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What Realignment Means for Canes

by Michael Smith / Carolina Hurricanes
For all but the team's first season in North Carolina, the Carolina Hurricanes have been a part of the five-club Southeast Division. Beginning in the 2012-13 season, that will change.

Michael Smith
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The National Hockey League's Board of Governors yesterday approved a four-conference realignment plan. The Hurricanes will be a part of a yet unnamed seven-team conference, which will include the New Jersey Devils, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Rangers, New York Islanders and Washington Capitals.

There will be another seven-team conference compromised of teams in the Northeast plus Tampa Bay and Florida, and two eight-team conferences in the central and western United States and Canada.

The Hurricanes will see each of the six other teams in their conference six times – three games at home and three on the road. They will play every other team in the NHL – 23 teams – twice, once at home and once on the road. This equates to 46 out-of-conference games and 36 games within their conference for a total of 82 regular season games.

The top four teams in each conference will qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, a total of 16 teams. In the first round, the first place team will face off with the fourth place team in each conference, and the second seed will play the third seed. The winners of those two series will match-up in the second round.

It is undecided how the third round will play out, but it’s likely that the four remaining teams will be re-seeded with, again, the one seed playing the fourth seed, and two playing three. The winners of those two series will play for Lord Stanley's Cup.

Should the Board of Governors approve this re-seeding plan, it will be possible for two geographically similar teams to be matched up in the Final – for example, the Hurricanes could play the Lightning for the Cup. The NHL could also decide to have the two seven-team conferences represent the East and the two eight-team conferences represent the West in order to preserve two teams from each region meeting in the Final. A decision on how to handle these final four playoff teams most likely won’t be made until the upcoming calendar year.

What This All Means

As with any realignment plan, this one comes with pros and cons.

Being in a conference with the Flyers, Penguins, Rangers and Capitals should generate more national media attention for the Hurricanes, considering they’ll see those teams a combined 24 times a year. Those teams, however, are also big spenders, leading some to believe the Canes might have to up the budget in order to be competitive within the conference.

In addition to seeing those Atlantic Division teams once more at the RBC Center, fans will have the chance to see every other team in the league, as well. Currently, the Canes play every team, but not every team comes to Raleigh. Also gone will be the days of playing the Panthers and Lightning six times each a year, a change that, if nothing else, will feel weird for the first season or so.

One obvious con to the new format concerns the first two rounds of playoffs. Coming into each season, should the Hurricanes make the playoffs, they know they will play one of just six teams in the first two rounds. With the current format, the Canes have a chance to play any one of 14 other teams. Ultimately, the first two rounds of the playoffs will become a little redundant.

On the flip side of that, however, is that rivalries will be easily built. And since the Canes seem to meet up with the Devils in the first rounds of every postseason, fans shouldn’t notice much of a difference.

There also is the possibility that a team could finish fifth in its conference but with more points than fourth place in another conference. The American Hockey League safeguarded against this by allowing the fifth place team to “cross over” if it had more points than fourth place in the opposite division; the difference with this AHL plan is that the league was split in four divisions and two conferences, so you could only cross over within the two divisions in your conference. If the NHL strictly goes to four conferences (and no East/West distinction), then there would be no way to determine which team could cross over.

Again on the flip side, Dallas and Calgary missed the playoffs in the West despite having more points last season than the eighth place New York Rangers in the East. Teams are going to be slighted in the playoff cut no matter which way you slice it.

It ultimately comes down to the way you think about it: this season, the Hurricanes have to be among the top eight teams in the Eastern Conference to make the playoffs; next season, they solely have to worry about the other six teams in their conference.

The Bottom Line

The Atlanta franchise moving to Winnipeg set realignment in motion. Instead of making a Winnipeg for Detroit/Columbus/Nashville swap, the NHL took a radical approach to realignment, one that will reshape the league going forward.

The Hurricanes stand to benefit from a high-profile, competitive conference. Travel within the conference will also be much lighter than in this season’s Southeast Division. Though there might be work to be done to stay competitive in such a high-spending conference, the fans will be treated to some exciting games throughout the season, as rivalries build and intensify.

Any questions about realignment? Contact me on Twitter at @MSmithCanes or read more about it here.

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