- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 21, 2013

It made sense at the time.

When the NHL finally came to an agreement with the NHL Players’ Association on a realignment plan earlier this year, conventional wisdom said the Capitals were in for a rough road.

Rejoining their old Patrick Division rivals sounded good in theory: More games against familiar opponents to get fans excited and create animosity on the ice.

But the new Metropolitan Division also included three teams that have played for a Stanley Cup in recent years (Pittsburgh, New Jersey and Philadelphia) and another, the New York Rangers, that eliminated Washington in the Stanley Cup playoffs the previous two years. Even the long-woeful New York Islanders were finally looking feisty after making the playoffs last spring and pushing the Penguins in a tough six-game series.

Almost a quarter of the way through the 2013-14 season, things haven’t worked out as expected. Most of the teams in the new eight-team division, which also includes the Carolina Hurricanes and the Columbus Blue Jackets, have spent the first seven weeks of the season floundering. Philadelphia fired coach Peter Laviolette after just three games.

“When it changed this summer and you’re looking at the lineup of the division, it looks like a lot of very good hockey teams,” Caps forward Brooks Laich said. “And the starts the teams have got off to aren’t fully what I expected.”

But there were signs of cracks in the offseason. The Flyers, a playoff team five years in a row and a Stanley Cup finalist in 2010, crashed to earth during the lockout-shortened 2013 season. But they still expected to quickly rebound even as age and injury crippled a once-vaunted blueline. By Oct. 8, Laviolette was gone. Star center Claude Giroux didn’t score his first goal until Nov. 9 and Philadelphia entered play Thursday in last place.

New Jersey, a Stanley Cup finalist in 2011, was delivered a crushing blow when star winger Ilya Kovalchuk decided to retire from the NHL and return home to play in Russia. The Devils have actually managed to hold it together. But the loss of Kovalchuk followed the departure of star winger Zach Parise to free agency the summer before. Few teams can endure such personnel losses, even a franchise as consistent as New Jersey.

Meanwhile, the Rangers are adjusting to life under new coach Alain Vigneault, who isn’t getting the offensive consistency from his group in his first year taking over for the fiery John Tortorella. It didn’t help that star winger Rick Nash missed six weeks thanks to concussion symptoms.

“You’ve got to be careful because I’m sure there’s games we lost that we played good. And I’m sure every team can say that,” Washington coach Adam Oates said. “It’s a long season. It will turn. The league goes in waves anyway.”

That’s true. But so far only the Caps (12-9-1, 25 points) and Penguins (14-8, 28 points) are above .500. Five of the teams in the Metropolitan entered Thursday having been outscored by nine goals or more.

“All throughout the division I think there’s strong teams, but when you play each other a lot, somebody’s got to win and somebody’s got to lose,” Caps forward Troy Brouwer said. “And so I think that’s what contributes to the lump of all of us in the same points standings.”

Columbus has taken a step back despite missing the playoffs by a single point last spring in the Central Division, which was easily the NHL’s best division in 2013. The Blue Jackets haven’t adjusted well, however, to a switch to the Eastern Conference.

Carolina, meanwhile, was in the same boat as Washington moving from the weak Southeast Division to the Metropolitan. The Hurricanes, too, have yet to gain any traction. But there is time for all of these teams. Washington shook off a rough 1-4 start. Even Philadelphia was only 10 points back of first-place Pittsburgh entering play Thursday.

“Twenty games in isn’t a big enough sample size,” Laich said. “I think usually around the 48-, 50-game mark is where you start to see teams distance themselves. You see teams that were maybe playing above their heads come back to earth. And other teams that maybe weren’t playing as well, you start to see that ‘Oh, geez, they are a really good hockey team.’”

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