NHL Realignment Closer to Reality: Long Live the Patrick Division

NHL Realignment Closer to Reality: Long Live the Patrick Division

According to a report by TSN, the NHL has approved a realignment of its teams, moving to a four-conference format pending approval by the NHLPA. We were happy enough to see the "Atlanta Thrashers" franchise move to Winnipeg to become the second NHL incarnation of the Winnipeg Jets. The fact that this movement made it necessary for the league to reincarnate the Patrick Division* of our youths is the next benefit to be reaped. 

Let's take a look at the new NHL, from its likely new divisions to a potentially punishing playoff format...

*Of course, it's not exactly the Patrick Division, because the Carolina Hurricanes didn't exist at the time. Give us back the Hartford Whalers and we'll have it all... Well, almost. We probably won't get the great names of the divisions/conferences back either, if for no other reason than the new system gets rid of both divisions and conferences as we know them. The new proposed realignment will be a hybrid of the old and the recent—with four "conferences" representing some sort of middle ground between a pair of conferences with multiple divisions in each.

The Flyers' new conference foes, beginning as soon as next season, are the New York Rangers, New York Islanders, Pittsburgh Penguins, New Jersey Devils, Washington Capitals, and Carolina Hurricanes. That's the Patrick Division from 1982-1993, plus the Hurricanes. Fans who cringed when the league traded in its history-based titles to follow in the NBA's region-based-nomenclature footsteps aren't restraining breaths in hopes of names with a bit more character, but hey, it's good to have the Caps back, at least from a rivalry standpoint. If their recent success is a sign of things to come—and we think it is—the Flyers just got back a great rival, only with a whole lot more at stake. This particular rival won enough games to meet the President last season (albeit in a weaker division).

The currently marketable Penguins also get to play within their rivalries—the Caps, the Rangers, and the Flyers. Hate them or hate them, the Pens are one of the most marketable teams in the game, a characteristic they share with three other clubs in their conference.

And hey, we've seen some success against Hurricanes, so… welcome aboard, Carolina.

The "conference" to the "north" has the weirdest adopted-team situation, with Tampa Bay and Florida joining a grouping that includes the Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins, Ottawa Senators, and Buffalo Sabres.

The Jets will join the Flyover Conference (Blackhawks, Red Wings, Wild, Blue Jackets, Blues, Predators, and Stars—nice to see the Stars out of the "Pacific"). Out west, we'll see the three California teams—Sharks, Kings, Ducks along with the Coyotes, Avalanche, Canucks, Flames, and Oilers.

Counting on our fingers, that's two conferences that have seven teams (including the one the Flyers are in) and two that have eight. The TSN report says seven-teamers will play each other six times per season (splitting home duties), and the eight-teamers will alternate home-friendly seasons. Here's how the playoff situation could break down:

The top four teams in each Conference would qualify for the playoffs.
The first-place team would play the fourth-place team; the second-place
team would play the third-place team. The four respective Conference
champions would meet in the third round of the Playoffs, with the
survivors playing for the Stanley Cup.

NHL general managers will determine the playoff structure after round two in the proposed realignment.

A strong conference like the one the Flyers play in could pose more challenge to making the playoffs, particularly for the teams that aren't perennially good. Advancing may also prove more challenging, and teams with higher point totals could lose postseason slots to teams with lower totals in weaker conferences. If a team makes the playoffs, the likelihood that it will see a rival in the first round is high, but it could be less likely they'll make the postseason at all.

Nothing's set in concrete yet, and the reports have changed with each passing hour tonight. There are still some significant playoff questions to be answered. But it looks like a solid foundation has been poured for the league's immediate structural future.

What are your thoughts?

NFL Notes: Texans place J.J. Watt on IR; Dez Bryant misses practice

NFL Notes: Texans place J.J. Watt on IR; Dez Bryant misses practice

HOUSTON — The Houston Texans placed star defensive end J.J. Watt on injured reserve on Wednesday.

The move came one day after a person familiar with Watt's condition told The Associated Press he had re-injured his back and that the Texans expect him to be sidelined until at least December — and possibly the entire season. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the team hasn't discussed his injury.

Watt, who has won Defensive Player of the Year for the past two seasons, missed training camp and Houston's four preseason games after surgery in July to repair a herniated disk in his back. He started each of the team's three regular-season games and got hurt again Thursday against the Patriots.

The Texans signed veteran defensive end Antonio Smith to take his spot on the roster.

The team was still exploring the injury and it's unclear if it will require surgery.

It's a major blow for Houston, which selected Watt with the 11th overall pick in the 2011 draft. Watt has played 83 consecutive games for the Texans despite various injuries, including torn core muscles and a broken hand last season.

This was a tough offseason for Watt, who had surgery in January to repair five torn core muscles before going under the knife again in July to repair his back.

Watt, who led the NFL with 17 1/2 sacks last season, has 1 1/2 sacks this season to give him 76 for his career.

The 27-year-old is a three-time Defensive Player of the Year and a four-time Pro Bowler. He's been a force since entering the league not only because of his pass-rushing prowess, but also because of his uncanny ability to swat down passes. He has 45 passes defended in his six-year career. He has forced 15 fumbles and recovered 13.

Cowboys: Dez Bryant (knee) misses practice
FRISCO, Texas — Dallas receiver Dez Bryant won't practice Wednesday after injuring his right knee in last week's win over Chicago.

Bryant injured the knee on his first catch early in the game but came back in the first quarter. He caught his first touchdown of the season in the fourth quarter of the 31-17 win.

Coach Jason Garrett said the team didn't have results of an MRI, and Bryant tweeted, "We'll find out today," to a fan who asked about his status.

Bryant missed seven games last year after breaking his foot in the opener. He also dealt with ankle injuries last season.

The Cowboys visit San Francisco on Sunday.

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Phillies-Braves 5 things: Ryan Howard's earned a job somewhere

Phillies-Braves 5 things: Ryan Howard's earned a job somewhere

Phillies (70-87) at Braves (64-92)
7:10 p.m. on CSN

The last two games for the Phillies have been about as ugly as it gets. After losing 17-0 on Sunday, they blew a six-run lead Tuesday as the bullpen continued to stumble toward the finish line.

1. No relief in sight
Pete Mackanin was peeved after last night's game and rightfully so. His relievers have an 8.03 ERA this month. Who can he even trust at this point?

The Phils have used 12 different relievers this month and only three — David Hernandez, Michael Mariot and Joely Rodriguez — have an ERA below 4.76. And even Hernandez, who has a 1.08 ERA in September, has allowed 16 baserunners in 8⅓ innings. 

Hector Neris, who Mackanin was saving last night for a save situation, is the most trustworthy option in the current bullpen. He's gotten outs most of the year, posting a 2.53 ERA and 1.07 WHIP with 100 strikeouts in 78⅓ innings. But even he has struggled lately, allowing runs in five of his last 10 appearances and walking 10 batters in his last 10 innings.

The Phillies will have money to spend this offseason and even if they don't spend it on A-list names, they could allocate some of it toward relievers who have better stuff than this bunch. Excluding closers like Aroldis Chapman and Mark Melancon, the free-agent reliever class includes decent veteran options like Brad Ziegler, Sergio Romo, Jim Johnson, Neftali Feliz, Fernando Rodney, Joe Smith and Brett Cecil, among others.

Giving one of those guys $6-8 million wouldn't stunt anyone else's development.

2. Stay a while
With the way these relievers have been batted around the last two games — 20 earned runs allowed in eight innings — the Phillies badly need some length out of Adam Morgan tonight. He hasn't given it to them in his last two starts, going just 9⅓ innings combined because of high pitch counts.

Morgan has been pretty good lately, though. Since returning to the majors on Aug. 14, he's allowed more than three runs only once in eight starts. He has a 3.86 ERA over that span, and if you exclude his poor outing against the Mets on Aug. 26, it's 2.92.

Morgan has missed more bats lately than we're accustomed to seeing. He matched a career-high with eight strikeouts in his last start, five starts after K'ing eight Mets. He's induced 25 swinging strikes in his last two starts. Over his last six outings, Morgan has a swinging strike rate of 12 percent; the MLB average for starting pitchers is 9.5 percent.

Morgan has faced the Braves twice this season. Both games were in May and he pitched well in each of them, allowing one run over seven innings and two over six. 

Morgan's season numbers are still ugly (2-10, 5.57 ERA), but it's pretty clear he's been a different pitcher since learning a two-seam fastball and coming back to the majors. Whether that holds up long-term remains to be seen, but Morgan is the rare Phillies pitcher finishing 2016 better than he started it.

3. Piece of the action
Ryan Howard continues to produce in his final days with the Phillies. He hit a grand slam last night for his 24th homer of the season and third in his last five games. 

Howard has homered 12 times since the All-Star break, equaling his output from the first half. And look at his numbers since July 7, a span of 44 games and 136 plate appearances: .266/.331/.621, 13 homers, 31 RBIs. He's locked in.

Howard can still do damage against right-handed pitching. He has 23 homers off of them in 313 plate appearances. Over the last 11 seasons, the only other player in baseball with that many homers off righties in so few plate appearances was Mark Teixeira in 2015. 

You mean to tell me an American League team can't use him next season in a role that only accentuates his strengths and mitigates his weaknesses?

Howard will play again tonight and likely in all of five of the Phils' remaining games. He's 3 for 4 with a homer off tonight's opponent, Braves right-hander Mike Foltynewicz.

4. Scouting Folty
Foltynewicz, a power-armed 24-year-old, was the Braves' return in the Evan Gattis-to-Houston trade prior to 2015. He's a classic case of a big, straight fastball not translating to success.

In 223⅔ innings in the majors, Foltynewicz has a 4.99 ERA and 1.46 WHIP. He's allowed 1.5 homers per nine innings (bad) and his opponents have hit .289.

Foltynewicz has a 7.62 ERA in three career meetings with the Phillies. They jumped him the last time they saw him, July 5, homering four times in his 5⅔ innings. 

Current Phillies are 15 for 43 (.396) off Foltynewicz. Howard, Tommy Joseph, Maikel Franco, Cody Asche and Peter Bourjos have all taken him deep.

Foltynewicz (8-5, 4.41) hasn't pitched since Sept. 12, when he allowed five runs on 11 hits to the Marlins in just 3⅔ innings.

5. This and that
• Roman Quinn's season is almost certainly over after he suffered an oblique strain last night. If that's the case, he'll finish his first taste of the majors with a .263/.373/.333 batting line, five steals and four doubles in 69 plate appearances. Quinn looks like a significant part of their future, but the Phillies really can't move other pieces around for him because of his lengthy injury history.

• Freddie Freeman in 17 games against the Phillies this season: .381 BA, five doubles, six homers, 11 RBIs, 17 runs, 10 walks. He's had a tremendous season in all aspects, but the most impressive stat might be that he's hitting .307 against righties and .307 against lefties. Prior to this season he was a .300 hitter vs. righties and a .260 hitter vs. lefties.

• Last night's two-hour rain delay probably cost Jerad Eickhoff a chance at reaching 200 innings. He's scheduled to start the final game of the season but would need to pitch 8⅔ innings to reach that plateau.

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