Canes likely to play Florida Panthers far less often next season

calexander@newsobserver.comMarch 1, 2013 

Hurricanes Panthers Hockey

Florida Panthers center Jonathan Huberdeau, bottom, and Carolina Hurricanes center Jordan Staal battle for the puck during the first period of an NHL hockey game on Saturday, Jan. 19, 2013, in Sunrise, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

WILFREDO LEE — AP

— For the next two days, the Carolina Hurricanes and Florida Panthers face off in home-and-home games with Southeast Division ramifications.

The Canes lead the division. The Panthers, who won it last year, are trying to surge back into contention.

"The division is tightening up and we want stay ahead of the group," Canes captain Eric Staal said Thursday after a 4-1 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins.

That won’t be the case next season. There will be no Southeast Division. As for the Canes and Panthers, they likely will play just three times.

The proposed NHL realignment will create not only new divisions – four instead of six – but also fuel new rivalries. It will change the way Stanley Cup playoff teams are chosen. It also could change the makeup of teams.

The Hurricanes will be in the new eight-team Atlantic Division of the Eastern Conference. Joining them will be the Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers, New York Rangers, New York Islanders, New Jersey Devils and Columbus Blue Jackets.

The Central Division, as proposed, will have former Southeast Division teams Florida and Tampa Bay along with the Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres, Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators and Toronto Maple Leafs.

The Western Conference would have two seven-team divisions. The Midwest Division would have Chicago, Colorado, Dallas, Minnesota, Nashville, St. Louis and Winnipeg. In the Pacific Division would be Anaheim, Calgary, Edmonton, Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Jose and Vancouver.

Canes coach Kirk Muller smiled when asked about moving into a division with the likes of the Pens, Rangers and Flyers.

"It’s the old Patrick Division," Muller said. "Exactly the way I came into the league."

Pretty close. In 1984-85, when Muller was a rookie with the New Jersey Devils, the NHL’s Patrick Division had the Pens, Rangers, Isles, Caps, Flyers and Devils.

Muller said the change, if approved, might make for some tough decisions in personnel. The Canes, for example, would play divisional teams either four or five times a season on a rotating basis.

"It’s what type of team you want to have," he said. "You’ve got some big, grinding, more physical teams in that division. You’ve got to compete with your opponents.

"That’s later on, but it will make a difference, looking at your division. Philly’s not changing their style. New York’s not. Jersey’s not. There are a lot of teams that are consistent in their identity."

The Hurricanes and Panthers have played six times a season as divisional rivals until this year, which was shortened because of the NHL lockout. Beginning next year the Canes would face Central Division teams three times a season while playing each Western Conference team home and away.

The proposed realignment plan was leaked to the media this week and reported by such media outlets as ESPN.com. Under the plan, the top three teams in each division would qualify for the playoffs along with two wild cards in each conference.

The wild cards would be the two teams with the most points, regardless of the division – in theory, five playoff teams could come from the Atlantic.

The NHL Players Association must approve the realignment plan. In December 2011, the league issued a similar realignment proposal, only to have the union refuse to sign off on it because of upcoming negotiations over a collective bargaining agreement.

Canes forward Kevin Westgarth, a member of the players’ negotiating committee during the CBA talks, said there remains concerns about the eight-team divisions versus seven-team divisions when it comes to determining the 16 playoff spots.

"There’s a 14-percent differential in the chance of making the playoffs in the West than in the East," Westgarth said. "That’s too big an inequality. We want divisions that make sense but the inequity in the playoffs is too tough."

One solution might be to have all four wild cards determined by number of points, regardless of the conference.

"You might have a team like Vancouver coming to play, say, Florida," Westgarth said. "That might be a tough first round (logistically), but that’s much better than having that big a difference between teams’ ability to make the playoffs."

NOTE: The Canes on Friday reassigned forward Zac Dalpe to the Charlotte Checkers of the AHL. Dalpe played Tuesday against the Washington Capitals but was a healthy extra Thursday against Pittsburgh.

Alexander: 919-829-8945

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