NHL realignment is a done deal, approved this week by the Board of Governors. The new look starts next year and features four divisions, including the Washington Capitals back with their old Patrick Division foes.
Divisions will be named later, the league said in an announcement. It could be the Atlantic, it could be something else, but whatever the name, it will include the Caps, Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers, New York Rangers, New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, Carolina Hurricanes and Columbus Blue Jackets.
“It’s a tougher division, much tougher,” defenseman Karl Alzner said last week. “It’s going to be probably a pretty good battle and the nice thing about our division now is we’ve had the luxury of not having to be the best all the time and still get into a good position in the playoffs.”
The Caps have been playing in the Southeast Division with the Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Lightning, Carolina Hurricanes and Atlanta Thrashers/Winnipeg Jets since 1998-99. They’ve won the division six times in 13 years.
There are two eight-team divisions in the Eastern Conference and two seven-team divisions in the West, which makes for uneven playoff odds. But the extra strain of travel in the Western Conference is something of a trade-off.
Caps players expressed mixed feelings about the change.
“You get a lot more division games, you get the rivals against New York and Philly and those kinds of things which will be good,” NHLPA rep Jason Chimera said. “But I was on par with what we were doing, I thought it was pretty good what we had.”
For the regular season, the Caps and all Eastern Conference teams will play intra-division opponents either five or four times on a rotating basis. They’ll play three intra-conference games out of the division. There are two games against each team from the other conference, one home and one away.
The return of divisional playoffs is perhaps the most intriguing element, but it’s not truly the top four teams in each making it. Instead, the top three from each qualify for the playoffs, plus two wild cards with the most remaining points.
At the end of the season, the wild card with the most points faces the team with the most points in the conference, joining that division for the first two rounds.
Here’s the full breakdown of divisions:
New York Rangers
New York Islanders
New Jersey Devils
Columbus Blue Jackets
Detroit Red Wings
Toronto Maple Leafs
Tampa Bay Lightning
St. Louis Blues
Los Angeles Kings
San Jose Sharks