With the news that the NHLPA has approved realignment, the final hurdle will be the approval of the NHL's board of governors...those being the same distinguished gentlemen who proposed it in the first place. All things considered, I find it quite unlikely that they'll reject their own proposals, so it's time to start thinking about our new neighbors.
As part of the new
Patrick Atlantic Eastern-Central Atlantic(?) division, the Blue Jackets will finally be offered the opportunity to play in their own time zone, but it comes with quite a few dangerous opponents, so let's get to know our new friends.
Also known as the Staal Family Circus, these BBQ Barons are an immediate danger. Currently leading the Southeast Division, they bring dangerous forwards to the party, but injuries and age have heavily impacted their defense. Cam Ward has continued to provide solid goaltending, but his injury history suggests that the club will be trying to bring Justin Peters along quickly, because who wants to trust their season to Dan Ellis?
Rivalry Potential?: The Canes have a team with a strong work ethic, a tendency towards high scoring games...and a total inability to win in Columbus in the post 2007 era. If Columbus continues to match up well against them, particularly with a few more season series under their belt, I can easily see some bad blood bubbling up.
Fanbase: Over the last few seasons, as much as we hated the Nashville Predators, I've yet to see a bad thing said about their fans. Home or away, they were gracious, friendly, and happy to share a beer over victory or defeat. From all reports, the Carolina Hurricanes could easily become "the new Nashville" in this respect. I can see fans making the trip up from Raleigh, and road trips from Columbus returning the favor for some tailgates at the RBC Center.
For years, New Jersey was defined by Martin Brodeur. To an extent, that's still true, but the 40 year old goaltender has lost a significant chunk of this season after another major injury, leaving the Devils with veteran Johan Hedberg and rookie Jeff Frazee. If their hall of fame netminder is done, the team will be forced to redefine themselves (not to mention look for a new goalie), but their future definition could easily come from Ilya Kovalchuk. With the Russian Sniper under contract until he's crippled by osteoporosis, they've got someone to build their offense around...which is good, since almost the entire team is playing on contracts that expire after this season.
Don Lou will almost certainly be able to retain most of his "made men", but guys like David Clarkson are going to be quite attractive if they hit the free agent market. We may very well be getting the Devils at the perfect time - hitting a natural downswing due to their age and roster turnover.
Rivalry Potential?: Honestly, fairly low. Sure, Kevin Smith loves the Devils, but unless you happened to grow up in the land of tollbooths and discarded medical sharps, they aren't a club who inspire a lot of strong emotional reactions. They're hockey's equivalent to rice pilaf: You don't love it, you don't hate it. They're simply there. I can't see people getting fired up on or off ice for these games.
Fanbase: Fans of New Jersey come in two distinct flavors. You have the lads raised on years of Scott Stevens and stifling defense, craving big hits, shutout wins, and finding any game in which the Devils score more than two goals an offensive explosion. In the modern era, you have fans who enjoy seeing four or five goals a night, but are disappointed that they often come for the opposing team. These days, it just doesn't feel like a hockey game in "The Rock" without the goalie being pulled, so perhaps we can interest them in Steve Mason. The fans have traveled decently in the past, but that was when you could go to an away game via subway and take a six pack on the train with you. Don't be shocked if a decent amount of transplants and ex-pats show up, but I don't see a horde of Christmas Tree jerseys appearing any time soon.
New York Brooklyn Islanders
Ahh, the Island. You know, Garth Snow probably thanks God every night for Steve Tambellini and Scott Howson, because they've been taking the heat off of him for years. Despite having guys like Matt Moulson and John Tavares up front, the Islanders seem to think that Evgeni Nabokov and Kevin Poulin will pull them through in goal. Oh, and do I even need to mention the Tim Thomas trade?
(And no matter what you think about Ryan Murray, consider that Snow wanted him badly enough to trade his entire draft for him...)
Like the Devils, much of their roster is looking for new deals next year, including all three goaltenders, while Rick DiPietro seems ripe for a buyout this summer. Though I have no doubt they'll enjoy their new building in Brooklyn, I don't see many big changes to this team's fortune until the front office is turned over. After all, how can you expect good hockey decisions from the guys who thought these were a good idea? (And what does it say when they still aren't the worst uniform in Franchise history?)
Rivalry Potential?: Less of a rivalry, more of an active state of pity, but I suspect each side of the fanbase will see their opponents as similarly damaged children, while we'll likely see guys like Tavares and Grabner put a serious press on Columbus' defense and third lines. Fortunately, I suspect that Dubinsky and Anisimov will have a few tips.
Fanbase: Transitional in the worst possible way, a lot of die hard Islander fans are going to have to decide if it's worth following the club to their new digs, or if the glow from those four Stanley Cups have finally faded over the last 30 years. Perhaps they'll follow their club down the LIRR, but I have a hard time seeing anyone but the die-hards following to Columbus.
One of the three most dangerous clubs in our new home, fans in Columbus are quite familiar with the Rangers at this point. Hard working, elite goaltending, furious defense, and a massively talented top line make them one of the regular favorites for a Division Championship no matter where they're playing. Possibly the only team in the league where a player can get called out for wearing last season's Armani as often as he can get called out for a lack of forechecking. The recent trade history means our clubs are deeply linked, and there will be a lot of pride on the line every time they meet.
Rivalry Potential?: Potential? More like an absolute. Ranger fans will wave Rick Nash in front of us. Columbus is going to point to Artem Anisimov's development. The bagel munching bastards will talk about Henrik Lundqvist. We'll point out that even Doug MacLean wasn't dumb enough to sign Scott Gomez to a $52 million deal. They'll come at us with Katz Deli and Juniors. We'll reply with North Market and Jeni's.
Round about that point, that's where we're gonna fight.
Fanbase: Possibly one of the few groups of people even more willing to turn on their own team than Ohio sports fans, the Ranger fan is a beast who must be fed by wins and accepts nothing less than top performance in victory or defeat. Willing to question everything and anything, nothing is sacred and seemingly every single one of them has an iron bound book of grudges both internal and external that they can call upon at will. If it wasn't for that bizarre howler monkey call of a goal song, I could almost like these guys. Don't be surprised if we get better acquainted - ticket prices at MSG are so ridiculous that they're likely to look at Columbus prices and decide it's cheaper, even including airfare, to come watch a few games out here instead.
Another one of those "dangerous" clubs, the Flyers seem like a club that seems to have everything lining up to make them a Championship quality team....and then their ownership decides to try and "spark" the club by adding "one last piece". Unfortunately, that "last piece" requires them to trade or release half the players that made them dangerous in the first place, and they'll be right back to square one again. This season, the team looks incredibly dangerous up front thanks to Jakub Voracek (oops), Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier (oops again), and Wayne Simmonds, but their defense is a MASH unit and their goaltending is "Humangous bad", so I fully expect Paul Holmgren to make a blockbuster trade this summer that addresses none of these problems but provides yet another 20 goal scorer.
Rivalry Potential?: Strong. To me, the Flyers are actually very similar to the Rangers, and embody a lot of the things we want our club to represent: Hard work, dangerous with the puck, strong two way play. Now, admittedly, we don't want our guys to go in for things like driving the opposing forward's entire head through the boards, but I am looking forward to the "Bob vs. BryzgaLOL" jokes next season.
Fanbase: There are a LOT of Pennsylvania transplants in Central Ohio. Expect quite a few to come in for these games, and even more to make the drive down I-70, while I suspect plenty of Jackets' fans will return the favor. Many people think Flyers fans are bloodthirsty, joyless, beer soaked shells of broken humanity who turn their anger at their hollow lives outward at any target they are presented with. This is not true - most of them actually find some small joy in whiskey, Tastykakes, and soft pretzels.
The third team atop the pyramid, all you really need to know about the Penguins is that Sidney Crosby still plays there, and that Evgeni Maklin has "ЭТА МАШИНА УБИВАЕТ вратарей" stamped on all of his gear. Even the move to trade their "triple threat" center to Carolina has paid off thanks to the solid performance of Brandon Sutter. The club has been retooling on the fly over the past several years, trading away underpeforming or overpriced players while maintaining their dangerous core.
If there's an Achilles heel, it comes from the inconsistent performances in goal - the fans at CONSOL are all too familiar with watching their goaltender make a jaw-dropping save, then letting in a buttery soft goal ten seconds later. The difference is that unlike Steve Mason, Fleury plays in front of a team who can score their way out of a hole.
Rivalry Potential?: Every time these clubs have met, it's been nasty, hate filled, hard checking games. The addition of more Eastern veterans to the team won't do anything to change that. If Carolina is the new Nashville, Pittsburgh is going to be our new Detroit, right down to...
Fanbase: Like some kind of terrifying bipedal locusts that rise from their rust choked shores, the hordes of Yinzers flock to Ohio at every opportunity, looking to share their disease. Symptoms of this terrible affliction include an irresistible urge to make pierogis, loss of vowels, the belief that Iron City is actually fit for human consumption, compulsory stuffing of french fries inside of every meal, and an unquenchable thirst for Heinz ketchup. About the only good news I have is that their money spends just as well as anyone else's.
Two years ago, I'd have called the Capitals another major threat, but it seems like the window may be closing on this club. Alexander Ovechkin is still an impressive player, but the weight of the captaincy seems to be heavy on his shoulders, and he cannot seem to find a way to take his game to the next level. The loss of Alexander Semin has dropped some of the offensive punch from this team, and Mike Green's injury woes have pulled some major teeth from the power play. Goaltending continues to be a major question mark in Washington, and the club swings from world beaters to punching bags with distressing frequency.
Perhaps George McPhee and Adam Oates will find a way to get this team back on top of the heap, but for now they're ripe for a few kicks while they're down.
Rivalry Potential?: Ever since R.J. Umberger called them out for not playing "The Right Way", there's been some grumbling between the two clubs. Each time the Jackets have faced the Caps recently we've gotten some impressive and high scoring matches - there's reason to think that sparks will continue to fly.
Fanbase: In the last five years, fans have been Rocking the Red all over the place, and quite a few have made the trip from DC to Columbus in the past. It's a pretty do-able game day drive, especially if you're willing to keep a few empty bottles in the van, and flights from BWI or Reagan to Columbus leave almost every hour. Of course, that was before the "Russian Machine" started their slow descent towards the floor. It wasn't so long ago that the Verizon Center was the emptiest building in the league. If Ted "Sure, I'm totally descended from Spartans" Leonsis isn't careful, he could easily see his club slip back into that state again.