I've said numerous times (here and here) that I don't think the Capitals and Flyers are rivals. Washington might consider us one of their rivals, but that's only because we beat them in the playoffs and they want payback, and because the Southeast Division doesn't give the Caps anybody to hate.
So it's a pretty one sided thing between these two fanbases right now, but just because we don't really hate the Capitals right now, doesn't mean we can't hate them later. I would enjoy a rivalry with Washington, but the only way I can see it happening -- and I'm talking a legitimate rivalry like Flyers vs Rangers/Pens/Devils -- is if they were in our division.
Prior to the 1979/80 season, the Capitals moved from the Norris to the Patrick Division, and with that, a natural hatred developed. Fighting for position with a divisional opponent just two and a half hours south breeds a lot of contempt, it seems.
In 1981/82, the NHL aligned the divisions according to geography for the first time, which meant that Calgary, who had been in the Patrick Division since its days in Atlanta, would move to the Smythe Division, and Pittsburgh would join the Flyers, the Islanders, the Rangers, and the Capitals in the Patrick. A year later, in 1982/83, when the Colorado Rockies moved to New Jersey, the Devils joined, and the dream division was formed.
For eleven seasons, these six teams battled it out for Patrick Division glory, and for many of those seasons the Flyers and Capitals were neck-and-neck in the race. But then in 1991, the NHL welcomed a new team from San Jose, and the following year Tampa Bay and Ottawa joined the ranks.
Gary Bettman became Commissioner before the 1993 season, and with his NBA roots he felt that, to help make the game easier to market with non-traditional fans, the divisions and conferences should be renamed. So, in 1993/94, the Campbell Conference became the Western Conference and the Wales Conference became the Eastern Conference. The Norris Division became the Central, Smythe became the Pacific, while Adams became the Northeast and Patrick became the Atlantic.
The honeymoon for the perfect division was over. Pittsburgh was moved to the Northeast, to compete with Boston, Montreal, Buffalo, etc., while the Lightning and the first year Florida Panthers were thrown in the Atlantic.
The Flyers and Capitals still had their rivalry, but Pittsburgh was gone, and how can we care about Florida and Tampa Bay when they're A) so far away and B) terrible?
Things in the Atlantic Division would stay the same for the next four years, but Hartford's move to Carolina in 1997/98 and Nashville's expansion the following year allowed the league to go to a new three division system. It would be the third major re-alignment in league history, and it mixed up everything.
The Northwest Division was created, and it included Colorado, Edmonton, Calgary, and Vancouver, all former Pacific Division members. Dallas and Phoenix moved from the Central to the Pacific, while the new Predators joined Detroit, St. Louis, and Chicago in the Central.
Toronto moved from the Western Conference's Central Division to the East's Northeast. Carolina, Florida, Tampa, and Washington left the Atlantic to form the new Southeast Division. And a mistake was corrected by moving Pittsburgh back to the Atlantic.
Since, teams have been added in Atlanta, Columbus and Minnesota to get the current look we have today. It has been 10 seasons and 11 years since this alignment first came about, and we can determine now that it has been a mistake. People in Toronto will tell you that they lost a historic Original Six rivalry with Detroit in the process.
But the biggest complaints will come out of Washington. They had the dream setup in the Patrick Division days, and now their chief competition comes from a team that was in Connecticut just twelve years ago. In fact, the switch to the Southeast almost killed hockey in DC. Hockey was stagnant there for years, in the late-90's and until, really, last years playoffs. They played the Flyers in those playoffs, an old Patrick Division rival they could love to hate.
On Frozen Blog puts it perfectly:
For years now we've been told by the apologists for the Southeast's awful architecture that with merely patience new hatreds will descend upon our beleaguered grouping. They haven't and they won't. This hatred we have for those colors 90 miles to the North, it's intrinsic, almost congenital. It's a part of our hockey DNA.
Even having two Stanley Cup champions in the past 5 years does nothing to improve the Southeast's standing. It's a division that needs to be dissolved. Blown up. Obliterated. Glo-puck it. I don't particularly care where the extraneous pieces land. I just know that last night Washington's rink was as it should be, during the regular season. At last. I just know that Washington needs and deserves its old rivalries back.
There has been a major re-alignment, on average, about every eight years since the 1967 NHL expansion. With the last one coming ten years ago, it is time for history to repeat itself. The NHL needs to re-align, but they need to do it right this time. First, they need to go back to the original names.
Change the Eastern Conference back to the Prince of Wales Conference and the Western Conference back to the Clarence Campbell Conference, and then the real fun can begin.
I'm not opposed to contracting a team or two if it's absolutely necessary, but at this point in time it is not, and I am opposed to contracting just because places aren't "typical hockey markets." Besides, I think it should be up to the individual team to decide if they can survive in their market, and no team has made that decision yet.
So, with that said, here is how I think the NHL should be re-aligned.
Prince of Wales Conference (14 teams)
Patrick Division (7 teams)
New York Rangers
New York Islanders
New Jersey Devils
Adams Division (7 teams)
Toronto Maple Leafs
Detroit Red Wings
Columbus Blue Jackets
Clarence Campbell Conference (16 teams)
Norris Division (8 teams)
San Jose Sharks
Los Angeles Kings
Smythe Division (8 teams)
Tampa Bay Lightning
St. Louis Blues
The biggest problem with this would be the uneven number of teams in each conference, but really, how important is that? You might say that it's unfair that each team wouldn't have the same shot at getting in the playoffs, but that's just an excuse. You know the rules before you start playing, and if you're good enough, you'll get in. It's that simple. Besides, the good outweighs the bad.
The Flyers/Capitals rivalry returns. Toronto/Detroit is back, and Chicago/Detroit stays. The only lost rivalry we get with this setup is Boston/Montreal, but that is one that has become extremely one-sided in recent years. And can you imagine Boston being in the same division as both New York teams? Can you say Red Sox/Yankees, hockey style? Not to mention the Big Bad Bruins versus the Broad Street Bullies, version 21st century.
The biggest question now I'm sure is, how will the playoffs work? The current setup wouldn't work since there are only two divisions per conference. The current playoff structure is flawed anyway, given that the best team in the Southeast usually is worse than the 4th best team in the Eastern Conference, but they wind up getting the third spot anyway.
16 teams still get in, with eight from each conference making it. But that's where the similarities end. It's a divisional system now, and the top four teams in each division clinch playoff spots. Then, they are seeded one through four. A champion is determined for each division, which makes division titles more important than just a nice regular season accolade. The two division champions play in the conference finals for the right to go to the Cup finals.
Here is a makeshift, sample bracket. Click the thumbnail to enlarge.
And there you have it. That's how I think the NHL should be re-aligned. There's been a lot of talk around the blogosphere lately about this very subject, and who knows, maybe the NHL will listen. Either way, the only way a Flyers/Capitals rivalry can work is if they share a division once again.