With NHL realignment the hot topic as governors gather in Pebble Beach this week, commissioner Gary Bettman sure sounds like he prefers radical realignment. Losing a Southern and Eastern Time Zone team in the Atlanta Thrashers and gaining a Canadian and Central Time team in the Winnipeg Jets has invited that sort of radical rethinking.
Yet there is one "easy" out that may prevent anything sensible from happening, and it's a curious crutch: As a franchise, the Detroit Red Wings feel they deserve to move East. Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch has even said he was "promised" such a move by Bettman. The path of least resistance in realignment is to swap the Wings and Jets in the the Southeast and Central Divisions.
But would the league really make a move that solves nothing except the concern of two owners? Or is leveling the travel playing field throughout the league Bettman's bigger goal? Both possibilities sound almost rooted in a desire to please the Red Wings -- but does the league really owe one of its signature franchises such a debt?
Some cite 1990s realignment, when the Toronto Maple Leafs departed for the Eastern Conference and their home time zone, as the time when Detroit took one for the league, but in reality, the Wings have been in the West (or its predecessor the Campbell Conference) for the past 30 years, when the Norris Division was transformed following the NHL-WHA merger. It included Detroit, the Chicago Blackhawks, St. Louis Blues, Minnesota North Stars (now in Dallas), Winnipeg Jets (v. 1.0) and fellow Eastern Time Zone-dwelling Toronto Maple Leafs. Before that, the Wings actually shared a division with the Los Angeles Kings.
What's changed over that time isn't that the Red Wings generously agreed to play out of their home time zone. Rather, the NHL kept adding teams two and three time zones away (giving Detroit's traveling and dislocated fanbase some sunny places to visit in the process). San Jose, Anaheim, Phoenix, Colorado and Calgary have all joined the league schedule over those years, and with in-conference teams playing each other four times per season, that makes for a travel and time displacement schedule that's worth investigating.
When considering re-alignment, it is reasonable to consider three factors most:
- Time zones, which affect fans and broadcasters who schedule the games. (Teams like the Red Wings and Dallas Stars frequently play divisional or conference games two time zones away, respectively.)
- Geographic distance and travel distance. (Western teams, being more spread out, are inherently at a disadvantage here.)
- Existing and natural rivalries. (The Red Wings already have 30-year-old divisional rivalries with the Blackhawks and Blues, and none with the teams of the NHL's Southeast.)
Unfortunately, simply swapping Detroit and Winnipeg only solves one of those factors, and for only two teams in the league.
While it's a shame the Red Wings suffer for their travels, their younger division mates the Columbus Blue Jackets, who entered the league in 2000 but have seen just one playoff series, could use every edge they can get while trying to grow what is still just an 11-year-old fanbase. The other young Central Division expansion franchise, the Nashville Predators, have also expressed an interest in swapping places with the Jets in the Southeast and stoking Southern rivalries there.
If the league is going to take the simple route in realignment by only switching one team with the Jets, it would do better to serve the interests of a franchise that needs help, rather than a franchise like the Red Wings that is on solid footing.
However, that's where the radical realignment proposals come in. If the rumored four-division, balanced schedule realignment comes about, long-running rivalries are preserved, travel is lessened for multiple teams (not just Detroit), and although the Red Wings still play mostly Central time zone teams, they and the Stars will have fewer two- and three-time zone trips.
The league would still be helping the Red Wings under this plan, but several other teams too. What's more, the tightly packed Northeastern and Atlantic teams would lose some of the travel advantage they enjoy -- and which Western teams begrudge -- thanks to being so tightly packed together. By having to visit each out-of-division city every season, suddenly those teams would deal with real road trips, the kind that teams like the Red Wings and Stars -- and every far-flung Western team -- have to face every year.
By presenting realignment plans at two opposite extremes, Bettman might be thinking not of what the league owes the Red Wings, but of what it owes all of its teams, players and fans: A more level playing field.