Back in the 1970s, there wasn’t a better National League baseball rivalry than the Phillies and Pittsburgh Pirates. The teams won 10 of the 11 National League East titles from 1970 to 1980.
But the rivalry lost its intensity when the teams were, inexplicably, put in different divisions during realignment in 1994, when the Pirates went to the Central Division.
All of which brings us to hockey.
In the NHL, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better rivalry than the Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins. Admittedly, the rivalry has dipped a bit in recent years, primarily because the Flyers haven’t been so good. But the Flyers climbed past the Penguins in last season’s standings, and the rivalry figures to be percolating at full strength again.
If only the NHL allows that to happen.
According to one report, however, it won’t.
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Don’t let this happen, NHL
The Flyers and Penguins not in the same division?
Say it ain’t so, Mr. Bettman.
That’s like Army without Navy on the football schedule, the Eagles without a quarterback controversy, TV without Netflix.
It just doesn’t seem normal.
Yet, according to ESPN, that’s exactly what the NHL is considering because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The divisions will have new, still-to-be-released names for this season, and the format is only for 2020-21, but here is what the league is floating:
East (eight teams): Flyers, Boston, Buffalo, Carolina, New Jersey, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, and Washington. (Only one team, Washington, has won a Stanley Cup from this group in the last nine years.)
Central (eight teams): Pittsburgh, Chicago, Columbus, Detroit, Florida, Nashville, St. Louis, and Tampa Bay. (Five of the last six Stanley Cup champs would be in this division.)
Canadian (seven teams): Calgary, Edmonton, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Vancouver, and Winnipeg. (A Canadian team hasn’t won the Cup since Montreal in 1993.)
West (eight teams): Anaheim, Arizona, Colorado, Dallas, Los Angeles, Minnesota, San Jose, and Vegas. (Four of these teams -- Arizona, Minnesota, San Jose, and Vegas – have never won a Cup.)
It is likely teams would play only within their division to reduce travel, but Bill Daly, the NHL deputy commissioner, recently told The Inquirer that has not been determined.
From a logistics standpoint, having Pittsburgh in the East and Carolina in the Central makes more sense. It would reduce the Penguins’ travel greatly, it would also reduce the travel for most of the other seven East teams.
Having Carolina in the Central also makes sense because of the easy travel from Raleigh to Nashville, and the two Florida teams.
Yes, Pittsburgh is fairly close to Columbus and Detroit, but it would have easy travel to all seven opponents if it was in the East – and it would preserve the bitter cross-state rivalry with the Flyers. The teams are now in the Metropolitan Division.
Whatever the alignment, teams figure to play each other more times than usual. That should create more hatred and intensity.
“The games are going to get a little more violent, and I think that’ll be great for the fans,” Bruce Boudreau, a former head coach with Washington, Anaheim, and Minnesota, said last week on SiriusXM NHL Network Radio.
Daly said a 48- to 60-game season, with a proposed Jan. 1 starting date that seems more unrealistic by the day, was being discussed, as were baseball-style series that could be two or three games against the same team.
The NHL also hasn’t ruled out having some games in hub cities, but it would prefer to play them at all teams’ arenas. That would enable the host team to be home for a while and not be separated from their families for a long stretch.
A long layoff and a shortened season, Boudreau believes, will produce exciting and intense hockey.
“Some teams will be playing for the first time in 10 months,” Boudreau said. “So they’ll be amped to play, and with a shorter season, every game becomes more magnified.”
The clock is ticking. For the season to start Jan. 1, a schedule needs to be created, and training camp needs to begin in mid-December. Most important, the league and the players association still don’t have a return-to-play agreement that centers on escrow, deferred payments, and pro-rated salaries based on the number of games played.
Yep, a Jan. 1 start feels like a long shot.
Things to know
After two ACL surgeries, Samuel Morin says he is “thankful” and “lucky” to have another shot with the Flyers. You have to admire the attitude and work ethic of the big defenseman, whose career has been marred by bad luck.
Reading, the Flyers’ ECHL affiliate was among the teams that scrapped its season because of the coronavirus.
The NHL Network listed its top 10 goalies for the upcoming season. Conspicuous by his absence: the Flyers’ Carter Hart.
Injured player needs support
Brian Page, 17, a Delaware resident who plays for the Philadelphia Little Flyers 18U team in the North American Prospects Hockey League, was injured in a recent game in Trenton and, according to the league, broke his C-5 and C-6 vertebrae and damaged his spinal cord after being checked by an opposing player.
Page was transported by a helicopter to Thomas Jefferson Hospital in Philadelphia and underwent six hours of spinal surgery. He later had a second surgery, and doctors said he might not walk again, according to the league’s news release.
A GoFundMe page has been set up by one of his teammates, Corey Owens, and the fund had nearly $280,000 donated heading into Tuesday. For more information, go here.
Mid-December: Tentative time for NHL training camps to open. No specific date has been announced. The Flyers’ camp will be held in Voorhees.
Jan. 1: Tentative date to start the season, though that may be too optimistic.
July 15: This is the latest the NHL wants the Stanley Cup to be awarded.
From the mailbag
Question from Kyle Elliott: Can Morgan Frost crack the starting lineup this season if he has a good camp, or are they set on getting him more AHL experience and building up his strength?
(@ktotheile) via Twitter
Answer: Thanks for the question, Kyle. Publicly, the Flyers say Frost will be given a chance to make the team during camp, but I think he is a long shot to start the season with the club -- unless Nolan Patrick, who is penciled in as the third-line center, hasn’t regained his health.
If Patrick can’t play when the season opens, Scott Laughton, who is better-suited at left wing, or Frost figures to be the No. 3 center.
If Patrick is healthy, Laughton might be the No. 4 center.
Frost has had only 41 career games with the Phantoms, and some more seasoning wouldn’t hurt him, though it wouldn’t be surprising if he joined the Flyers after, say, five or six weeks in the AHL.
Assuming Patrick is healthy, I think the only way Frost starts the season in Philly is if he absolutely excels in the preseason. That won’t be easy to do because there probably won’t be many exhibition games because of the coronavirus.
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