NHL Realignment: Will the New York Islanders Ever See Playoffs?

I believe we've met before.

The NHL approved the "radical" realignment that eliminates the six-division format, reconstitutes the Patrick Division (welcome, Hurricanes; welcome back, Capitals) and creates what at this point looks like two rounds of intradivisional playoffs, just like the classic Patrick days.

As an annoyingly nostalgic fan of those olden days when you had distinct, bloody rivalrous identities associated with your Patrick and your Norris and your Adams and your Smythe divisions, I'm quite excited by this change.

But as a New York Islanders fan? A little nervous, actually.

Team Ave. East Finish '08-'11 Ave. Payroll '10-'12
Washington 2.5 $60.1M
Pittsburgh 3.0 $61.0M
Philadelphia 4.75 $62.3M
New Jersey 4.75 $59.5M
New York 7.25 $59.3M
Carolina 9.0 $51.5M
Long Island 13.75 $42.7M

Most know the Atlantic Division has been quite competitive, sending four teams to the Eastern playoffs three times since the lockout, and sending three teams in the other three seasons. Basically, it has always been a war, but at least the 1-8 seed setup of the conference allowed the Atlantic to take an appropriately larger share of the pie, which enabled the Islanders to make the playoffs four times in five seasons between 2002 and 2007.

Under the new scheme? Well, the division -- or "conference," as the NHL insists on calling it -- welcomes one more juggernaut while making the barrier for entry even harder: No longer can a team count on the weaker teams in other divisions to forfeit their spot. It's four teams for each group, period.

Note: If you're an LHH regular, previous on-going discussion of the re-alignment news is in this FanShot. There's plenty to discuss. According to Darren Dreger, 26 teams favored the plan, with only four voting against. Note that for average travel distances, the Islanders' new "Conference D" still has by far the easiest in-division travel burden. There's simply no way around that, thanks to history, geography, and New Yorker's penchant for crowding together like bunnies in rabbit hutches.

Other reading: As always, Quisp at Jewels from the Crown lays out some interesting ramifications. I do think the big "bubble" race for the playoffs is an unfortunate casualty of this plan. With presumed increasing parity, maybe that's not as big an issue.

Four playoff teams for each conference ... for now. Does anyone see the possibility of a play-in round in the future? Perhaps expanding the field to 20 teams to make some sort of play-in round? I like how when Charles Wang proposes something like that, he's just a nutty outsider, but when Jim Rutherford does it [edit: and Ken Holland] he's an they are elder statesmaen.

Anyway, according to CapGeek, the Islanders' new division has the top two spending teams in the league this year, three of the top five spenders, and four of the top nine. The table above averages each of these team's Eastern finish over the past four seasons (2007-08 to 2010-11) and shows five teams averaging eighth or better, with Carolina just missing with an average of ninth.

That table also averages the estimated expenditure (again, according to CapGeek) of the past three seasons including the current estimate for 2011-12. (Note: With the exception of the not-yet-complete 2011-12 season, these figures do not include total "potential" cap hit. So they estimate actual bonuses paid out, rather than the potential bonuses through which cap hits are figured.)

Whichever way you spin it, the Patrick 2.0 will have five big-spending teams but only four playoff spots. The New York Islanders are not one of the former. Can they ever be one of the latter?

Of course as with everything during this rebuild in the wake of Milbury's Ashes and amid an arena problem that has been a problem for the past 30 years, so much depends on off-ice factors. While it is far from safe to assume that Charles Wang will spend to the cap if he gets a clear path to a new revenue-generating facility, one can at least suppose he will spend less conservatively if and when that situation clears.

Four Behemoths and Some Other Guys

But in Dolanvision, Comcast, Ted Leon$i$ and Casino Mario, the Islanders certainly have four Goliath spenders against whom they must play David. They may have a fifth in Newark, although the Devils situation is curiously ... curious, as they bet big and long on Ilya Kovalchuk but are currently in an ownership soap opera that is part strained finances and part procedural squabble over how to handle their debt.

Divisional playoffs, if the NHL follows through with that part of the plan, will create some intense, bloody wars the kind that we only get a mere hint of in today's Atlantic battles. (If you're a fan who only met the game during the mid '90s, you're in for a treat.) No longer will you be able to "admire" Alex Ovechkin. No longer will you be able to hope Eric Staal does well. In the proverb of the stereotypically simple football player, those divisional teams are not just frequent opponents, they now become teams that "steal food off the family table."

It means on the occasions your team does make the playoffs, you are guaranteed to enter the playoffs already hating your first- and second-round opponent. (Contrast to the Islanders' 2000s playoff opponents in Toronto, where it took acts of criminality to generate the hate, or Buffalo and Ottawa and Tampa Bay, where ... it was Buffalo and Ottawa and Tampa Bay. It's just not the same.)

That's right, while 2000s playoff opponents amounted to Sabres and Lightning and Senators and Maple Leafs, before the conference format things were a bit different.

The 1993 playoff run went through the Capitals and the Penguins. The Islanders were ousted by the Rangers in 1990 and 1994. In 1988, it was the Devils' first-ever playoffs that eliminated the Islanders on New Jersey's Cinderella run. In 1987, the Islanders beat the Caps in seven before losing to the Flyers in seven.

Think about that, and think about how intense that might be. If only the Islanders first make it into the top four of whatever they call the new, money-infused reincarnation of the Patrick Division.

1987, Four Overtimes, Don Cherry, and the Game 7 Easter Epic

Ken Morrow Ousts the Rangers in OT, Keeps the Drive for Five Alive

For the love of Mikko Makela, maybe one day. Maybe one day.

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