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New Division, New Challenges

by Turner Batten / Tampa Bay Lightning

For the 2013-14 NHL season the league will be realigning its divisional structure, one that has been in place since the 1998-99 season.

Instead of six divisions and two conferences, the NHL structure will feature four divisions and two conferences.

While the Western Conference will have two seven-team divisions, the Eastern Conference will consist of two eight-team divisions, including two former Western Conference teams, the Detroit Red Wings and the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Winnipeg Jets will move over to the Western Conference after relocating from Atlanta following the 2010-11 season.

The new conference and divisional alignments are as follows:

Western Conf. Division A Western Conf. Division B Eastern Conf. Division A Eastern Conf. Division B
Anaheim Chicago Boston Carolina
Calgary Colorado Buffalo Columbus
Edmonton Dallas Detroit New Jersey
Los Angeles Minnesota Florida NY Islanders
Phoenix Nashville Montreal NY Rangers
San Jose St. Louis Ottawa Philadelphia
Vancouver Winnipeg Tampa Bay Pittsburgh
Toronto Washington

The Tampa Bay Lightning, who will be in Division C, will play 30 divisional games. They will play two teams five times, three home and two away games against one team and two home and three away games against the other team. The Lightning will play the remaining five divisional opponents four times each.

What does this mean for the Tampa Bay Lightning organization?

It means Tampa Bay will no longer be tied to the Southeast Division, a division that had struggled overall despite winning two Stanley Cups. Since the 2007-08 season, there has only been three occasions where the Southeast Division had two teams in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The Lightning’s new divisional opponents have seen 20 playoff berths and two Stanley Cups over the last five seasons along with another Stanley Cup Final appearance when the Detroit Red Wings fell to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009. It is safe to say, with the realignment, the Lightning will be playing in a more consistently competitive division.

Any success the Lightning endures from now on will not be swept under the rug with regards to the national spotlight. More exposure will be shed on the hockey team that occupies the Tampa Bay Times Forum now that the Lightning will matchup more frequently against the media attention-grabbing names like Boston, Detroit, Montreal and Toronto.

Yes, the Lightning will miss playing in the Southeast Division where they were 49-29-12 over the last four seasons against divisional opponents, but they will not be cutting ties with in-state rival Florida, a team that Tampa Bay has gone 12-6-5 against during that same four year span.

The Bolts will also welcome new divisional opponents Toronto and Montreal. The Lightning have found success against both organizations recently posting .500 records or better against the two clubs.

Tampa Bay has also liked seeing their expansion cousins, the Ottawa Senators, on the other bench as the Lightning have posted a winning record against Ottawa in three of the last four seasons.

The Bolts have playoff history to remember with two of their divisional foes. In 2004, the Lightning swept the Montreal Canadiens in the Eastern Conference Semifinal as Tampa Bay went on to the win the Stanley Cup.

During the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Lightning and Bruins faced off in a memorable series with a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals on the line. It was a grueling seven-game series that went back and forth before Boston took the series with 1-0 Game 7 win on home-ice.

Detroit is the team the Lightning are the least familiar with having only played them 32 times in Tampa Bay’s 20-year existence. However, Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman is very familiar with the Red Wings organization.

Yzerman played 22 seasons in Detroit and was the Red Wings’ captain for 20 seasons, leading the club to three Stanley Cup Championships as a player and another in the front office. Before coming to Tampa Bay in 2010, Yzerman was a staple in the Detroit hockey operations department since his retirement in 2006.

There is no doubt the level of competition in the new division will increase for the Lightning for years to come, but with the Lightning’s strong youth foundation and Yzerman’s willingness to spend money on the right players, there is no reason the Lightning should be counted out.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman told in March, "from a business standpoint, I think this is probably really good for both Florida teams."

He is spot on.

With the new division, many challenges will be presented, but none that the Tampa Bay organization cannot handle.

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