There is a lot to like – and maybe one small objection to raise – about the NHL’s realignment plan, approved by the board of governors and now subject only to NHL Players’ Association approval (something deputy commissioner Bill Daly believes will happen without major wrangling).
The proposed four-conference format divides teams along sensible time zones, ensures each team plays every other home and away each year, and ultimately brings back the best elements of the 21-team era – when playoffs were conducted in frantically contested divisional battles.
“Down the road, if it means Calgary plays Edmonton in a playoff series, that would be a great thing,” assessed Kevin Lowe, the Edmonton Oilers president of hockey operations, who was once an active participant in those legendary wars.
Renewing age-old rivalries in the playoffs is only one of the benefits of the NHL’s new look, however. The idea of tucking the Florida-based clubs into the same conference as teams in the Ontario-Quebec corridor is brilliant, too. It gives all the snowbird Toronto Maple Leafs, Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators fans more chances to buy tickets when they’re wintering in the Sunshine State.
“I remember, for a few years, we used to play Montreal around Christmas time, or just after Christmas, and it would be like playing in Montreal because there were a lot of French Canadians who spent the winter down there or other Canadians on vacation,” former Florida Panthers (now Calgary Flames) defenceman Jay Bouwmeester said.
Realignment became a more pressing issue this year, after the Atlanta Thrashers were relocated to Winnipeg, where the Jets – for this season anyway – grapple with the league’s most-challenging travel schedule, playing out of the Southeast Division.
All that changes next year, and team president Mark Chipman is satisfied with the new home in what is effectively a mid-west conference.
“There are lots of benefits for us,” said Chipman, citing less wear-and-tear on his players and the presence of two Original Six teams (Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks) in the Jets’ new conference. “Put it all together and it was a win for us for sure.”
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman indicated Tuesday the league was still pondering what to name the new conferences.
Once upon a time, they were the Smythe, Norris, Adams and Patrick – named after hockey legends of the first half of the 20th century. There is a move afoot to update them with the greatest names of the past 50 years: Orr, Gretzky, Howe and Lemieux.
Under the new scheme, teams in the east will need to travel more, adding costs. But it creates a more equitable playing field: they’ll now get to see what the current Western Conference clubs have been dealing with.
Consider how many times Detroit had to play the Phoenix Coyotes or San Jose Sharks in the playoffs the past few years. It took a toll, and meanwhile, on the Eastern side, teams were on a commuter schedule, sometimes for the first six weeks of the postseason.
“Travel-wise, I heard the East has to travel more, which is great,” said Flames captain Jarome Iginla, who liked most of what he saw about the new proposal, except the idea that his team will play in an eight-team conference and thus, have a mathematically more challenging time qualifying for the playoffs.
(It was like that in the old days, too – an extra team in the Patrick Division – but hey, who can remember that far back?)
“I’d rather be in a conference with seven teams, with four making it [to the postseason] but it is what it is, and there’s got to be some pretty tough decisions, with every team wanting it to benefit them,” Iginla said.
Yes, they do.
Ultimately, it means that after years of realignment bluster, the fact they could get matters settled this easily and this sensibly proves the NHL can get it right every now and then.