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Thursday, October 10, 2013

Ranking the Metropolitan Rivalries by @ExcitedBobErrey

The NHL standings look a little bit different this year, and that's not just because Toronto has somehow found themselves near the top.  NHL realignment changed the structure of the league as Winnipeg went west and Detroit and Columbus came east.  The league shrunk from 6 divisions to 4, and the conferences are unbalanced, with 16 teams in the East versus 14 teams in the West.  While the Penguins aren't saying goodbye to any of their division rivals, they are welcoming 3 new teams to the mix.  The old Atlantic Division is also being rebranded as the Metropolitan Division, because to Gary Bettman it makes sense to give the Atlantic Division name to mostly landlocked teams while the 5 previous Atlantic Division teams, and 6 out of 8 teams on or next to the East Coast, are given a name that would have been laughed out of the focus group the league would have held if they gave a damn about the fans.

Regardless of the name, Pittsburgh now has 7 division rivals instead of 4, and the stakes have been raised as 3 teams from the division are guaranteed a playoff spot instead of just one, and the NHL playoffs will feature each division having a 4 team playoff before the final 4 teams meet in the conference finals .  Some of the teams we've always hated and will continue to do so (Philadelphia), some we haven't cared about and likely won't develop too much bad blood (Carolina), and some will develop more intense rivalries as the division battles for a spot in the Eastern Conference Final.  The following rankings took into account both the current rivalries between the teams but also how the rivalry is likely to change in the coming seasons.

1. Philadelphia Flyers

The number one spot isn't up for debate, and this rivalry is arguably the biggest in the entire NHL.  The Flyers rivalry is steeped in a history of bad blood, and both the length and the magnitude make it unlikely the Penguins/Flyers rivalry could ever fade away, regardless of how far into irrelevance the Flyers manage to sink.  It seems like every season something happens when these two teams play to stoke the flames even more, and recent history has seen the Pens beat the Flyers twice on the way to two Eastern Conference Championships and a Stanley Cup, as well as the Flyers upsetting a Penguins team that was favored to win the Stanley Cup in 2012.  Both teams hate each other, both fan bases hate each other, and nothing any other team does could ever possibly top this hatred.

2. New York Rangers

No other team could possibly compare to the Flyers, and the next best rivalry to develop in the Metropolitan Division is likely to come from the team most capable of challenging the Penguins for the division title and spot in the ECF.  While John Tortorella proved to be a nightmare in New York by the end of his time there, that doesn't change the fact that the Rangers are probably the second most talented team in the division and now have a coach in Alain Vigneault who will use the team's talent instead of squandering it.  Rangers games should be competitive games and it's likely the Penguins will face the Rangers many times in the playoffs moving forward under the current format.  Seeing a team that often with those types of stakes makes the likeliness of bad blood developing between these two teams very high.

3. Columbus Blue Jackets

Another factor in developing a rivalry is distance, and Columbus is closer to Pittsburgh than any other NHL city.  Penguins fans already travel well for road games against the Blue Jackets, and the schedule presents even more opportunities now that we're in the same division.  While the Blue Jackets haven't iced a competitive lineup for most of their history, the have the reigning Vezina winner in Sergei Bobrovsky and a young team that barely finished outside the playoffs last season.  The move to the Eastern Conference will greatly cut down on the team's travel, they're an up and coming team that should continue to get better, and their close proximity to Pittsburgh combine to give very good reason to believe the Blue Jackets could become one of the best Metropolitan rivalries for the Penguins.

4. Washington Capitals

At the moment, this is probably about as one sided of a rivalry as you can get, and by one sided I mean that Capitals fans HATE the Penguins and Penguins fans really don't care anywhere near as much.  Honestly, it's hard to really hate a team you dominate in the playoffs and constantly overcome 2-0 deficits against.  The league tried marketing Pittsburgh-Washington as a huge rivalry to promote Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin, but outside of hating Ovechkin for being a gigantic douche the rivalry was always lacking.  A return to greatness for Ovechkin gives this rivalry more potential, but until Washington starts beating Pittsburhg when it counts there will always be something missing.

5. New York Islanders

Led by John Tavares, the Islanders gave the Penguins a scare in the 2013 playoffs before Tomas Vokoun came in and righted the ship.  The Islanders have a team speed that ranks close to the top in the league, and that speed create problems for Pittsburgh, particularly in transition.  The team's young forwards should continue to get better with more experience, and having a player like John Tavares makes any team dangerous.  They will need to improve in their own end to become a serious contender, especially in net, but the pieces are there for the Islanders to become a force.

6. New Jersey Devils

The New Jersey Devils have been known for their strong goaltending and trapping style over the years, and that type of play made life very difficult on offensively minded teams.  While under normal circumstances the Devils would probably rank a bit higher, they have the mark of a team that as currently built has a ceiling of being average with occasional playoff berths as a low seed.  Martin Brodeur retiring will officially close the door on their Stanley Cup era, but Lou Lamoriello remains one of the best GMs in the league and gives the team a chance to make a quick rebuild with new ownership in place.  Getting Cory Schneider for only a 1st round pick was a great deal and gives the team a great piece to build around.  It remains to see how successful they can be moving forward, but it looks likely that future success will be with the same blueprint that won them their Stanley Cups.

7. Carolina Hurricanes

It's almost easy to forget that the Penguins faced the Hurricanes in the ECF when they won the Stanley Cup, given how Carolina has fared since then.  The Hurricanes struggled in a much weaker division than the current Metropolitan, and they look to be the bottom feeder for the foreseeable future.  This rivalry would have had some potential had the Penguins managed to sign Jordan Staal to a long term deal, but given that they've been in different divisions, have little history to draw from, and the large gap in talent level and it seems likely that this is one division rivalry that doesn't have much of a chance of getting off the ground. 

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