Believe it or not, the NHL might start their regular season in one month.
For that to happen, a lot of things have to be figured out over the course of the next two weeks. That includes the alignment of divisions for the 2021 season.
With a Canadian Division apparently going to be a sure-thing, at the center of the remaining dialogue is the Carolina Hurricanes. It appears as if the remaining three divisions will be the Eastern Division, Central Division and Western Division.
Where the Hurricanes end up will be a big topic of discussion as we ramp up to training camp. Will they stay in an Eastern Division or will they flip to the Central Division? Both options have their share of benefits and challenges.
Today, we’ll look at a few proposed division alignments and what they could mean for the Canes as they look to make the playoffs for a third consecutive season for the first time in Carolina franchise history.
Staying in the East
Greg Wyshynski (ESPN) provided one of the first mock-ups of a potential division realignment, and he had the Hurricanes in the Eastern Division.
If that comes to fruition, it would certainly pose a tough task for the Canes. In 2019-20, the Canes went a combined 8-11-0 against those teams. Obviously, their 0-4-0 regular season against the Rangers tips the scales of .500 and maybe that will change, but the team’s steady flailing against the Rags is a long-term storyline that won’t have me convinced of change until it actually happens (maybe their play-in round sweep will light the fire for that).
This division also includes tough matchups in the form of the Bruins, Flyers and Capitals - a trio of teams that could very well capture the top three spots in the division. That’s not even taking into account an Islanders team that has found themselves set up for postseason success in each of Barry Trotz’s first two seasons behind their bench, even if Carolina has largely dominated their head-to-head matchups.
Essentially, this Eastern Division is the current Metropolitan Division, but you’re swapping the Pittsburgh Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets for the Bruins and Sabres. Based off of last year’s standings, that’s probably a net even trade, but the Sabres got better and the Bruins are a far more threatening team than the Penguins.
Playoff seeding and schedule layout (i.e. whether or not teams only play other teams within their division) obviously plays a big role in all of this, but Carolina should be a playoff team, even if they are in a stacked Eastern Division. That being said, there are other options that could see the Hurricanes having an easier time during the regular season.
Moving to the Central
Wyshynski mentioned another possibility that the league is considering - swapping the Hurricanes with the Penguins in the proposed Central Division.
This is an attractive option for the league as it preserves the Pennsylvania teams’ divisional rivalry, and according to Pierre LeBrun (The Athletic), the Penguins are making a strong push for that to happen. It also makes more sense for the Hurricanes to be in the same division as the Florida teams for travel purposes.
If you make that swap via the divisions Wyshynski outlined, the Canes would then share a division with the Chicago Blackhawks, Columbus Blue Jackets, Detroit Red Wings, Florida Panthers, Nashville Predators, and the last two Stanley Cup champions in the St. Louis Blues and Tampa Bay Lightning.
Last season, the Hurricanes fared much better against that slate of teams, to the tune of a 10-6-1 record. On paper, this division seems much easier for Carolina. The Canes went a combined 9-2-0 against the Blackhawks, Red Wings, Panthers and Lightning.
LeBrun proposed a very similar division alignment to this, with the only change being the Minnesota Wild in that division instead of the Blues. That would be good news for the Hurricanes as they won both head-to-head meetings with the Wild, a team that was already challenged at the center position and just traded Eric Staal for a downgrade in Marcus Johanson who hasn’t played well as a center.
I like this proposal for one big reason, and it doesn’t have much to do with the level of competition. It has more to do with just getting something different. I think the idea of having divisional rivalries with the likes of Nashville and Tampa Bay could be a lot of fun. These are teams that have played some very entertaining games with the Hurricanes over the last few years, and getting those games more regularly and with higher stakes would make for a very different-feeling regular season.
I feel like everyone was clamoring for more Sun Belt showdowns between the Preds and Canes in recent years because of how the clubs’ fan bases have wrapped their arms around these local, non-traditional teams. Obviously, the potential lack of fans at games takes a lot of wind out of the sails, but the idea is still an appealing one.
We’d see different types of games against different teams. That would be a fun little deviation from the Metropolitan Division grind.
The Hurricanes should be at the point now where they can manage to make the playoffs regardless of what division they are in, but it’s obvious that some options are more forgiving than others.
The proposed Hurricanes in the Central Division ideas clearly give the team an easier path to the top of the division, but it would also just change how these games are played.
With all of that being said, though, these decisions should not be made with the focus on who makes the postseason. If they’re going to do this, they have to do it in the way that makes the most logistical sense and keeps the safety of the players, staff and fans the primary concern.
We’ll see what happens.