Yesterday we had a little fun spitballing and thinking up different scenarios for how the NHL might align their divisions for 2020-21. Graphic design is my passion to crudely draw out division splits and lines.
Deep down though, I think everyone just thought or expected the Penguins to stay more or less where they’ve always been, where they belong with their usual tried and true rivals.
Well, here’s a vintage Lee Corso “NOT so fast, my friend” stiff arm on at least allowing some consideration that next season could look very, very different.
From today's column on ESPN+, this is what I'm hearing for potential divisions for the NHL 2020-21 season: https://t.co/RCLTYW6NZ2 pic.twitter.com/9dEuj1TUCx— Greg Wyshynski (@wyshynski) November 19, 2020
The key word is “potential” and not “this is 100% what will happen” but if the NHL is already leaning in this direction it wouldn’t be a shocker if this has already been discussed and finalized behind closed doors and now we’re just awaiting other aspects of the most current return to play in order to disclose the new divisions.
The Pens being split away from the Flyers and Capitals and even Rangers and Islanders and Devils leads to some instant reactions. Perhaps a bit of mild shock. Anger and confusion to lose such great rivalries for the league — like seriously, no Sid vs. Ovi, Round 10,000? No Crosby scoring multiple points to the dismay of helpless and bitter Philly fans? No Henrik Lundqvist giving the 1,000 yard stare after surrendering yet another goal to the Pens? (Although that’s in a new rival this year). Is it even a season then without all of that?
Why would the league do this?
Geography doesn’t seem to be the real answer, from Wyshynski’s potential listing the league could easily bump Buffalo to the Central and Pittsburgh to the East and the distance for everyone would be virtually identical.
The reason for wanting Pittsburgh in the Central could well be television related. Matchups like Pittsburgh-Chicago, Pittsburgh-Detroit, Pittsburgh-St. Louis and Pittsburgh-Tampa, that all plays for attractive national TV audiences for broadcast partner NBC. Buffalo is a great television market, but the team has been lacking, the Pens make a much more intriguing extra option for the Central.
The Pens would also make for great TV matchups in the East, but the East is already loaded with plenty of big market teams that can and will be heavily utilized for national audiences (Boston, NY Rangers, Philadelphia, Washington).
Adding the Pens to that just overloads the division with too many TV, sending Pittsburgh to the Central gives the NHL and NBC more options in that regard.
But, regardless of WHY the NHL might want to move the Penguins to a Central Division for 2020-21, a natural outlook might shift to wondering will this be a benefit or a hindrance on the ice? Would it be better or “easier” for Pittsburgh to get out of the East? Or would that be a tougher challenge? Let’s look at the 2019-20 standings and see.
This outlook also shows that for competitive reasons why it also makes sense for the NHL to want Pittsburgh in the Central and Buffalo in the East. If you swapped those teams, the East becomes a murderer’s row of excessively strong teams with seven teams that finished with 79+ points last season, compared to what would have been just three in the Central.
Competitively, the Pens to the Central balances these divisions giving each division four teams with 81+ points from last year. And it balances it in a way that makes geographic sense being at Pittsburgh is several hundred miles closer to Chicago and St. Louis than Philadelphia or Boston or the New York City area, so naturally the Pens would be the team to move over.
From the Pens’ perspective of on-ice play, they should be inwardly pleased with the move. Having to face the 2019 Stanley Cup champion Blues and the 2020 champion Lightning makes for a very top heavy division, but otherwise the rest of the division is a notch below the Pens’ level, on paper and in the off-season.
If the Pens were in the East they would have much tougher and deepers challenges from teams like typical yearly regular season powerhouses in Boston, Washington plus ascending young teams like Carolina, Philly and NYR. Not to mention the always pesky NYI and NJD teams that often seem to play the Pens much better than their overall strength suggests.
It would be a very weird occurrence for the Penguins to play a season and be split from the usual rivals that we’ve all come to love to hate. But it would be a fitting end to the topsy-turvy year of 2020 where everything has changed, almost nothing has gone according to plans or been a normal, typical year.
But, if you’re a Penguin fan, once you get past the shock of potentially not playing the Flyers or Caps, you might just come to realize that moving to the Central for one season seems like it would be an advantageous move for the Pens.