Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports
The NHL's reported new realignment plan is a great move forward and a win for just about every team across the league.
Over the weekend, a report by Hockey Night in Canada's Elliotte Friedman revealed what seems to be the NHL's new realignment plan which would be instated for next season. The NHL had approved a similar realignment plan back in the fall of 2011 only to have it blocked by the NHLPA -- likely as the first grab for power leading up to the lockout -- and now comes forward with a slightly different idea that seems to be much better than what was originally agreed upon.
Instead of showing some awkward screen grabs of the HNIC report, here's a great breakdown of the four new conferences being proposed by the NHL:
Much of the focus on realignment has been on the Winnipeg Jets, Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets and their placement in the wrong conference. The proposed alignment the NHL suggested back in 2011 now seems to be incredibly illogical; only the Jets actually switched "conferences," while the Red Wings and Blue Jackets were still stuck in the wrong time zone while being assured of an easier travel schedule.
Under the new plan, the eight-team "conferences" move to the East along with Detroit and Columbus, in what is now an actual logical alignment based upon geography and time zones. Detroit and Columbus are split between the two new conferences out East, while Winnipeg joins what now becomes the new "central" conference.
Tampa Bay and Florida, reportedly the biggest opponents of the old plan, will still likely raise a bit of a fuss. The two teams are separated from the rest of their conference by nearly the entire East Coast, giving them what will likely be the worst travel for any teams in the East as they leapfrog another conference to play on the road against their own conference rivals.
Looking at the actual geography of the new alignment only further highlights the discrepancy between the travel facing teams from the East vs. teams from the West. Teams in what will become the old Western Conference have had to deal with lengthy travel for decades now, just to face division rivals; that Tampa Bay and Florida will have to expand their travel just a bit will earn no sympathy from those in Dallas, Winnipeg, Minnesota or Detroit.
For any team that resides west of Ohio, this new realignment plan is nothing short of a miracle.
As the NHL expanded into new markets throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, the decisions of which teams to place in new divisions grew increasingly absurd. For more than a decade now the Dallas Stars have had to play every single divisional road game at least one time zone away, while Minnesota has been stuck with three divisional teams locked into a western corner of Canada.
Under the new plan teams in the West will finally enjoy a lesser burden when it comes to travel, especially in regards to crossing time zones to play what will now be conference rivals. While the actual distance of the travel is always a concern, it's the constant changing of time zones -- and the effect on the television product and ratings -- that has long been the concern of most teams stuck in a bad divisional alignment.
When the new realignment plan was revealed there were concerns that certain rivalries being broken (Detroit and Chicago, for instance) would be a painful loss for the gains found by the proposed changes. Any lost rivalries will be instantly made up for by the formation of new rivalries, along with the reformation of some old ones. Detroit and Toronto will once again be conference rivals -- adding even more boom to next season's Winter Classic -- while having Pittsburgh and Columbus in the same conference will be a significant contributor to the future success of the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Out West, the Dallas Stars will see some old rivalries rekindled with the Colorado Avalanche and Chicago Blackhawks, while having the San Jose Sharks and Vancouver Canucks in the same conference will add all sorts of intrigue to postseason rivalries on the West Coast. Perhaps Winnipeg and Minnesota will find a geographical rivalry to draw upon, while the Nashville Predators seem to already be building a healthy rivalry with the Stars.
There's also the matter of increased exposure for teams out West, a thought which seems to be in contrast to the lamentations that the NHL would essentially have two powerhouse conferences that the national networks would fawn over while ignoring the rest. In reality, the new alignment would almost force more exposure onto teams out West as the NHL and NBC would need to continue to provide as diverse a selection to their programming as possible. Dallas, Colorado, Chicago, San Jose, Vancouver and Los Angeles could all expect to see an uptick in their exposure to national audiences.
Where all of this comes together, however, is in the postseason.
While the actual postseason format is still up in the air, there has been talk of a "wild card" format to be applied to the eight-team conferences out east. This could mean that the old divisional format to the playoffs would return -- which was to be applied as part of the scrapped realignment -- and once again create the level of divisional postseason rivalries that elevates hockey to the levels of greatness we enjoy whenever the playoffs roll around.
Under the divisional postseason format, teams must progress through their own conference before moving on to the "final four" of the postseason; yearly battles in the postseason between the same two or three teams is where the best rivalries in the NHL history have been born.
The new system, no matter what the actual postseason format will be agreed upon, would still not be perfect. The uneven distribution of teams between the conferences changes the competitive advantages certain teams will have of making the playoffs, and the issue of expansion or relocation seems to become even more muddled under this new realignment plan.
Perhaps the only true "losers" out West would be the Chicago Blackhawks, who lose a valuable rivalry with the Detroit Red Wings and will be counted upon to be the cash cow for their new conference while teams like Dallas, Nashville, St. Louis and Colorado fight hard to get back to a high level of hockey.
Nevertheless, most teams across the NHL -- and likely even the players -- will be more than ecstatic with this new realignment that finally finds some semblance of logic to the geographic distribution of the teams. Which, really, is all we've been asking for.
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