Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin aren’t getting any younger, and New Jersey Devils general manager Tom Fitzgerald isn’t shy about hoping that age finally catches up to the NHL Eastern Conference’s elite players.

At the same time, Fitzgerald can appreciate it takes more than hope and age to level the ice for teams such as his in a conference separated by the so-called haves and have-nots in recent years.

”You’d like to think as we continue to ascend, Father Time has to help, and that the top teams that have been the top teams for a while start declining because it’s only natural,” Fitzgerald said.

”But you can’t control that. You need your players to continue to grow and get better and develop each year,” he added. ”At the end of the day, all the teams you mentioned are only going to ascend when their own players take that big step.”

When that might happen is uncertain, especially in the the NHL East that has been dominated by many of the same six teams since the league juggled its conferences in 2013-14, when Detroit and Columbus were moved over from the West.

In that time, the Penguins, Capitals, Rangers, Lightning, Bruins and Maple Leafs have filled 39 of the conference’s 68 playoff spots, not including the 2021 season, when teams were limited to playing within their divisions because of COVID-19. The only East team with more than four playoff appearances in that span is Columbus with five.

That leaves the have-nots, made up of New Jersey (one playoff appearance in 10 seasons), Ottawa (two in nine years), Detroit (six-year playoff drought) and Buffalo (NHL-record 11-season playoff drought).

Detroit GM Steve Yzerman made a series of offseason moves to spur his team’s growth, but he is realistic in assessing the reality of how far teams have to go to challenge for one of eight playoff spots.

”Toronto, Tampa, Florida: There’s the three teams in our division we expect to make the playoffs,” Yzerman said of the Atlantic Division’s pecking order. ”Pick whichever three in the (Metropolitan Division). The rest of us are competing for two wild-card spots. It’s a real challenge. I’m hoping we’re there. But time will tell.”

Last season, the East race was essentially decided on Jan. 2, nearly four months before the season ended. That’s when the ninth-place Bruins defeated Detroit 5-1 to vault a point ahead of the Red Wings. The top eight teams never changed from that day forward.

What’s more, 16 points separated eighth-place Washington and the ninth-place Islanders in the final standings. It marked the largest differential in points between eighth- and ninth-place teams since the NHL switched to the current conference format in 1993-94.

”I think last year was weird. It was unique. We haven’t seen that in a long time. And I just think it was probably one of those things,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said, noting it was just the third time 10 or more points separated the final team in and the first team out since 1993-94.

”I think our system over time has proven that everybody can be competitive, and sometimes good decisions are made and sometimes bad decisions are made,” he added. ”It happens from time to time. I don’t think it is symptomatic of any bigger problem.”

The standings in the West, comparatively, have been more fluid in part because of the recent additions of expansion teams Vegas and Seattle.

St. Louis, Minnesota and Nashville – all Central Division rivals – have qualified for the playoffs seven times apiece since 2013-14 (not including 2020-21). The remaining teams – except for Vancouver (twice) and Arizona (once), and not counting Seattle – have made the playoffs at least three times in that span, including six teams with five appearances each.

It’s no coincidence that E ast teams were the most active on the trade and free agency fronts this offseason, Senators GM Pierre Dorion said.

Ottawa added veteran depth to their young core by signing Claude Giroux and acquiring Alex DeBrincat in a trade with Chicago. Yzerman added forwards Andrew Copp and David Perron and defenseman Ben Chiarot to a team that includes youngsters Moritz Seider and Lucas Raymond. Columbus made one of the biggest splashes in free agency by signing Johnny Gaudreau.

Penguins president Brian Burke is well aware of the competition catching up, but he’s also proud overseeing a Penguins team that leads the NHL with 16 consecutive playoff appearances.

”There’s nothing I can say that won’t inflame somebody. But we intend to stay in the top eight,” Burke said. ”And I’ll tell you this, a lot of teams have made significant steps. The neighborhood is getting very crowded for sure.”

Give it time, Canadiens first-year GM Kent Hughes said.

”I don’t know if it’s this year or the year after that. But I expect it’s not going to be an exclusive group of eight,” Hughes said. ”I don’t know who’s going to be the first to bust through. But it’s going to come.”

AP Hockey Writers Larry Lage and Stephen Whyno contributed.

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