As players put in their final offseason workouts before training camp begins next week, the consensus on the NHL’s new conference and divisional alignment debuting in the 2013-14 season seems clear.
Making the Stanley Cup Playoffs, which never has been an easy feat, will be even more challenging for the foreseeable future. Odds favor the Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins to win next season.
“It puts you on notice that nobody is a lock to make the playoffs,” Ottawa Senators center Jason Spezza told NHL.com Friday during the League’s annual Player Media Tour. “If you look at our division [Atlantic], nobody is a lock. It shows you just how hard it’s going to be to get in. It’s gotten tougher, that’s for sure.”
The Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets, teams based in the Eastern time zone, moved to the Eastern Conference; the Winnipeg Jets, based in the Central time zone, moved to the Western Conference.
All but eight of the Blue Jackets’ games this season will start no later than 8 p.m. ET, whereas last season 12 of their 48 games started at 8:30 p.m. ET or later. It’s a similar disparity for the Red Wings, and now the Jets will have the bulk of their road games starting between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. CT as opposed to between 6 and 6:30.
The Dallas Stars shifted from the Pacific Division to the Central Division, meaning every one of their divisional road games will be played in the Central time zone or Mountain time zone, as opposed to the Pacific time zone.
“It’s a chance for our fans to follow us more closely and get more attached to this team,” Columbus coach Todd Richards told NHL.com. “It’s a way for our young kids to stay up until 9:30 and see this team play and get attached to the team and get attached to our players. Most parents aren’t going to let their kids stay up on a Wednesday night when a game starts at 10:30.”
The geographical setup of the divisions makes sense to the players, but it’s definitely piqued their interest because of how it potentially impacts their chances of making the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Western Conference players obviously are for it because 57 percent of the teams will get in, as opposed to 50 percent in the Eastern Conference.
“It’s crazy that there’s two less teams on our side than the other side,” Colorado Avalanche center Matt Duchene told NHL.com, “but obviously that gives us a little better odds of being in a playoff spot there. It’s going to be a good little change.”
The Eastern players admittedly are leery about the odds not being the same for both conferences even though the format for getting in is the same: The top three teams from each division make the playoffs, then the field in each conference is filled out by the next two highest point-earning teams regardless of division.
“It’s a little bit skewed, but it’s good for the game to bring Detroit over [to the Eastern Conference] and move Winnipeg over [to the Western Conference],” Spezza said. “Geographically it’s not fair to those teams that have to travel just for the sake of travel, but I do look at only my division and it’s gotten tougher.”
There’s no debating Spezza on that point.
The same five teams that represented the Northeast Division (Boston Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs,Montreal Canadiens, Buffalo Sabres and Senators) now have to deal with the Red Wings, plus the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning in the new Atlantic Division. The Red Wings have made the playoffs a record 22 straight seasons.
“They’re a powerhouse,” Buffalo forward Steve Ott told NHL.com.
From a business standpoint, the Washington Capitals’ move into the new Metropolitan Division should give them the opportunity to recreate rivalries with some old Patrick Division teams. However, moving into a division with the Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, New Jersey Devilsand New York Islanders makes things more difficult for the Capitals from a competitive standpoint.
Washington dominated the Southeast Division, winning it five of the past six seasons. The Penguins, Rangers, Flyers and Devils have accounted for the past six titles in the old Atlantic Division. The Islanders snapped their six-year playoff drought last season.
“We’ve snuck in playing in that Southeast Division a couple of times and we won’t have that luxury,” Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner said last month in Calgary at Canada Olympic orientation camp. “But it’ll keep us a little more honest, which is probably a good thing for our team.”
The Carolina Hurricanes join the Capitals as former Southeast Division teams now in the Metropolitan Division. The Blue Jackets, who missed the playoffs last season because of a tiebreaker, also are in the division.
“I like it,” Hurricanes captain Eric Staal told NHL.com. “It’s going to force us to amp it up every night. It’s going to force us to be prepared to play because every team in our division is competitive and very good. It’s competitive across the board in the League, but our division, there are a number of teams that are expected to be good every year. We want to make sure we’re one of the teams.”
The Chicago Blackhawks, St. Louis Blues andNashville Predators probably were happy to wave goodbye to the Red Wings after competing with them in the old Central Division for the past 15 years. Now they’re now part of the new Central Division, which includes four up-and-coming teams: the Stars, Jets, Avalanche and Minnesota Wild.
The Wild have their foundation in place with Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, plus a large number of top prospects ready to make an impact. The Stars revamped their organization with first-year general manager Jim Nill overhauling the center depth this summer by adding Tyler Seguin, Shawn Horcoff andRich Peverley. Jamie Benn is considered a star-in-the-making.
With rookie coach Patrick Roy steering a ship that includes Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog, Ryan O’Reillyand 2013 No. 1 draft pick Nathan MacKinnon, the Avalanche’s rebuild appears ready to advance into the next phase. And the Jets believe their core players, all of whom are under contract for at least the next three seasons, are primed for a breakout season together.
“It’s going to nicer to have a little less travel, especially within your division when you’re making those trips three to four times a year,” Jets captain Andrew Ladd told NHL.com. “But it’s a tough division with a lot of great teams. We’re going to have to be on our toes every night and be ready to play a little more physical hockey. There are some big teams in that division; it should bring the best out of us.”
It’s definitely a lopsided trade in the Pacific Division for the Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks and Phoenix Coyotes. Gone are the Stars, who haven’t made the playoffs since 2008, but in come the Vancouver Canucks, Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames.
Vancouver is a perennial contender three years removed from going to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final. Edmonton is very much like Colorado, a young team with high draft picks getting settled in the NHL and soon ready to emerge. Expectations are low in Calgary this season, but it’s fair to expect some big splashes soon with Brian Burke now president of hockey operations.
“I enjoy playing against Vancouver,” Sharks center Logan Couture told NHL.com. “Obviously we’ve got a little rivalry playing them in the playoffs two of the last three years. It’s always fun playing in Canada, so we get to play Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver a little more than we did. I’m looking forward to it.”