The NHL is headed for a major overhaul of its divisions and many teams are interested in a four-division format but not an all-Canadian grouping, a survey of several team executives indicates.
“I think what [NHL commissioner]Gary Bettman hopes to do is solve as many problems with this thing once and for all that he can,” Ed Snider, chairman of the Philadelphia Flyers, said in an interview Friday. Snider played down suggestions there will be only a simple alteration, such as switching Winnipeg and Detroit from their current conferences. “It won’t be that simple.”
The NHL’s board of governors is to begin meeting on Dec. 4 and it could make a decision about realignment at that time. Change is necessary because of the relocation of the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg last May. The move came too late to alter the current divisional alignment, meaning the new Jets inherited Atlanta’s spot in the Southeast Division of the Eastern Conference. The league vowed to make changes, but that has created headaches for just about all 30 teams. Any realignment requires approval of 20 clubs.
The Globe and Mail checked in with executives from the Jets, Flyers, Detroit Red Wings, Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames, Nashville Predators and Toronto Maple Leafs to get their priorities. While there were differences between them, there was plenty of common ground. Most supported a four-division format based loosely on time zones – Pacific, Mountain, Central and East. Many also backed a schedule that included all teams playing each other twice, home-and-home, with the remaining games played within divisions.
“I’m good with that,” said Ken King, chief executive of the Flames.
“I like it,” added Pat LaForge, president of the Oilers.
“Yup,” said David Poile, general manager of the Nashville Predators.
Winnipeg general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff said he wanted the Jets in the Central time zone, but he was not sold on the home-and-home schedule. “I’m more of a proponent of playing a representative amount of the NHL. Every team in the league home-at-home, that might be a little bit tough.”
The Leafs seemed disinterested in any major changes. “Ownership’s position prior to the last [board of governors]meeting was that we would prefer to stay with the current format while relocating the Jets to the west,” general manager Brian Burke said.
Snider said he is also amenable to the four-division idea, but added: “We’ve got an open mind, we want to try and not only help ourselves but make sure that everybody else has a good situation.”
Red Wings general manager Ken Holland said the team could back a four-division format and a home-and-home playing schedule so long as Detroit is moved into the Eastern Conference. “We’re A-okay with being in a region,” Holland said. “We’d like to be in the East. If we stay in the West, we’d want to see the [game schedule]matrix changed.”
Holland said the Red Wings, who have played in the Western Conference for more than a decade, “have been good citizens of the league” and it’s time the club’s concerns were addressed. Under the current schedule, Detroit plays just 18 games against Eastern Conference teams, including historic rivals such as Toronto, Montreal, Boston and the New York Rangers. Most Red Wings games are shown far too late on television because of time zones, he added. “We are an Eastern time zone team that’s in the Western Conference.”
One idea that almost none of the executives supported was creation of an all-Canadian division, something the NHL hasn’t had for decades.
“Nice idea from a romantic standpoint but from a practical standpoint, an all-Canadian division is not very practical,” King said.
“I can tell you that many U.S.-based teams would oppose losing the eastern Canadian teams as a draw,” Burke said. “And the travel it would add probably makes it unlikely from our viewpoint.”
While most executives agreed that a four-division format would be workable, the actual makeup of those divisions is tricky. Poile said Nashville wants to remain where it is, in the Central Division of the Western Conference. The Western teams, Flyers and Leafs are also not keen to move. But accommodating the Jets and Red Wings means almost certain change for many teams, including Nashville, which would lose a popular divisional opponent in Detroit.
On the other hand, Calgary and Edmonton could gain a popular rival if Winnipeg was added to their division, but that would mean moving either Minnesota or Colorado. Then there are teams like Columbus and Colorado that don’t fit neatly into the time-zone divisions. And one topic none of the executives wanted to comment on was Phoenix and what happens if that club can’t find a local buyer and has to move out of the West.
“I don’t have any real hard and fast rules about who I want to be with because you can be in a conference or division for 10 or 15 years and everything changes,” Snider said. “Who the hell knows?”