COMMENTARY | With a 10-year CBA in place, the NHL is wasting no time in remaking itself.
Realignment is on the table again, and a four-conference layout very similar to the one the NHLPA voted down in fall 2011 is reemerging as the likely new format of the NHL. Should the NHL and NHLPA agree on the plan, the league could have an all-new look as soon as next season.
CBC's Elliotte Friedman ran a series of tweets Saturday night listing the proposed changes. If the plan that passes matches the one reported by Friedman, the Pittsburgh Penguins will find themselves in a division (or conference, the terms still being somewhat unclear) that could feel as familiar as it will new.
According to Friedman, one of the two new "Eastern Conferences" (the West will have 14 teams split between its two conferences) will see the Penguins placed in what is essentially an expanded Atlantic Division, with the five current Atlantic members being joined by the Carolina Hurricanes, Columbus Blue Jackets and Washington Capitals.
With the Blue Jackets and Detroit Red Wings moving East, Winnipeg will make the natural move to the West to complete the 16-14 split.
For the Penguins, that means none of the current divisional rivalries will be lost, including the white-hot rivalry with the Philadelphia Flyers. The Penguins will also face the Washington Capitals more often, a matchup that has been pushed hard by the league's marketing suits since Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin entered the league following the 2005 lockout.
The Penguins and Capitals faced off in the Patrick Division before an earlier series of NHL realignment. Putting these teams back together should help foment a rivalry that will be based on standings as much as it is now on jersey sales.
Even Carolina has some history with Pittsburgh. The Penguins and Hurricanes faced off in the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals en route to Pittsburgh's first Cup win since 1992. Though the rosters now are markedly different than in 2009, the teams often play fast-paced games with plenty of scoring chances.
If the defection of Jordan Staal to Carolina doesn't help the rivalry along, the sheer pace of Penguins-Hurricanes games will make for a number of entertaining games nonetheless.
One of the teams to push hardest for realignment, the Columbus Blue Jackets should be an instant rival for the Penguins. The geographical rivalry between Western Pennsylvania teams and Ohio teams is prevalent in the NFL and MLB, as the Pittsburgh Steelers and Pirates both occupy divisions with Ohio clubs.
The Penguins and Blue Jackets have seen each other only sparingly due to the current alignment, but could capitalize on a natural regional competition.
As far as the playoffs go, little should change for the Penguins. Greg Wyshynski of Puck Daddy reports that teams could play divisional games in the first two rounds before moving on to other conference opponents.
In the Penguins' new division, that could mean two matchups against clubs from their division ("East A," for example) in the quarterfinal and semifinal rounds, followed by an "East Finals" against the emerging club from the East B division.
Regular-season division matches would become more frequent and important as well.
From Dan Rosen of NHL.com: "In the eight team conferences, teams would play either five or six times in a season on a rotating basis -- for a total of 38 inter-division games. ... The teams in the eight-team conferences will have 44 out-of-conference games split evenly between home and away."
Nothing has been settled just yet, but a decision on realignment is expected within the next week or so.
As far as the Penguins are concerned, the new-look alignment will guarantee new rivalries without losing old ones.
James Conley covers the Pittsburgh Penguins for the Yahoo! Contributor Network and is a Penguins contributor at The Hockey Writers and Editor at SB Nation's Pensburgh. He owns the Pittsburgh Sports Blog Slew Footers and has attended Penguins home games with credentials.
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