NHL realignment is official, and beginning next season, the Capitals will reside in a juggernaut of an eight-team division.
Washington will be pitted against all of its old Patrick Division rivals in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New York Rangers, New York Islanders, New Jersey; as well as Carolina and Columbus in the new, yet-to-be-named division.
“It’s a tougher division, much tougher,” Karl Alzner said last week. “It’s going to be probably a pretty good battle, and 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. That’s the way it works. Unfortunately we don’t have the strongest division, but that’s all right. It will be tough; we’ll have to be a lot more honest during the season. We’ll have to be a better team all year.”
The Southeast Division has been the Capitals’ home since the 1998-99 season, and they’ve captured the divisional title in six of 13 seasons playing against Carolina, Tampa Bay, Florida and Winnipeg (formerly Atlanta).
Facing a divisional schedule against perennial postseason contenders like the Rangers, Penguins, Devils and Flyers will likely make the road to the postseason tougher for Washington in the coming seasons. (If you missed it previously, check out a breakdown of the playoff format here.)
The Capitals aren’t the only ones aware of the challenge the new division poses, either. Carolina Coach Kirk Muller, who started his career in the old Patrick Division, alluded to the fact that success in the Southeast might not translate to the new division.
“It’s going to be tough. There are a lot of good teams in there. There are a lot of grinding, physical teams,” Muller said. “So it 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?”
While some players, including NHL Players’ Association representative Jason Chimera, said they would have liked to see the old six-division format stay with a few teams switching places, others believed it was time for a change.
“It will be good to kind of change it up a little bit. It was getting a little bit old with the different divisions, and it will kind of bring back some old rivalries like us and Pittsburgh,” veteran defenseman Tom Poti said last week. “I think it will be good for the league. It’s obviously going to help out certain teams with travel; that’s the most important thing. You don’t want guys to be traveling an extra 10,000 to 20,000 miles. It really takes a toll on you.”
Said Chimera: “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. Parity’s good; if you change a whole bunch of things maybe it’s not going to be as good.”
One of the main reasons players have mixed emotions about the realignment plan is the unbalanced divisions. The two Western Conference divisions each have seven teams, making it slightly easier to reach the postseason than in the eight-team divisions in the East.
Free agents who have strong playoff performances or simply are a part of a postseason club often ink larger contracts than their peers who are idle in the spring. So the argument is that having a lesser chance of making the playoffs could result in lower contract values for some and might prompt players to prioritize playing in the West. But there is a trade-off there with significantly longer travel times for teams in the West than the East.
“I hope it doesn’t make guys sign in the West,” Chimera said. “It does make you want to think [about] things when you’re a free agent probably because you have a better chance of making it just percentage wise. It is what it is but I don’t know. I hope it doesn’t make the East any less – make people not want to sign there.”
In case you missed it, here’s the chart breaking down the divisions: