RALEIGH, N.C. — Realignment was a “difficult, emotional process” for the NHL to go through, commissioner Gary Bettman said. The league will have four divisions beginning next season, and the Washington Capitals will find themselves grouped with some old rivals.
But their difficult, emotional process will just be getting started next fall when the Caps’ time in the Southeast Division ends and they’re forced to compete with the likes of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers, New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils for playoff spots.
“It’s a tougher division. Much tougher,” defenseman Karl Alzner said last week. “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.”
Since the current alignment began in 1998-99, the Caps have captured the Southeast Division six times in 13 seasons, competing against the Carolina Hurricanes, Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Lightning and Atlanta Thrashers/Winnipeg Jets.
Beginning in 2013-14, the Caps will be in a yet-to-be-named division with the Penguins, Flyers, Rangers, Devils, Hurricanes, New York Islanders and Columbus Blue Jackets.
“It’s going to be tough. There are a lot of good teams in there,” Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller said. “There are a lot of grinding, physical teams. … It will be something where you may have to sit back and look at everything and ask where do you fit in with your opposition and decide if you want to make changes or if you’re comfortable with the group that you have.”
The return of old Patrick Division foes such as the Penguins, Flyers and Rangers should revive historic rivalries that run deeper than those with the Panthers or Jets. And a playoff format that includes divisional play could stoke the flames even more.
“It’s great battles for us, for fans, for everybody,” captain Alex Ovechkin said. “I’m looking forward to it.”
Thirty regular-season games within the division mean there will be some harder matchups, at least based on recent history and the teams as currently constructed. But there’s a theory that tougher regular-season competition could make the Caps more battle-tested for the playoffs.
“It could be unless we have a great season and still don’t make the playoffs. That would really [stink], but I think it’s going to be good for us,” Alzner said. “We’re going to end up seeing the teams probably a lot more, knowing a little bit more about them and being a little bit more prepared come playoff time if we all do make it.”
Around the Caps’ locker room, there were mixed feelings about realignment, based mostly on the inequity of playoff odds. In the Eastern Conference, 8 of 16 teams will make the playoffs, while 8 of 14 qualify in the West. Bettman said while statistically the odds are different, “As a practical matter it doesn’t make a whole lot of difference.”
A couple of players expressed concern about that, bringing up the amount of exposure the playoffs create when contract time comes around. More arduous travel in the Western Conference appears to be the trade-off.
“The East is going to have better travel … and that makes a lot of difference for a lot of guys if you’re getting up there in your career and things like that. You don’t want to be flying around all the time,” said 35-year-old defenseman Tom Poti, who will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. “That will make a difference.”
The NHL Players’ Association gave its consent to the realignment plan, though that doesn’t mean it was hailed as a perfect outcome. Right wing Troy Brouwer said players weren’t in “100 percent agreement” on the uneven conferences.
“I’m a big believer of if the game’s in a good spot, why change things? I think the game’s in a great spot right now,” Caps NHLPA representative Jason Chimera said. “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. But I was on par with what we were doing.”