With the Red Wings in the Western Conference, games against Original Six rivals like the Montreal Canadiens were few. This season's move to the Eastern Conference is expected to rekindle those battles. (David Guralnick / Detroit News)
This is the first of a two-day preview of the Red Wings and the NHL season.
Detroit — It would be hard to find any Red Wings player, coach or even someone from the front office who doesn’t like realignment.
Same goes for Red Wings fans, and maybe even all the other teams in the Eastern Conference, which Detroit now calls home.
“Everyone’s excited about it,” said Red Wings forward Justin Abdelkader, who is excited to reestablish Original Six rivalries with the Maple Leafs, Canadiens and Bruins. “It’ll be different, something new.”
The NHL realigned after the Atlanta franchise moved to Winnipeg, and thus, its exit from Southeast Division.
Detroit and Columbus, two organizations stuck in the Western Conference, wanted to move East.
And they did, setting up a new four-division setup, with the Red Wings in the eight-team Atlantic Division and Blue Jackets in the eight-team Metropolitan Division. The West consists of the Central and Pacific divisions.
“For our fans, they get to watch the games in our time zone,” Red Wings general manager Ken Holland said. “For our players, it’s less wear and tear with the travel. You see every team in your building at least once.”
Said Red Wings goaltender Jimmy Howard: “That’ll be the best thing, just getting to sleep in my own bed most of the time.”
One thing that’ll be interesting is how the Red Wings’ puck possession, skilled style works in the East.
Generally speaking, the East has been viewed as the more physical conference. Toronto, Buffalo, Ottawa, Tampa Bay and Boston were among the top 10 in total fights last season.
The Red Wings, however, don’t believe they need to adapt to what could be a brave, new, physical world.
“I know what we’re going to do and that’s play like we’ve always played,” Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said. “That seems to have done pretty well for us.”
That’s an emphasis on skill and speed rather than fists flying.
“We really believe in toughness,” Babcock said. “We believe that toughness is toughness on the puck. You have to have the puck. I like 12 forwards that can all skate and handle the puck and I like six defensemen that can all skate and handle the puck.”
If needed, the Red Wings do have players who can handle the physical play.
Jordin Tootoo, Todd Bertuzzi, Justin Abdelkader and Jonathan Ericsson have shown the ability to protect themselves, or teammates, if needed.
But along with physicality, there are teams in the East that can play whatever style is needed.
Boston and Pittsburgh are generally regarded as the two best teams in the East, with stars such as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin (Pittsburgh) and Patrice Bergeron and Zdeno Chara (Boston) highlighting the rosters.
Alex Ovechkin (Washington), Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis (Tampa Bay), John Tavares (N.Y. Islanders), Rick Nash and Henrik Lundqvist (N.Y. Rangers) and Martin Brodeur (New Jersey) are just a sampling of the premier players in the conference.
“The stuff on video, that’s all fun,” Babcock said of scouting teams in the East. “The reality is when you’re playing them head to head. That’s when you learn about them.”
Along with realignment — the East has two eight-team division, the West has two seven-team divisions — scheduling and the playoff format changed as well.
The Red Wings play 30 games within the Atlantic and 24 against the teams in the Metropolitan. They’ll also play 28 games — one home and away — against every team in the West.
“There are some good rivalries we’ve established against teams in the West,” Red Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall said.
As for the playoffs ...
There still will be 16 teams, eight in each conference, but there’s a wild-card element included.
The top three teams in each division qualify automatically. From there, the remaining two spots in each conference will be filled by the next two highest-placed finishers based on regular-season points and regardless of division.
So it’s possible for one division to send five teams to the postseason.
The new alignment and playoff format will exist for a minimum of three seasons, through the 2015-16 season, at which point the league and Players Association will reassess.
The things the Red Wings will miss most about the West?
Sunshine, most of all.
“I’m going to miss a lot of those cities,” Abdelkader said. “There are some great cities. The California trips. Going out to western Canada, those are usually good trips. Going to miss Phoenix.”
But, Abdelkader was quick to point out how great it’ll be to be closer to home.
“The travel is going to be huge,” Abdelkader said.
Especially if the Red Wings reach the playoffs.
“That’s where you really feel it,” Red Wings forward Henrik Zetterberg said. “Every few days traveling West, it can be a grind.”
The league went from three division in each conference to two. The makeup:
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