NHL Realignment: Part One – Jackets Required, S’il Vous Plait!

Ryan Murray (Aaron Bell/CHL Images)
Ryan Murray (Aaron Bell/CHL Images)

Unless you’ve been holed up somewhere in a distant galaxy, far away from the hockey universe, you’ve surely heard that the NHL realignment plan has been approved by the league and players’ association.    And, guess what?  Jackets are required, s’il vous plait!  Jackets, you ask?  Yes, the Blue Jackets!  The Columbus Blue Jackets are required to move to the new Eastern Conference under the new realignment plan.  And, they are rightfully celebrating this requirement in Columbus as they have waited for this moment for so long.  Also, the Detroit Red Wings are in celebration mode as they have waited much longer to make the switch from the Western Conference.  And, the Winnipeg Jets have been approved for their much anticpated move to the Western Conference and are filled with joy.  Why are they so merry in Columbus, Detroit and Winnipeg?  Is everyone else happy?  Are there inequities with the new realignment?  Is it possible to make everyone happy all at the same time?  Only if you believe in Santa, eh!

The issue of inequities with NHL realignment

Columbus has been the eastern-most city in the Western Conference with Detroit not far behind.  This has been the source of significant inequities for these two teams in the way of:

  • Frequent cross-continental travel taking valuable time away from practice and rest
  • Major flip-flopping of time-zone changes before you’ve hardly unpacked your suitcase thereby throwing the mind and body into chaos
  • Close company among far away teams that hardly draw anything beyond a yawn in at least Columbus if not Detroit.  No offense to Anaheim, Phoenix and Calgary but yes, I am referring to you and a few other nondescript teams.
  • Disbarring most Jackets and Wings fans especially young ones from watching Pacific and Mountain time-zone games.  These games begin at such late hours in Columbus and Detroit, not to mention the ending time stretching often into the wee hours of the morning. 

Some would like to lament over the inequities in playoff chances due to the imbalance between the new Eastern Conference and Western Conference.  This newly developed inequity pales in comparison to the egregious inequities that Columbus, Detroit and more recently Winnipeg have suffered. 

Naturally eastern-heavy hockey continent

There will never be a perfect solution as there are some geographical outliers such as Tampa Bay and Florida who will always be difficult to fit into any type of a set up.  Also, there is a much higher concentration of hockey teams in the eastern and northern reaches of the North American continent.  And, this is about to get exacerbated with the potential additions of teams in Quebec and a second team in the Greater Toronto Area. 

The league, players’ association and fans will need to keep this fact in mind going forward as the realignment is revisited in three years.  The simple east-west breakdown of the league is a concept from a bygone era.  A paradigm shift is needed whereby geography and time-zones are still the leading drivers in coming up with the ultimate long-term solution but there is a recognition and accommodation for a eastern-heavy hockey continent. 

Nevertheless, the realignment set to go into effect next season is a huge step in the right direction for the growth of the sport.  The leadership and courage shown in this instance by the league and players’ association is noteworthy.

Blue Jackets thrilled with realignment of the NHL

The Blue Jackets are thrilled to put it mildly, with the move to the Eastern Conference.  They will play in what is temporarily being referred to as “Division D” (or Atlantic Division as a point of reference) until permanent division names are selected.  New rivalries await the Jackets with teams that are geographically so much closer.  But, are Eastern Conference teams rolling out the red carpet to welcome the Jackets?  In particular, are the Jackets new division mates happy to see them occupy real-estate in their sandbox? Do they even care?  Is the basement-dweller image of the Blue Jackets so pronounced that these teams are guffawing and looking past them?  Let’s take a look, shall we?

Will the Jackets fortune change with move to the Eastern Conference?

While the Blue Jackets anemic record in the Western Conference is known across the seven seas, will their fortune change in the Eastern Conference? Well, professional prognosticators will attest that history is an important contributor in predicting the future.  Accordingly, I am using that as a driver in a brief analysis of the Jackets chances in their new division and conference starting next season.

The tables that accompany this article are an attempt to analyze the Blue Jackets record over the last 4 seasons against teams that will make up the new Eastern Conference.  This entails data retrieved from NHL.com for the period beginning with the 2008/2009 regular season through the 2011/2012 regular season.  And, the 2012/2013 shortened season is obviously excluded from this analysis as there are no cross-conference regular season games scheduled.

Here is a summarized look at the Jackets performance against each new division mate in order of greatest success over the last four seasons.


Jackets versus Carolina Hurricanes

Record over last 4 seasons: 4-0-0

Win percentage: 100%

(Hammersmith Studios- Greg Thompson)
(Hammersmith Studios- Greg Thompson)

Believe it or not, the Columbus Blue Jackets have prevailed over the Carolina Hurricanes in each of their 4 meetings over the last four seasons.  This certainly bodes well for the Jackets but the Hurricanes have added some fire power in the way of the Jordan Staal who has joined his brother Eric Staal in the Triangle region of North Carolina.  In the meantime, the Jackets lost the face of the franchise, Rick Nash, who was a major force in assembling this impressive record against Carolina.  Nonetheless, Columbus has added the current NHL goalie sensation, Sergei Bobrovsky, to match up with Cam Ward, a rookie stalwart in Carolina’s Stanley Cup championship run in 2006. 

From a rivalry perspective, some would have you believe that the Columbus-Carolina match up will replace the Columbus-Nashville rivalry.  While there are some geographical and regional merits to that argument in terms of Raleigh’s similarities to Nashville, I would suggest that Carolina will be a less celebrated rivalry compared to teams that are located closer to Columbus.  The average attendance for home games against Carolina at Nationwide Arena has been about 15,000 per game.  This is an indication of lower fan interest in Columbus toward the Carolina Hurricanes but this could change as they become division mates.

Jackets versus New York Islanders

Record over last 4 seasons: 3-0-3

Win percentage: 50%

John Tavares currently leads the New York Islanders in goals and points on the season (valorfaerie/Flickr)
John Tavares currently leads the New York Islanders in goals and points on the season (valorfaerie/Flickr)

The Blue Jackets have played the New York Islanders tough over the last four season, basically splitting the 6-game series.  However, the Jackets losses came twice in overtime games and once in a shootout.  With the growth of John Tavares into a star of the future, the Islanders will prove to be formidable opponents.  Last season, there was speculation of Islanders goalie, Rick DiPietro, being on the Jackets short list to help solve the net-minding issue as Steve Mason was having another sub-par season.  Obviously, DiPietro is still with the Islanders organization, although his future is up in the air and could be traded.  As he tries to rediscover his game and self, he may be at a new postal address when the Islanders suit up against the Jackets.

As for a rivalry brewing between the Blue Jackets and the New York Islanders, it is unlikely at this point in time.  Trades between the teams in ensuing weeks could provide a spark.  When the Islanders have visited Nationwide Arena, they have drawn an average of about 16,700 per game.

Jackets versus Philadelphia Flyers

Record over last 4 seasons: 2-2-0

Win percentage: 50%

Claude Giroux Flyers
Flyers captain Claude Giroux (Jeanine Leech/Icon SMI)

History from the last four seasons shows that the Jackets and Philadelphia Flyers have split this one right down the middle.  Home team has won each time.  This has the potential to become a huge rivalry for both teams due to a trade from last season that brought the Flyers Jeff Carter to Columbus for an abbreviated stay in exchange for Jakub Voracek and a first round draft pick that turned into Sean Couturier. 

The Flyers have enjoyed great success with Voracek and Couturier in comparison to the abominable failure in the chemistry between the Blue Jackets and Jeff Carter.  So, Jackets fans are bereft with this trade and particularly losing Voracek who was well-liked in Columbus and also losing the first round draft pick that resulted in Sean Couturier. 

The Carter debacle had its writings on the wall at the time of the trade as it took a behemoth effort on the part of then Jackets captain, Rick Nash, to convince Carter to honor the trade.  It was a trade that was doomed from the start as the Jackets failed to scout Jeff Carter adequately.  Current GM, Jarmo Kekalainen talks about getting inside of the mind of a prospect or a trade candidate so as to really get to know him.  Had that strategy been deployed at the time of vetting the Jeff Carter trade, Columbus would have been saved of this sordid mark on the franchise. 

To his credit, former GM Scott Howson tried his best to fix this lapse in judgment by concocting a trade with the Los Angeles Kings and shipping off the bitter Jeff Carter.  In return, the Blue Jackets got Jack Johnson and a first round pick in the upcoming draft.  As if the hockey gods were looking over Howson and the Jackets, Jack Johnson was a much needed infusion of positive energy and fresh leadership. The local chamber of commerce might even have breathed a sigh of relief in the light of Carter’s lack of love for the city of Columbus and sent Johnson an extra-special welcome package.

Another trade that will give rise to a heated rivalry between the Jackets and the Flyers is the one that brought Philadelphia’s number two goaltender, Sergei Bobrovsky, to Columbus.  Bobrovsky is undergoing a renaissance of sorts with his new found success in a Jackets uniform.  He has seemingly eclipsed the Flyers number one goaltender, Ilya Bryzgalov, as he was named the NHL’s number one star last week and will be in line for something similar again at the pace he is performing.  Again, give credit to Howson for finally bringing a high-quality goaltender to Columbus; a move that came two years too late and ultimately contributed to his demise.   

Average attendance for home games at Nationwide Arena when the Flyers are in town is at about 15,050 per game.  This number is bound to shoot up and you can count on sellouts starting next season when these two teams square off at the corner of Front and Nationwide in downtown Columbus.

Jackets versus Washington Capitals

Record over last 4 seasons: 3-3-0

Win percentage: 50%

Photo by Anna Armstrong
Photo by Anna Armstrong

Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals have fared no better than winning just 50% of the games over the last four seasons against the overmatched Blue Jackets.  To be clear, Columbus has lost both games in the last two seasons that have been a home-and-away fare. 

The Capitals and the Jackets have been trading partners in the past, most notably a trade that sent Jason Chimera to Washington in exchange for former Capitals captain, Chris Clark, and Milan Jurcina.  This was an effort on the part of the Jackets front-office to surround then Jackets captain Rick Nash with experienced former captains.  While the on-ice performance didn’t improve for the Jackets, they also lost a speed skater in Chimera to Washington.  Another questionable trade by the Jackets but at least they were able to work Chris Clark into the scouting ranks and eventually as the Development Coach.

The Capitals have drawn an average of about 17,600 per game at Nationwide Arena and there seems to be pent up interest geared toward one of the top players in the league – Alex Ovechkin.  There is potential for a true rivalry to develop if the Jackets can snare a super-star forward through trades that can effectively match up against the talent-laden Capitals and Ovechkin.  The Jason Chimera trade will have no bearing in terms of adding any sparks to a rivalry as he is well-liked in Greater Columbus and contributed countless hours of his time to the needy in the community. 

Jackets versus Pittsburgh Penguins

Record over last 4 seasons: 2-3-1

Win percentage: 33%

Sidney Crosby Penguins
Sidney Crosby: Let the parallels be drawn with The Next, Next One – Nathan MacKinnon (Icon SMI)

Ohio’s capital city may be the home of the Blue Jackets but the Pittsburgh Penguins enjoy a large following in Columbus, too.  Before the Jackets even existed, locals generally gravitated toward the Penguins or Red Wings.  Thanks to the historic Ohio State-Michigan football rivalry, there is a high level of disdain in Greater Columbus for all-things-from-Michigan. This nuance has allowed the Penguins to enjoy greater support than the Red Wings, in the Columbus-area.  This has been further buoyed by the strong showing of the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers which has contributed to cross-over fans from Steelers football to Penguins hockey in Columbus. 

And, so the generation of people in Greater Columbus that grew up with Penguins and Wings have not necessarily jumped ship yet as the Jackets continue to flounder at the bottom of the league.  If the Jackets become championship-caliber then they can expect a migration of older generation fans in their home city that have been rooting for Pittsburgh and Detroit.  If you doubt the strong presence of Penguins fans in Greater Columbus then just look at the attendance at Nationwide Arena when the Penguins are in town.  It has averaged about 19,200 which is basically standing room only capacity. Surely, the close proximity from Pittsburgh makes it easy for Penguins fans to travel to Columbus.  And, having a superstar like Sidney Crosby along with a starstudded roster doesn’t hurt either, does it?

Another dimension to the growing Jackets-Penguins rivalry consists of the trade that brought Mark Letestu to Columbus from Pittsburgh in exchange for a lower round draft pick.  Apparently, Letestu has blossomed with the Blue Jackets and would probably love to score a goal or two or even a hat-trick against his former team.  Nevertheless, a rivalry cannot be formed in name alone or due to the presence ofopposing fans in your building.  If the result is lopsided in favor of one team on a consistent basis then domination supersedes rivalry.  Will a true rivalry develop between the Blue Jackets and the Penguins?  Yes, there is a very good probability that sooner or later, beating Pittsburgh will be the mantra preached in the locker room all season long. 

Jackets versus New York Rangers

Record over last 4 seasons: 1-3-1

Winning percentage: 20%

Rick Nash (Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports)
Rick Nash (Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports)

Need anything be said about this match up?  Make no mistake that the Blue Jackets will have all their games against the New York Rangers circled on their calendar and vice-versa.  The Rick Nash trade to the Rangers in exchange for Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, Tim Erixon and a first round draft pick will undoubtedly go down as one of the top ten things that ever happened in Blue Jackets franchise history. If you’re curious about what makes my top ten list then just look for my article on this subject in the near future.

Dubinsky, Anisimov and Erixon probably are charged up about playing their former team as much as Nash may be about playing Columbus.  There are other Columbus ties to the New York Rangers in the way of Vinny Prospal and Fedor Tyutin.  Can this make for a heated rivalry?  Probably not for the Rangers but the Jackets may think so.  There is such a huge gap in talent level between the two rosters as we know them today.  Also, the Jackets record against the Blueshirts over the last 4 seasons is abysmal, registering only 1 win in 5 games.  When the Rangers have visited Nationwide Arena, the average attendance over the last 4 seasons has been about 15,250 per game but expect sell-outs next season.

Jackets versus New Jersey Devils

Record over the last 4 seasons: 0-3-1

Winning percentage: 0%

Alexei Ponikarovsky devils win in overtime
(Ed Mulholland-US PRESSWIRE)

If the Jackets are celebrating their move to the Eastern Conference, they may want to tamper it just a little.  This is because the Jackets have run into a brick wall against the New Jersey Devils.  In the last 4 seasons, the Jackets have lost every single time.  This is akin to the pummeling the Jackets took every season from the Nashville Predators who had just about total domination over Columbus.  So, the Jackets might be escaping the wrath of the Predators in the Western Conference and jumping right into the jaws of the devil.  Beware what you wish for couldn’t be truer for the Jackets in this instance. 

If the Jackets are to build a rivalry against New Jersey then they must find a way to be competitive and win games.  Unfortunately, their history with the Devils isn’t kind and so why should the future be any different?  Attendance has averaged around 15,350 over the last 4 seasons when the Devils are visiting Nationwide Arena. 

In conclusion, the Jackets will find the going tough in their new division that is yet to be named.  Fan interest will pick up significantly and bona-fide rivalries will develop that have been lacking in the past.  The next article in this series, NHL Realignment: Part Two – Jackets Required, s’il vous plait!” will focus on how the Columbus Blue Jackets match up against teams in the other division that makes up the new Eastern Conference.  For more thoughts, opinions and views on the NHL realignment, please read an informative article by fellow THW writer, Jeff Little, titled “Columbus Pins Hopes on Realignment Plan…Again“.


Includes 2008/09, 2009/10, 2010/11, 2011/12 regular seasons. No regular season games scheduled in 2012/13.
New EASTERN CONFERENCE    Divison D                                 (Atlantic) Won Lost Lost   (OT/SO) Win % Average   attendance at Nationwide Arena                    (rounded) Games   played at Nationwide Arena
Jackets vs   Carolina 4 0 0 100% 15,000 2
Jackets vs NY   Islanders 3 0 3 50% 16,700 3
Jackets vs   Philadelphia 2 2 0 50% 15,050 2
Jackets vs   Washington 3 3 0 50% 17,600 3
Jackets vs   Pittsburgh 2 3 1 33% 19,200 3
Jackets vs NY   Rangers 1 3 1 20% 15,250 2
Jackets vs New   Jersey 0 3 1 0% 15,350 2
    Totals/Averages 15 14 6 43% 16,300 17
Source:   This analysis was derived from data in NHL.com