NHL Realignment Questions: Power In Pennsylvania, 20 Team Playoffs?

Everybody seems to think that the Detroit Red Wings have the power in NHL realignment talks, but it seems that power might lie elsewhere. Also, could a 20 team playoff system be on the horizon, and how does Phoenix factor in to all of this?

All the NHL realignment talks have surrounded around the power held by the Detroit Red Wings. The Red Wings want to move East, the Red Wings want less travel, the Red Wings this, the Red Wings that. 

But on Saturday night, when the newest radical realignment proposal came out on CBC's Hockey Night In Canada, it became pretty evident to me that the power doesn't necessarily lie in Detroit, but instead several hundred miles East in Pennsylvania. 

Think back to the first radical realignment proposal, if you would. Of course, it was also broken by CBC's Elliotte Friedman back at the beginning of November. That plan included many of the same elements as this new plan does: four "conferences," some with eight teams and some with seven, a balanced schedule with home-and-home games played between each team in the league. 

The only real difference was that Pittsburgh was pushed up with Detroit or Columbus, both of whom desperately want to reside in a grouping with other Eastern Time Zone teams, into what basically amounts to today's Northeast Division, while Philadelphia remained in some hybrid of the current Atlantic and Southeast Divisions.

It didn't work. Pittsburgh and Philadelphia absolutely did not want to be separated, a move that would have crippled their budding Battle of Pennsylvania rivalry. So people talked, listened to complaints from the powers that be: Penguins general manager Ray Shero, Flyers chairman Ed Snider, Pens owner Mario Lemieux and others. 

Here's Friedman talking this past Saturday night on HNIC:

Remember, the last time we talked about this, the problem was Pittsburgh and Philadelphia were split up. Well, as we understand it, and Eric was a big help in this, it's Florida and Tampa Bay who've been moved into the division with Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, Boston and Buffalo. 

And Pittsburgh and Philadelphia stay together with the New York teams, Washington and Carolina.

The move to accommodate Pittsburgh and Philly does indeed affect the Panthers and Lightning, but it also changes the scenario for Detroit, which seemed set to move East in the radical proposal. Now, Detroit is back in their Central Division with the old regulars -- Chicago, St. Louis, Columbus, Nashville -- and a few new friends -- Winnipeg, Dallas and Minnesota.

Things become slightly easier for them on the travel front with the advent of the balanced schedule, but they're still playing the majority of their in-conference games against teams in the Central Time Zone. 

This is the plan that seems to be the front-runner as the NHL's Board of Governors meets in Pebble Beach, Calif. beginning Monday morning. It's certainly the plan that Gary Bettman wants, despite his reported promise to the Wings that they'd move East. 

Moves were made -- against the wishes of the Red Wings -- to appease interests in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Which teams really hold the power in these negotiations? It doesn't seem like it's Detroit after all. 

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Friedman really might be the best reporter in hockey, and his weekly 30 Thoughts column this Monday breaks yet another proposal being put forth at the BoG meetings: 20 team playoffs? We'll let him explain:

"If we shorten the exhibition season, we could end the regular season a week and a half earlier," [Hurricanes general manager Jim] Rutherford said last Friday. "And that way, the first weekend would have the teams ranked 13 through 20 playing a best-of-five series."

Now, a best-of-five would probably be too long. But a two out of three would be terrific. The four winners would join the rest in the "main draw." Those top 12 teams would get the benefit of a short break between the tough regular season and even more brutal playoffs.

The problem, Friedman says, is that this necessitates a 1-through-16 playoff draw, which increases travel. Think about Los Angeles and Washington playing a first round playoff series, the Kings advancing (naturally) and then playing Boston in round two. That would be quite the nightmare.

I'd have another problem with that system though. Really, my favorite part of the proposed four-conference format is the fact that the first portion of the Stanley Cup Playoffs would be played against your conference rivals. ("Conference" essentially means "division" here in the traditional sense, in case you're confused.) There's pride in winning the Northeast Division now, sure, but beating those other teams in your group in a playoff format? 

Now that means something, even if it's just bragging rights. In a 1-through-16 playoff format, none of that happens. 

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The other reason I think the radical, four-conference plan will be voted in is because it provides a solution to the still-unresolved Phoenix Coyotes situation. Much to the dismay of fans in the desert, it's fair to say we certainly do not know what will happen to the team come next season, and when realigning the league on geographic terms for next season, that throws a huge wrinkle into the whole process.

If they're in Quebec City, what do we do? If they're in Kansas City, what do we do? 

Well, the solution here solves those problems. Let's look at the map of CBC's reported proposal from this past Saturday night, via Cassie McClellan from Lightning blog Raw Charge:

Nhl-realignment-map_2011-12-03_medium
The uneven divisions actually work out in the favor of the league in this case. Should Phoenix move to Quebec City, for example, they'd easily switch from the eight-team division they're in under this plan to that cluster with Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, etc. The eight-team-vs.-seven-team balance would just shift, making the transition a seamless one. 

Things would be a little more complicated if they were to move to a different location -- say, Kansas City -- but a similar swap of one or two teams could make the transition similarly easy.

Considering the Phoenix question is one of the biggest heading into the 2012-13 NHL season, working a simple solution into whatever realignment plan pops up is one of the biggest concerns that faces the Board of Governors this week.

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Morning Skate is a daily NHL column. It runs Monday through Friday. Check the archives.

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