Twenty years ago, the Penguins shifted from the Patrick Division to the Northeast. Five years later, they were shipped to the Atlantic, where they have resided ever since, but Pittsburgh will break in yet another home this fall when the NHL’s latest realignment takes effect.
Unlike the Columbus Blue Jackets, Detroit Red Wings, Winnipeg Jets or most of the teams in the Western Conference, the Penguins will see little tangible changes in the upcoming reshuffling. In fact, Pittsburgh’s new division could accurately be called Atlantic Plus, with Carolina, Washington and Columbus joining the same Atlantic Division that’s been in place for more than a decade.
But looking a little deeper, the Penguins stand to profit from their new eight-team grouping, even if it’s not a very drastic or exciting adjustment.
For one, welcoming the Blue Jackets into the division will spark an interstate feud, if not a true rivalry, between two franchises separated by fewer than 200 miles. It won’t be Penn State-Ohio State or Steelers-Browns right away, but proximity makes any matchup more interesting, as fans of Pitt and WVU can attest.
They’ve been rare, but Penguins games in Columbus have produced electric atmospheres due to thousands of Pittsburgh rooters making the trip to Nationwide Arena. Perhaps if the Jackets can continue to improve, we might see a similar cauldron begin to boil at Consol Energy Center in the near future.
Having Washington installed as a more-frequent opponent should also bear fruit. Although it’s been a down year for the restructured Capitals, the animosity between the two teams remains near all-time levels, dating back to when they were together in the Patrick Division.
Even without the original spark of the Sidney Crosby vs. Alex Ovechkin feud, Pens-Caps games are still frequently must-watch TV, and having a couple additional meetings per season will only amplify the buzz.
Finally, with Jordan Staal in Carolina, the Hurricanes are a more emotionally-charged opponent than ever before. Penguins general manager Ray Shero may not have envisioned seeing his first draft pick play for a division rival, but each game against Carolina will surely move the needle for years to come.
But even while considering the positives of new neighbors, perhaps the best aspect of realignment from the Pittsburgh perspective is that the Flyers, Rangers, Islanders and Devils will all remain in the division. 15 years of continuity will not be flushed down the toilet, which is more than most teams will be able to say in six months.
Yes, the Penguins would still thrive without Philadelphia, New York and New Jersey on the Consol marquee several times a season, but why mess with what is arguably the NHL’s most intense (and competitive) fivesome?
With healthy portions of consistency and renewal on tap, I would rate the Penguins’ realignment fate as among the best of the league’s 30 teams, even if it doesn’t merit the big headlines.
Commissioner Gary Bettman said the new groupings will be named geographically, which rules out the possibility of Pittsburgh playing in the Lemieux Division. Nevertheless, it’s difficult to imagine realignment working out much better for the Penguins.