NHL Realignment Delivers the Long Overdue Demolition of the SouthLeast

Cup'pa JoeThough there surely should have been, we had no mayoral proclamation, no triumphant, inspiring oratory from any of our region’s elected officials, Chambers of Commerce, or business luminaries, no acknowledgment of the Great Liberation that uniquely visited Washington this week.

Teased previously by a league-led but ultimately union-quashed plan to reconfigure NHL member clubs and their divisions, this week the union gave its blessing to a scheme that, beginning next season, helps the Capitals as much as any other club. All that remains is for the league’s Board of Governors to consent, which will be pro forma.

Realignment would become official for our very next hockey season. It will represent the first such structural overhaul since 1998-99, when the Capitals were divorced from their longstanding, natural rivals about the Mid-Atlantic and sentenced to a prison-camp consignment in the least interesting, least respected division in the history of major professional sports. Virtually since its inception this Frankenstein configuration was derisively labeled the SouthLeast. Necessarily, this was Gary Bettman’s idea. I’m a deeply spiritual individual, and not ungenerous with instincts for forgiveness, but I do not believe that Betmman should ever be admitted to Heaven having committed this crime.

Quite simply, the Capitals for the better part of 15 years have been banished from interesting hockey. In a spectacularly ill-considered and ill-fated expansionist ethos that culminated in the late ’90s, the disrespected Caps were reassigned by Bettman into an association of irrelevancy. None of the Rangers, Flyers, Penguins, Islanders, or Devils ever would have been asked to do what the Caps were by Bettman.

Professional hockey is best experienced when hatred is congenital between the waring factions, and this is precisely what the Grand Old Patrick Division nightly bred. There were nights during my ’70s youth out at Capital Centre when my father literally had to physically safeguard me at night’s end against the inebriated invective and bullying of the bused-in fanbases from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. It was glorious — at least when our guys won. Tell me: Ever recall being taunted by a Thrashers fan about the Verizon Center concourse? Ever encounter a Thrashers fan on our concourse? Ever see a section of our home rink fairly filled by Tampa fans? Ever met a Tampa fan?

Television’s reaction to the SouthLeast was perhaps the principal indictment of Bettman’s destruction — NBC would rather have broadcast church bingo or backgammon than any game between the Panthers and Thrashers — but it was anything but sidebar that the Capitals were not only able to maintain their remarkable rivalry with Pittsburgh the past 15 years but actually enhance it into the best in the sport. One of the best in all of sports, truth be told. The atmosphere inside Verizon Center for a Pens’ visit — pre-Crosby and Ovechkin — was electric, an all too infrequent salve for the soporific slate of the SouthLeast.

On numerous occasions during this abbreviated season I’ve heard and read attacks on our division for its being incomparably weak. And this differs from previous seasons how? It seems perfect in a poetic sense (of bad poetry) that in its final incarnation the demolition of the division will bid adieu to four charter members as well as one located in . . . Winnipeg.

The definition of crickets chirping was witnessing a September exhibition visit here by a SouthLeast member. Mid-winter matchups often were marginally better attended. Says everything really that in the tiered pricing plan put in place by the Caps in recent seasons the best values were accorded to our division “rivals.”

Mercifully we’ve but weeks more enduring the inanity.

One simple question I think best summarizes the richly earned derision and disdain accorded our division: What will you miss most about the dissolved SouthLeast? I answer: Less than nothing.

Beginning next season, hockey in Washington will experience a renaissance — no matter the strength of the Capitals roster. In the reconfiguration the Capitals will be reunited with all of their Patrick foes, one interloper (Carolina), and one red-headed stepchild (Columbus). It’s not perfect to be sure, but it’s an order of magnitude improvement for the nightly environment of our rink. I also have hope that the Jackets are on life support and likely sooner rather than later to uproot themselves, just as the Thrashers did, and relocate to a market that gives a damn about the sport. The Caps’ new division obviously would become even more appealing.

So Bettman has belatedly righted a grievous wrong, but as he engineered this realignment too it’s rife with flaws. He has a queer affinity-nostalgia for regional geography. I know nothing about his family, but I suspect if he has children they’re named Over Yonder, North by Northwest, Due East. Once upon a time, the NHL was nobly distinguished from all other professional sports in honoring its builders and heroes by affixing their names to its divisions. This should happen again. Perhaps the Board of Governors will intervene in the matter.

A sticking point for the union with the league’s previous realignment proposal was a return to a pure divisional playoff format, in which the top four clubs from each division met before an eventual winner would compete outside the division. This more than anything bred enduring contempt. It bred rivalries. This time around the top three teams in each of four divisions qualify for the postseason, along with two additional “wild card” clubs from within the conference. The no. 1 overall club would get the no. 8 in the East in round one. A bit of a mish-mash, but let’s not make the perfect the enemy of the vastly improved. We’re in for roaring good times again, at long last.

The SouthLeast in its infamy was even derided as the NHL’s NASCAR division. But not even Danica Patrick couldn’t be bothered watching it.

This entry was posted in Gary Bettman, Hockey Towns, Morning cup-a-joe, Much-needed realignment, Southeast Division, The Great Old Patrick Division, Washington Capitals. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to NHL Realignment Delivers the Long Overdue Demolition of the SouthLeast

  1. morgan says:

    I’m not sure we are in for “roaring good times” given our current roster, our less than inspiring prospects in the minors, and last but far from least, the abismal leadership of GMGM. I’d say we are in for some roaring bad times instead.

  2. I kinda figured someone might come at me in this vein. My objective with this file wasn’t to paint a rosy forecast in the standings so much as celebrate the fact that after spending 15 years in a desert of configuration disinterest, it’ll be damn fun on a nightly basis to hate again. The new alignment poses obvious hardship for a Capitals team comprised as it currently is, but I don’t envision the club moving forward with long-term pacts for the free agent class of ’12. And Hamrlik’s jettisoning bodes well. More purging is needed. To be competitive going forward, I think it’s *imperative* that both Forsberg and Kuznetsov emerge as difference-making talents. They have to hit on Wilson, too. But the blueline remains a mess.

  3. TG says:

    Had there been consistently good teams in Atlanta, Florida, etc., and / or had the Caps met them in the playoffs more often than once in a blue moon, the rivalries would have been there.

    If they had made the playoffs 1-8 in the conference, I could support this change. But in a few years, there’s going to be the complaint, rightfully, that it gets a bit boring seeing the same teams play each other every year.

    Wasn’t it fun to see Chicago-Vancouver, Caps-Boston, etc.? Well, no more, as that can’t happen until the Conference Finals.

    I know I am in the minority, but this is a fix to a problem that didn’t exist.

  4. Well I guess had I been younger, richer, and more handsome I could have had a shot at dating Jessica Alba. The proximity between Patrick cities had as much to do with creating remarkable atmosphere in the rinks as the postseason drama. Recall too that two SE teams actually won Cups. Didn’t do anything to alter the overall meager MoJo. The SouthLeast was doomed from the start.

  5. morgan says:

    P & B–wasn’t coming at you, just wanted to point out that under the new realignment, the Caps will be playing tougher foes and with the current team put together by GMGM you can expect a lot of repeats of today’s game with the Rags. Look at the diference in team personnel of today’s Rags and Caps. The Rags have more balanced scoring, we have a much reduced Ovi. They have size and grit, we have a bunch of smurfs. Look at their defense versus ours even if the picked up our retread Hamerlick [sp?]. This Rags’ team is on the bubble of making the playoffs, not like last year. I’m not a Rags fan–in fact there is little about NYC in general that I like. But I see a gloomy future for the Caps and realignment won’t help with the current bunch of players and the person who have stocked the Caps for the last fifteen years. If DC had the hockey media like they do in Toronto or Montreal they would be leading the charge to run GMGM out of town and excoriating the current roster for its lackluster pay on the ice.

  6. The Fingerman says:

    I like the new division, but when you look at how the schedule is laid out, the schedule isn’t that different than what it has been. The Caps will have less games against Florida, TB and Winnipeg, but pretty much the same amount against Pittsburgh, NYR, Philly, etc. The Caps will play every divisional team four times, except for two which they’ll play five times. So conceivably, next year the Caps could play five games against Columbus and Carolina and four against everyone else (which is the same amount they’ve been playing the Pens, Flyers, Rangers, Devils, etc. the last 15 years.)

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