NHL realignment plan threatens Penguins vs. Flyers rivalry

Philadelphia would be in other division

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It has been clear for decades that the Penguins have mixed feelings about the Philadelphia Flyers.

Sometimes, the Penguins hate them. At other times, they despise them.

And every now and then, just for a change of pace, the Penguins loathe them.

Simply put, there is no opponent -- not Washington, not Detroit, not anyone -- that inspires the kind of raw emotion in the franchise and most of its fan base that Philadelphia does.

Which is why the Penguins want absolutely nothing to do with any realignment proposal that would separate them from a Flyers, the way a plan that has attracted considerable attention in recent days would.

Although Penguins CEO David Morehouse declined a request to discuss realignment, a team executive, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that the franchise has informed the league of its opposition to a plan that would place it and the Flyers in different divisions.

There are several possible configurations under consideration -- ranging from minor tweaking that would shift Detroit, Columbus or Nashville into the Eastern Conference so Winnipeg could go to the West to plans that would blow up the current six-division format -- but one that would add the Penguins, along with the Red Wings or Blue Jackets, to the current Northeast Division has commanded the spotlight lately.

It was first reported by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., and would divide the league's 30 teams into four divisions (See chart above).

Each team would play a home-and-home series against clubs from outside its division, with the rest of its games inside the division.

Also, the first two rounds of the playoffs would be contested inside the division, which was the format used when the Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 1991 and '92.

The Penguins -- who spent five seasons in the Northeast Division in the '90s -- prefer a low-impact realignment, one that would retain six divisions, putting Winnipeg into the Central while shifting Detroit, Columbus or Nashville into the Eastern Conference.

Part of their opposition to the four-division format involves the loss of established rivalries, especially the one with Philadelphia, and part of it stems from their belief that the league is enjoying a period of prosperity that makes radical change unnecessary.

Any changes in alignment would have to be approved by 20 of the league's 30 Governors, who are scheduled to next meet Dec. 5-6 in Pebble Beach, Calif. The Penguins executive said he expects realignment to be a "significant topic of discussion" during that session, in part because of time concerns.

The sooner teams are in place for 2012-13, the sooner issues such as scheduling, travel plans and marketing campaigns can be finalized.

The decision on what the NHL will look like next season will be made in boardrooms, not at ice level, but players obviously will be affected by whatever the Board of Governors does.

A sampling of opinions after a Penguins practice Monday at Southpointe didn't turn up anyone who endorsed the idea of grafting their club onto the Northeast. Most reactions ranged from a shrug of the shoulders to vehement opposition to any major alteration.

Veteran defenseman Brooks Orpik didn't express a strong feeling either way, but noted that switching divisions could make travel a bit more difficult for the Penguins, who now are only about an hour-long flight from any Atlantic Division market.

"Obviously, [playing] anybody in Canada, you have Customs to deal with, here and there, and you'd have longer flights," he said. "That would be the one downside for us.

"The rivalries, I think that's something the fans would definitely miss. The players, when there's so much change now from free agency and stuff like that, I think it minimizes [rivalries], compared to what it used to be.

"Philly, for example, half that team is different. Playing them will be like playing a Western Conference team this year. So I think it's more so for the fans than the players."

Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, however, echoed management's stance, and made it clear he feels the crest on the front of the sweater has more significance than the name on the back.

"There's such a good [intra-state] rivalry with Philly," he said. "We need to play each other. We need to keep the battle hot."

For more on the Penguins, read the Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at www.post-gazette.com/plus . Dave Molinari: dmolinari@post-gazette.com and Twitter @molinaripg. First Published November 1, 2011 4:00 AM


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