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NHL approves realignment; Caps to renew old rivalries

The NHL Board of Governors officially approved the league’s plan for realignment on Friday, paving the way for the Capitals to return to a division with its old rivals in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and the New York City area.

The move had previously been agreed upon by the NHL Players’ Association and will last three years. The Caps will play in an unnamed eight-team division with their longtime rivals Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers, New York Rangers, New York Islander and New Jersey Devils. Those five teams form the current Atlantic Division. The Carolina Hurricanes move with Washington from the Southeast Division. The Columbus Blue Jackets will be relocated from the Western Conference. The league will choose names for the new divisions in a few weeks, but they will likely be based on geographic regions, said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, and not on historic designations like Smythe, Norris or Patrick.

The Caps had spent the last 14 seasons in the Southeast Division with the Hurricanes, Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Lightning and Atlanta Thrashers/Winnipeg Jets. Next year they will play all 29 other NHL teams at least once with home-and-home visits set against all Western Conference teams. They will see five division opponents four times and two division opponents five times on a rotating basis.

A tweaked Stanley Cup playoff format comes with the realignment. There remains an Eastern and Western Conference – each with two divisions. Eight teams still qualify from each conference, but only the top three teams in each division are guaranteed a spot. There will also be two wild-card teams in each conference.

The Winnipeg Jets will finally leave the Southeast Division, where they remained after moving from Atlanta two years ago. They join the Western Conference while the Blue Jackets and Detroit Red Wings move to the Eastern Conference, which now has 16 teams. There will be 14 teams in the Western Conference.

“I guess it was our acquisition of the Thrashers that precipitated all of this,” said Winnipeg chairman Mark Chippman. “We’re very relieved – as much as we enjoyed those trips down south – I think our team and our coaches are very pleased to know that we’ll be playing in the central time zone. The travel burden ought not to be as onerous and also really look forward to establishing some rivalries close to him, particularly Minnesota and that great franchise that resides in Chicago.”

The Dallas Stars are helped by a move out of a division with primarily West Coast team. Five of their new opponents are located in the central time zone with one (Colorado Avalanche) in the mountain time zone. Here are the new divisions, which have yet to be named. The NHL’s primary goal was to increase regional rivalries and better balance travel for its 30 teams.

Bettman acknowledged that the vote by the Board of Governors was not unanimous. The placement of both Florida franchises – the Panthers in suburban Miami and the Lightning in Tampa Bay – was an issue from the start. There just isn’t a good spot for those teams geographically. By placing them with three Canadian teams and three northern teams (Boston, Buffalo, Detroit) the hope is that Canadian snowbirds and northerners already living in Florida can at least help boost attendance and mitigate the obvious travel problems.

“Is it perfect? I don’t think anybody in the league would say it’s absolutely perfect,” Chippman said. “We were trying to cover a lot of ground and I think that we’ve done that.”

Division A: Anaheim Ducks, Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, Los Angeles Kings, Phoenix Coyotes, San Jose Sharks, Vancouver Canucks

Division B: Chicago Blackhawks, Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars, Minnesota Wild, Nashville Predators, St. Louis Blues, Winnipeg Jets

Division C: Buffalo Sabres, Boston Bruins, Detroit Red Wings, Florida Panthers Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators, Toronto Maple Leafs, Tampa Bay Lightning

Division D: Carolina Hurricanes, Columbus Blue Jackets, New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals

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