July 13, 2013 at 1:00 am

John Niyo

Despite decreased playoff odds, Red Wings should feel at home in the East

The Red Wings and coach Mike Babcock will be doing a lot less traveling in 2013-14, as new members of the Eastern Conference. (David Guralnick/Detroit News)

Detroit — Statistically speaking, the Red Wings’ playoff chances took a hit when the NHL finally approved a realignment plan that’ll move Detroit back to the Eastern Conference. With 16 teams in the East, compared to 14 in the West, it’s no better than a 50-50 proposition to make the postseason anymore.

But while everyone points to the Detroit’s new division as arguably the toughest of the bunch, stacked with four Original Six franchises, including the defending Eastern Conference champs in Boston, I’d argue it’s more than just a comfortable fit geographically. Numbers aside, I think it’s also tailor-made for the Wings’ competitive success, at least in the short term.

This isn’t quite like the old Central Division, where the Wings’ consolation prize for all that Western Conference travel was a virtual guarantee of 100-point regular seasons and home-ice advantage in the playoffs, thanks largely to the presence of a pair of expansion teams in Columbus and Nashville.

But if you take a closer look at the new division rivals — the 2013-14 schedule should be released next week, by the way — you’ll see something similar, notwithstanding the parity of today’s NHL. The two worst teams in the East last season, at least according to the standings, were the two Florida teams — the Panthers and Lightning. Buffalo wasn’t any better, finishing dead last in the Northeast and firing its coach, who wasn’t the problem, while keeping the general manager, who is.

Of those three, only Tampa Bay has done anything this offseason to suggest it’s headed in the right direction, though even that required a buyout of captain Vincent Lecavalier. Maybe not expansion teams there, but close.

Oh, Canada

Meanwhile, of the four playoff teams in the group, the two from Ontario both had their respective fan bases wailing at the start of free agency.

That’s status quo for Toronto, of course, and hardly surprising after their first playoff trip in nearly a decade ended with an epic first-round collapse. But while the free-agent addition of David Clarkson should help, the price tag for him — and for re-signing Tyler Bozak — led to some significant losses elsewhere.

In Ottawa, meanwhile, they’re still mourning the loss of their heart-and-soul leader, ripped away by the Wings, of all teams. Daniel Alfredsson balked at another hometown discount and decided his last, best chance to win a Stanley Cup was in Detroit not Ottawa, where he’d spent the first 17 seasons of his NHL career.

Both teams finished with 56 points in the lockout-shortened regular season, and each got bounced in the second round of the playoffs. Yet while the Wings are back to spending up to the salary cap again, the Senators are about $15 million behind, hovering just above the salary floor in the league’s bottom five. And that’s where they’ll stay, most likely, as owner Eugene Melnyk, whose bid to build a casino at his arena was soundly defeated last week, claims his annual operating deficit is “staggering” and insists he’s out of options.

So while Mike Babcock’s second line now features Weiss, Alfredsson and, say, Johan Franzen, his former assistant, Paul MacLean, has a projected No. 2 group centered by ... Mika Zibanejad? And MacLean’s owner isn’t offering much hope that’ll improve, unlike in Detroit, where Mike Ilitch just announced plans to for his new downtown arena.Toronto and Ottawa remain playoff contenders — it’s hard not to be in this league anymore — but I still see a big three fighting for division supremacy here.

No big adjustment

Boston suffered some significant losses — inevitable for a team that’s been to two Cup Finals in the last three years — but they’re still among the NHL elite. Montreal hardly fits the supposed East prototype of a bruising club, but adding Danny Briere this summer only makes the Canadiens more dangerous. The Wings fit right in there with the veterans they’ve got and the young talent they’ve groomed, though as I keep saying, they need to trade some of those kids for a top-four defenseman if at all possible.

No one’s saying it’s going to be easy — certainly not the way it was for Detroit in the late 1990s and early 2000s. But all this talk of the big, bad East is a bit misleading. The West won five of the last seven Stanley Cups, losing the two others in Game 7s, and it wasn’t by accident. Whatever the old West lacked in fighting spirit, it more than made up for in skill. As GM Ken Holland puts it, “If you have a good team, it’s a good team.”

Detroit does, and though it’s not a great team, it should feel right at home in the East.

“We’ll be excited for short trips and good sleeps,” Babcock said.

And probably for another playoff berth, too.



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