The Penguins currently are in the top spot in the Atlantic Division, nine points ahead of second-place New Jersey. But next season the team chasing Pittsburgh for the top spot could be Washington, or Carolina, or New Jersey still.
On Thursday, the NHL’s Board of Governors approved a realignment plan that would place the Penguins in an eight-team division. Essentially, the new division (which has yet to be named) will consist of the current Atlantic Division teams – Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New Jersey, NY Islanders and NY Rangers – with the addition of three new teams – Carolina, Columbus and Washington.
“It’s a pretty competitive division. We see that every year,” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. “Other teams will be in the mix and will add to the rivalries that already exist.”
“It’s good that we’ll have the division in tact,” defenseman Paul Martin said. “Any decision like this will be tough, everyone has their opinions one way or another. I think they did the best they could under the circumstances. It’s something you’ll see play out as it goes.”
Washington is already a current rival of the Penguins with a lot of history and star power. Carolina has the makings of a possible rivalry with the Brandon Sutter-Jordan Staal element. And with the close proximity of Columbus – and the added element of fan travel – The Penguins and Blue Jackets could build some healthy dislike.
“There is some added rivalry. I think it’s good thing,” Crosby said.
In the new alignment plan, the top three teams in each of the four divisions will hold the first 12 slots in the postseason. The four remaining spots will be filled by the next two highest-placed finishing teams in the conference.
So while the wildcard makes it possible to play a team in the opening round of the playoffs outside of the division, it’s more likely that teams will be playing the first two rounds against divisional foes – creating the high-stakes drama needed to ignite rivalries. And also provides a difficult test for teams in strong divisions.
“You have to get out of your division for the first two playoff rounds. That’ll be a challenge,” Crosby said.
“You have that wild card like they have in other sports,” Martin said. “You still have to get your points, and wins. It doesn’t change anything there. Having rivalries and building up some new ones will be good.”