NHL's changing face brings a smile from Capitals


Following the direction of commissioner Gary Bettman, National Hockey League owners overcame individual wants, saw the Big Picture and voted to realign the league and change its playoff system.

Yesterday's announcement marks the first major change in alignment and playoffs since 1980-81, when the current system was adopted.

"I'm comfortable we've come up with something that makes sense in the long term," said Bettman. "I had asked for submissions from each team on what they would like and I looked for common threads. You could look at any one part of this and pick it apart, but the important thing is to see the overall mosaic. . . . I think we found the good middle ground."

What it all means for the Washington Capitals and the rest of the Patrick Division is a major celebration. The two-time Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins move into the Northeast Division, formerly the Adams Division.

"You can say the Washington Capitals were all for this," said Washington general manager David Poile, who basically outlined this plan as his preference when clubs were submitting suggestions for the new package. "It's a new division, a new look, in terms of regular-season schedule. . . . and I think it will be very good for our fans."

Realignment was made necessary when expansion franchises in Anaheim, Calif., and Miami committed to playing next season.

Basically, what it means is that beginning next season the Winnipeg Jets, Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning will be moved into new divisions, while Anaheim will join the Pacific Division, now called the Smythe, and Miami will join the Atlantic Division, now the Patrick.

The divisions, previously named for past great builders of the game, will be changed to reflect the part of the United States and Canada in which teams play.

In the Eastern Conference (previously the Wales) will be the Atlantic and Northeast divisions. In the Western Conference (previously the Campbell), the Norris Division becomes the Central and the Smythe becomes the Pacific.

For Washington, the swap of Pittsburgh for Tampa Bay and Miami should be very good for padding the regular-season record.

"On the hockey side of it, we're in the middle of the No. 1 race for the playoffs, as we usually are in the Patrick," said Poile. "Under the new system, qualifying for the playoffs is going to be even more difficult. After determining the two division winners, everyone else is basically a wild card, and once you eliminate Tampa Bay, Miami and, perhaps, Hartford, who are the other three teams you're going to beat out?"

For the past 11 years, the top four teams in each division have qualified for the playoffs, with the first-place team playing the fourth and the second meeting the third. The two teams that emerge from their divisions play for the conference title, and the two conference champions meet for the Stanley Cup.

Beginning next season, in each of the two conferences, the regular-season division champs will be seeded first and second. The next six teams based on points, regardless of division standings, will make the playoffs in each conference.

If all the changes made yesterday were in effect this season, Washington would be on its way to the division title and would play the seventh seed, which before last night's games was the New Jersey Devils. As it now stands, the Capitals could very well wind up playing the Devils in the first round anyway.

Bettman said Pittsburgh "was gracious" in moving. With a slightly more balanced schedule and the change in the playoffs to a conference setup, the move "would have minimum impact" on Pittsburgh's already established rivalries.

According to Bettman, the vote was unanimous.

The commissioner said there were no protests from the Adams teams about the young, dynamic Penguins joining their division; no protests from the Norris teams over being the only division without an expansion franchise to beat up on (Bettman did note the league will try to favor them with expansion opponents for neutral-site games if they are scheduled); and no protests from the Eastern Conference over eight of 14 teams making the playoffs from their conference, while eight of 12 will make it from the Western.

NHL's new look

How the NHL's divisions will look next season:

Eastern Conference

Northeast Division

Boston, Buffalo, Hartford, Montreal, Ottawa, Pittsburgh, Quebec

Atlantic Divison

New Jersey, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Philadelphia, South Florida, Tampa Bay, Washington

Western Conference

Central Division

Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, St. Louis, Toronto, Winnipeg

Pacific Divison

Anaheim, Calgary, Edmonton, Los Angeles, San Jose, Vancouver

Playoff format In each of the two conferences, the regular-season division champs will be seeded 1-2. The next six teams based on points, regardless of division standings, make up the rest of the eight-team conference quarterfinals.

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