socked in by blizzards don't deserve a hockey team.

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