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Tuesday, December 6, 2011
NHL realignment amps up rivalries

By Mike Hume

Welcome to the new world order, eh?

Monday night, the NHL Board of Governors unveiled a drastic plan to re-map the league into four new conferences and do away with the current 15-team Eastern and Western conferences and their three sub-divisions.

It's a move that will reduce travel for teams in the West, as well as drastically increase the emphasis of regional rivalries ... and the competition for playoff spots.

In the interest of time, we won't rehash the new-look NHL; if you haven’t read about it yet, be sure to do so before you read on. Also, ESPN Insiders should take a look at Craig Custance's Realignment Winners and Losers article.

Here, we're going to examine how the new plan impacts the three New York area teams. And for starters, the playoff push may have just gotten a lot harder.

The Rangers, Devils and Islanders will be playing in the hardest of the four new conferences next season. That's not just an off-the-cuff claim; it's based on cumulative team point totals since the 2004-05 lockout.

Take a look at the new group we’ll call the "Atlantic Division Plus-2": The Rangers, Isles, Devils Penguins, Flyers, Capitals and Hurricanes. Since the lockout, those teams have combined to send 27 of a possible 48 teams to the playoffs, the highest percentage of any of the new conferences.

(The westernmost of the new conferences -- Anaheim, Calgary, Colorado, Edmonton, L.A., Phoenix, San Jose, Vancouver -- also sent 27 teams over that span, but is comprised of eight teams.)

Moreover, teams in the Atlantic-Plus 2 averaged 92.2 points in the standings over that time span, also the best showing of the new conferences -- just better than the aforementioned westernmost conference by a tenth of a point.

So what's that mean for the New York teams? One quick conclusion will be new heights for already intense rivalries.

Only four of the seven teams in the Atlantic Plus-2 can make the playoffs, meaning there will be a team left home in 2012-13 that has qualified for four of the past six postseasons. With intra-conference teams meeting six times a season, each and every one of those games will carry the utmost importance. And once the postseason rolls around, the intensity will reach a new high, as the top four teams battle head to head to reach the league semifinals.

A few other notes to consider:

Net Gain: The Atlantic was one of three existing divisions that stayed intact and gained teams. Instead of potentially waving goodbye to the Penguins, as some realignment scenarios envisioned, the Atlantic's "founding five" gained two solid squads in Washington and Carolina.

Star Power: New York-area fans will now get to watch Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin 18 times each per year on the MSG family of networks, and that doesn’t include national broadcasts.

Stars on the Horizon: In the "old" Atlantic Division, the Islanders seemed to have a monopoly on top-of-the-draft talent. No longer. The Canes will bring Jeff Skinner and dynamic D-men Justin Faulk and Ryan Murphy with them, while the Caps could introduce their next high-profile Russian prospect, Evgeny Kuznetsov, as early as next season.

Family Ties: Starting in 2012, all four Staal brothers will play in the same division -- if youngest brother Jared should get the call up to the Canes. In case you're wondering, there will be a 42 percent chance that a Staal brother will reach the NHL semifinals each year.

Familiarity: Not every player in each conference will be related, but it will feel like it after a few seasons. After six regular season games and a pair of playoff series against intra-conference teams, secrets should be few and far between.

No Trap Games: Speaking of frequent foes, how glad is everyone that they won’t have to watch Tampa's 1-3-1 trap six times a year? (Somewhere, Chris Pronger is raising his hand.)

The Unexpected: You can reference the past as often as you like (and I have), but the only way to truly predict how this new format will shake out will be to watch it in action. Of course, we still have this mildly interesting 2011-12 season in front of us as well. The NHL sure has a way of keeping things interesting.