The NHL Board of Governors yesterday approved a radical realignment plan that will do away with the current two-conference, six-division system and create four new conferences made up of either seven or eight teams each. Four teams from each conference will qualify for the postseason, and then those four teams will play two rounds of playoffs to crown a conference champion. The four conference winners would then meet in the Stanley Cup semifinals, though exactly how that round will work hasn't been ironed out yet.
The Rangers will be in one of the conferences with seven teams; their as-yet-unnamed grouping also includes the Devils, Islanders, Flyers, Penguins, Capitals, and Hurricanes. (Basically, it's what the old Patrick Division looked like for many years, but with Carolina thrown in.) This realignment means a lot to teams that are unhappy with their current situation: Detroit, for instance, or Dallas. The Rangers, however, are generally considered to be neither big winners nor big losers in all of this. But that doesn't mean they won't be affected.
The new structure means more West Coast travel, now that they'll play in every NHL building every year. But considering they have such an easy travel schedule within their own conference, they can't complain too much. Similarly, it means that every NHL team will now visit the Garden every year, which isn't the case under the current system.
All of the Rangers' current divisional rivalries will be kept intact, though some of their historic ones will take a hit. Previously, Original Six teams Montreal, Toronto, and Boston would play the Rangers four times each year. Now they'll only play the Rangers twice. On the other hand, Chicago and Detroit are now guaranteed to play the Rangers twice each season, which isn't currently the case. (Depending on how the league handles the semifinals matchups, the new system could also mean that the Rangers could face any of the Original Six teams in the Stanley Cup Finals.)
The changes to the playoff system could have the biggest effect on the Rangers. Obviously, power in a given conference can shift over time — the Devils were once an Eastern Conference force, but have slipped over the past couple years — but the Rangers will nonetheless be in a conference with both Sidney Crosby's Penguins and Alex Ovechkin's Capitals. (And yes, we realize the Caps aren't having a particularly good season, and that they haven't had much postseason success either, but they've won an awful lot of regular season games in the Ovechkin era.) The Flyers, too, are consistently competitive.
Only four of these seven teams will make the playoffs in any given season, regardless of the point totals of teams in the other three conferences. Which, in theory, should keep the rivalries between these conference foes strong. But the new system means that solid hockey teams could be left out of the playoff picture because they play in a tough conference. (For what it's worth, only three of the teams that will make up the Rangers' new conference are currently among the Eastern Conference's top eight teams.)
The next few seasons are going to be important ones for a Rangers team that's on the rise. But the path they'll need to take to reach their ultimate goal has been changed.