- The Washington Times - Monday, May 20, 2013

When the NHL announced realignment for the 2013-14 season that put the Washington Capitals into a division with the Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Rangers, New York Islanders, New Jersey Devils, Philadelphia Flyers, Carolina Hurricanes and Columbus Blue Jackets, it looked like a much tougher task to make the playoffs than in the Southeast.

Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller said realignment “makes you sit back and evaluate your team and organization, asking, are we the type of team that’s skilled enough to go into certain arenas and get points or do you want to change your style to match up with your opponents?” Caps general manager George McPhee last week made it clear he doesn’t want to remake his team based on a new division.

“I’ve never put a lot of emphasis on what we have to do to match up against this team or that team,” McPhee said. “It’s always about our own team; let’s focus on how good can we make this team.”

McPhee recalled the popular notion from the mid-to-late 1990s that Eastern Conference teams needed to get a physical player to match up with center Eric Lindros of the Flyers. Washington and Philadelphia never met up in the playoffs during that time.

But realignment means the Caps will have to go through a tougher division to make the playoffs and then to reach the East finals. They won the Southeast Division five of the past six seasons but went 8-10-2 against the Penguins, Rangers, Islanders, Devils, Flyers and Hurricanes this year. They did not play the Blue Jackets.

Still, McPhee doesn’t believe being in a division with those teams makes it any harder to qualify for the postseason.

“No because it’s always difficult. It’s as difficult as it can be to make the playoffs,” McPhee said. “It’s no small feat to make the playoffs in this league anymore. It’s a real good league and the cap levels the playing field. The real difference in making the playoffs now is managing and coaching, getting the right players.”

To make the playoffs this past season, the Caps went on a 14-2-1 run; eight of those victories came against Southeast opponents. McPhee bristled at criticism of his team making it based on the Southeast, pointing to the Vancouver Canucks in the Western Conference as an example of a team that has similarly dominated its division during the regular season.

“We would have made the playoffs whether we won our division or not, we had enough points,” McPhee said. “People can make that argument but there’s lots of ways to refute that argument.”

The best way to refute it would be to make the playoffs in 2013-14. Under the NHL’s new playoff rules, the top three teams from each division make it, along with the two teams with the next best point totals.

Hendricks to draw interest

If forward Matt Hendricks becomes an unrestricted free agent July 5, expect several teams to inquire about his availability. Consider the Rangers on that list, according to the New York Post, which reported that the team will call about Hendricks if he hits the open market.

Hendricks, who turns 32 next month, is, in his words “more of an established player at this level” than he was when signing with the Caps in 2010. He had five goals and three assists this season, playing first-line minutes at times to go along with his crucial role on the penalty kill.

“I think he’s a guy that can play on the first, second line,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “If you ask him to, he can find a way. He obviously does all the things that you’d want your typical fourth-liner to do. … He’s the type of guy that every guy, every team wants to have.”

Hendricks’ agent and the Caps had discussions during the season but no significant progress was made toward a new deal. Talks were expected to resume this week.

Wolski signs in KHL

Left wing Wojtek Wolski signed with Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod of Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League, officially ending his tenure with the Caps after one unsuccessful season. Wolski played in 24 games and finished with five goals and four assists.

The 27-year-old, who acknowledged his career was at a “crossroads” when he signed a one-year, $600,000 deal with the Caps last summer, was never able to revitalize his NHL career. Stuck on 99 goals, he was a healthy scratch for 18 of Washington’s final 23 regular-season games and all seven in the playoffs.

• Stephen Whyno can be reached at swhyno@washingtontimes.com.

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