November 01, 2011
Here are two indisputable facts about the National Hockey League: Some form of realignment will occur for the 2012-13 season, and someone is bound to be pissed off about it.
That "someone" is currently the Pittsburgh Penguins. Under the four-division realignment proposal discussed by CBC's Elliotte Friedman last Saturday night, the Penguins would be separated from their Atlantic Division — and old Patrick Division — rivals, including Keystone State mates the Philadelphia Flyers.
The Penguins would instead compete against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Montreal Canadiens, Boston Bruins, Ottawa Senators, Buffalo Sabres and either the Detroit Red Wings or Columbus Blue Jackets (though the latter seems more likely).
Furthermore, the Penguins would only play the Flyers, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, New Jersey Devils and Washington Capitals twice each season in a home-and-home format. The current realignment proposal has teams playing two games against each non-divisional opponent, and the rest within their division (in the Penguins' case, that's 36 division games).
As Friedman addressed on his blog on Monday, this would be a significant change for the Penguins, their fans and potentially their economics.
Q: Don't you want to see the Penguins play the Flyers six times a year?
A: Absolutely. And I understand why the Penguins are against this. The Washington Capitals felt their move out of the old Patrick Division was incredibly damaging to them. Some Penguins fans suggested moving the Florida teams or Carolina around instead. Maybe there will be some changes, who knows? But, not everyone is guaranteed to be a winner in this.
Not, but the Penguins are fighting to not be a loser in this realignment, and they've found an interesting ally — the Flyers.
"We are in 100 percent agreement with the Pittsburgh Penguins," said Flyers President Peter Luukko, who is also on the NHL Board of Governors. "We are in close communication with them on this subject. This is a big rivalry that means a lot not only to us as a franchise, but to our fans, their fans, and the entire state of Pennsylvania."
Penguins sources to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that it is their take that they don't believe a "major" overhaul is needed when the league is enjoying unprecedented popularity in many markets, specifically Northeastern ones such as Boston and Buffalo along with Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
The Penguins sources added that the team agrees there is a need for geographical realignment, but nothing more drastic than switching a team from the West to the East to compensate Winnipeg. One Flyers source indicated that there were other Eastern teams opposed to this alignment as well.
Keep in mind it'll take 20 of the 30 teams giving their approval to pass it, and that Friedman has the plan at 50/50 for passage.
The last time the Penguins and Flyers were separated was back in the early 1990s, when expansion teams filtered into the NHL.
In 1992, the NHL Board of Governors considered radical realignment but stayed conservative: Placing the Ottawa Senators in the then-Adams Division and the Tampa Bay Lightning temporarily in the Norris Division. In addition, they approved annual payments of $1.25 million to teams in divisions "in which at least three other teams are two time zones away to compensate for travel and lost television revenue."
(In other words, the Winnipeg Jets in the Smythe.)
According to the Hartford Courant, former Hartford Whalers owner Richard Gordon fought to move both the Whale and the Bruins into the Patrick Division, with the Penguins and Capitals shifting to the Adams. The rationale: The New England teams were a bus ride away from the New York teams. The proposal never gained momentum.
In 1993, radical realignment arrived. The division and conference names were changed, the playoffs shifted to a conference format and a new schedule that reduced games played within a team's division. Among the teams shifting divisions: The Penguins left the Atlantic for the Northeast, while the Lightning and Panthers joined the Atlantic.
Phil Jackman of the Baltimore Sun wasn't pleased with this development back in April 1993:
Come on, Commish, what's the idea of taking a case of Dom Perignon out of the Patrick Division and replacing Mario Lemieux and his Pittsburgh Penguins with a six-pack -- the Tampa Bay Lightning and the team from South Florida.
The Adams Division turned out the big winner in this maneuver, gaining Pittsburgh to go along with the Bruins and Canadiens in a handsome U.S.-Canada consortium at a cost of absolutely nothing. Recall the years prior to the arrival of Mario when the Patrick had to put up with really awful Penguin teams. At least they mixed it up capably. It's no surprise certain general managers in the Patrick Division are glad to get rid of the Pens, thinking only
Said Commissioner Gary Bettman in 1993, to justify the realignment:
"It's a good, middle-ground compromise," Bettman said of the plan. "You've got to look at it as an overall mosaic. We tried to do what made sense from a geographic standpoint. We were looking to come up with something that everyone could agree with. We were able to forge a consensus. This is an opportunity to stimulate more interest for longer for more teams. A lot had been written that the old system had got stale or was redundant."
"Pittsburgh was very gracious," Bettman said. "They agreed they would do it in the league's best interest."
Eighteen years later … not so much. The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review wrote on Monday that the Penguins "do not believe a dramatic overhaul is beneficial to the NHL given its growing popularity in the post-lockout era dating to the 2005-06 season."
So what happens of this realignment plan goes through? The Pensblog gazed into a future without the Flyers as a division rival:
By missing out on being in a division with the Flyers, the Pens will not be playing them 6 times per season or even 5 times a season. Instead, the Pens and Philly will play twice per season with a Conference Finals matchup always on the menu. Philadelphia has made their bed with NYR, NYI, NJ, and WAS, so it's easier in this situation to blame the country's founding fathers on making Philadelphia such a big deal. Games against the Pens' old Atlantic buddies (and Washington) will have a special feel to them. It's not like the Flyers are defecting to the KHL.
Meanwhile, the Pens will go into previously chartered waters, reuniting with some old flames to the north. The Pens already play their future divisional rivals 4 times per season, but it will be the Penguins against the world in that division, since Pittsburgh will be seen as the kid no one wanted to adopt. Some people won't survive divisional games up in Montreal and Toronto and eventually Ottawa. The rivalry with Boston goes back to the 1991 and 1992 playoffs and has been rekindled by Matt Cooke(notes) and Tim Thomas'(notes) weight problem. A Pens-Buffalo rivalry has always been one that deserved some attention. And possibly Detroit. Oh, God, Detroit.
So there are still teams for whom Penguins fans can get their ire up … but none of them are the Flyers.
Philly and Pittsburgh represent two formidable, influential franchises in the NHL power structure. This isn't the Blue Jackets and Predators asking for a favor; this is Ed Snider and Mario Lemieux. They need to convince at least nine other teams that their rivalry is better for the NHL's bottom line than their separation.
Will they succeed?