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NHL Realignment Closer to Reality: Long Live the Patrick Division

Dec 5, 2011, 10:27 PM EDT

A look at the proposed new alignment of the NHL's teams, a four-conference system that keeps the Flyers in familiar company, but adds the Washington Capitals and Carolina Hurricanes

According to a report by TSN, the NHL has approved a realignment of its teams, moving to a four-conference format pending approval by the NHLPA. We were happy enough to see the “Atlanta Thrashers” franchise move to Winnipeg to become the second NHL incarnation of the Winnipeg Jets. The fact that this movement made it necessary for the league to reincarnate the Patrick Division* of our youths is the next benefit to be reaped. 

Let’s take a look at the new NHL, from its likely new divisions to a potentially punishing playoff format…

*Of course, it’s not exactly the Patrick Division, because the Carolina Hurricanes didn’t exist at the time. Give us back the Hartford Whalers and we’ll have it all… Well, almost. We probably won’t get the great names of the divisions/conferences back either, if for no other reason than the new system gets rid of both divisions and conferences as we know them. The new proposed realignment will be a hybrid of the old and the recent—with four “conferences” representing some sort of middle ground between a pair of conferences with multiple divisions in each.

The Flyers’ new conference foes, beginning as soon as next season, are the New York Rangers, New York Islanders, Pittsburgh Penguins, New Jersey Devils, Washington Capitals, and Carolina Hurricanes. That’s the Patrick Division from 1982-1993, plus the Hurricanes. Fans who cringed when the league traded in its history-based titles to follow in the NBA’s region-based-nomenclature footsteps aren’t restraining breaths in hopes of names with a bit more character, but hey, it’s good to have the Caps back, at least from a rivalry standpoint. If their recent success is a sign of things to come—and we think it is—the Flyers just got back a great rival, only with a whole lot more at stake. This particular rival won enough games to meet the President last season (albeit in a weaker division).

The currently marketable Penguins also get to play within their rivalries—the Caps, the Rangers, and the Flyers. Hate them or hate them, the Pens are one of the most marketable teams in the game, a characteristic they share with three other clubs in their conference.

And hey, we’ve seen some success against Hurricanes, so… welcome aboard, Carolina.

The “conference” to the “north” has the weirdest adopted-team situation, with Tampa Bay and Florida joining a grouping that includes the Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins, Ottawa Senators, and Buffalo Sabres.

The Jets will join the Flyover Conference (Blackhawks, Red Wings, Wild, Blue Jackets, Blues, Predators, and Stars—nice to see the Stars out of the “Pacific”). Out west, we’ll see the three California teams—Sharks, Kings, Ducks along with the Coyotes, Avalanche, Canucks, Flames, and Oilers.

Counting on our fingers, that’s two conferences that have seven teams (including the one the Flyers are in) and two that have eight. The TSN report says seven-teamers will play each other six times per season (splitting home duties), and the eight-teamers will alternate home-friendly seasons. Here’s how the playoff situation could break down:

The top four teams in each Conference would qualify for the playoffs.
The first-place team would play the fourth-place team; the second-place
team would play the third-place team. The four respective Conference
champions would meet in the third round of the Playoffs, with the
survivors playing for the Stanley Cup.

NHL general managers will determine the playoff structure after round two in the proposed realignment.

A strong conference like the one the Flyers play in could pose more challenge to making the playoffs, particularly for the teams that aren’t perennially good. Advancing may also prove more challenging, and teams with higher point totals could lose postseason slots to teams with lower totals in weaker conferences. If a team makes the playoffs, the likelihood that it will see a rival in the first round is high, but it could be less likely they’ll make the postseason at all.

Nothing’s set in concrete yet, and the reports have changed with each passing hour tonight. There are still some significant playoff questions to be answered. But it looks like a solid foundation has been poured for the league’s immediate structural future.

What are your thoughts?