Edmonton Oilers centre Sam Gagner will admit it: He is no mathematician. Players, he believes, can only control what happens on the ice, not in the NHL board rooms.
Thanks to an ambitious off-season realignment in which the Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets moved east and the Winnipeg Jets shifted to the west, there is now an imbalance between the NHL’s Eastern and Western Conferences.
Altogether, 16 teams play in the East now, including one, Detroit, which has made the playoffs for 22 consecutive years. Meanwhile, there are only 14 in the West, including a whole bunch, like the Oilers, who believe their rebuilding programs are ready to pay dividends – partly because the odds of making the post-season are now higher.
“I have this debate with my friends who play in the East all the time – that the West is harder,” Gagner said. “I don’t know if it’s fact or fiction.
“With realignment, all we can really control as players is to try and get points in every game and try to win every game. I’m not one to look at numbers to say, ‘We’re at an advantage because we have fewer teams.’ But it’s a good thing that each team has a chance to play against each other in each building.
“I think that’s important for the league and I think it’s important for players to get a chance to see all the teams that are there. It makes it, in my mind, fairer – when every team is playing against each other and trying to get into the playoffs.”
The Jets and Dallas Stars were the primary beneficiaries of realignment because they faced the greatest geographic obstacles to success.
Dallas previously played in a division, the Pacific, where its four opponents were two time zones to the west; and Winnipeg was seemingly on the road constantly, trying to squeeze in all those visits to the U.S. southeast.
According to Jets governor and chairman Mark Chipman, realignment was “an expectation we had from the beginning. We were happy to accommodate the league for the first couple of years, but we’re glad to be in the Central time zone and we’re very happy to be in among some very high quality teams. There’s something about playing against Stanley Cup champions on a regular basis that you look forward to. There’s nowhere to hide, you’ve got to get better when you’re playing better teams.”
Not everyone likes the 16-14 playoff split, however, including Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle, who said: “It makes it more difficult for us to qualify for the playoffs. It’s a simple as that.
“It kind of makes you scratch your head over the summer. Why is that happening on this side but not the other side? … I have my personal feeling about it but you’re part of a league and you’re expected to be a good partner and that’s what our job is … accept the challenge.”
But Stars general manager Jim Nill (a former Red Wings assistant GM) thinks the realignment plan the NHL adopted was the best choice in a series of imperfect options.
“I think it’s great. Detroit deserves to be in the East,” Nill said. “For us, we’re going to have more games in the Central and Eastern time zones. We’re playing more north-south than east-west. I like that.”
For Vancouver Canucks captain Henrik Sedin, it doesn’t matter much what the split is if you’re not playing well. “It is a tough league to get into the playoffs,” Sedin said, “and it’s not going to be any different this year. I don’t think it matters how divide the divisions or the conferences or how many teams are making it from each conference. You’ve got to win your games, and that’s it.”