The NHL will have a new look next season.
After a surprisingly short and amicable discussion Monday night, the NHL's 30 governors voted to abolish the Eastern and Western Conferences and go with four geographically-based conferences next season.
This will allow the Detroit Red Wings, Columbus Blue Jackets, Dallas Stars and Minnesota Wild to all play more games suited to their time zones. It also eases travel for the current Western Conference teams.
“Everybody feels good about this,” said Nashville Predators general manager David Poile. “I know I do.”
Toronto Maple Leafs president and GM Brian Burke said, “this makes the most sense for our league.”
There will be two conferences of eight teams and two of seven, with each team playing one game at home and one game on the road against every other NHL team. The rest of the schedule will be played within the conferences. The seven-team conferences will play each other six times while the eight-team conferences will play each other five or six times, with the number alternating each season.
“When you look at the map of North America it’s not geographic perfection so we were looking for something that makes the most sense possible,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said.
Bettman also said he does not think the fact the seven-team conferences will have four teams in the playoffs gives them an advantage over the eight-team conferences. The eight-team divisions may have one more team missing the playoffs than the other conferences but Bettman implied those teams are not likely to be any better than the teams making the playoffs in the seven-team conferences.
The governors coming out of the meeting said the plan was adopted so smoothly because Bettman did his usual masterful job of laying the groundwork for a solution before the meeting. He was familiar with what each team wanted and managed to work around that with the four-conference plan.
“It was typical Gary Bettman,” Burke said. “It was like a Chicago election in the ’30s. He knew where the votes were coming from.”
Once the discussion started, Bettman offered only two proposals: a simple swap of the Detroit Red Wings or the Columbus Blue Jackets to the Eastern Conference’s Southeast Division with the Winnipeg Jets moving to the Central Division in the Western Conference and the four-conference plan. Bettman said the issue was decided in about an hour.
“I laid out the proposals for both,” Bettman said. “That may have simplified things for some people.”
The plan also preserves some traditional league rivalries. The Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers are in the same conference, as are the Maple Leafs, Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators.
However, the move is not yet official. Bettman said that will not happen until he speaks to the NHL Players’ Association. “The union has weighed in on the subject and I want to see what their position is before making the final decision,” he said.
NHLPA spokesman Jonathan Weatherdon said in a statement that “realignment requires an agreement between the league and the NHLPA. We look forward to continuing our discussions with the league regarding this matter.”
Since the new setup eases the travel burdens on players with Western teams, it would be a surprise if the NHLPA derailed the plan.
The playoff format was not finalized, either. The first two rounds will be held within the conferences but the NHL’s general managers will decide how the last two rounds are played at their annual meetings in March.
“This is a decision I want the GMs to make,” Bettman said.
The top-seeded teams in each conference will play the No. 4 seeds while the No. 2 seeds play the third seeds. At this point, it looks like the four conference winners will play each other in the third round of the playoffs. They could be seeded by their regular-season finishes, with the No. 1 seed playing No. 4 and No. 2 against No. 3.
Executives from both the Red Wings and Blue Jackets said they were happy with the new look. Those teams are in an eight-team conference with six teams based in the Central time zone but it means they will have fewer games in the more western time zones. No team in any conference is more than one time zone away from another team.
“This was a compromise that satisfied everybody,” Blue Jackets GM Scott Howson said. “It’s going to make our travel easier on the players.”
The only other thing that can upset the plan is the Phoenix Coyotes. The team still does not have an owner and may have to move next season. But the four-conference plan can accommodate a move.
“There is flexibility in this format, which perhaps people were comfortable with,” Bettman said. “We are not planning any moves but if one should come up it gives us flexibility.”
Bettman has said in the past that if an owner willing to keep the Coyotes in the Phoenix area is not found by Dec. 31 the league will open the search to buyers who will move the team but it is not expected the league will stick to that deadline. At this point, it is not clear what will happen to the Coyotes next season.
NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly gave the governors an update on the Coyotes situation. “There’s really nothing new to report other than we are continuing discussions with a couple of potentially interested purchasers,” Daly said. “The goal continues to be [to find an owner willing to keep the team in Phoenix]”
In other business on Monday, the governors listened to a presentation from NBC, the league’s U.S. television broadcaster, and received a report from John Collins, the NHL’s chief operating officer, on the league’s business matters.
The NHL's new conference format:
Conference A: Anaheim, Calgary, Colorado, Edmonton, Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Jose, Vancouver
Conference B: Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Detroit, Minnesota, Nashville, St. Louis, Winnipeg
Conference C: Boston, Buffalo, Florida, Montreal, Ottawa, Tampa Bay, Toronto
Conference D: Carolina, New Jersey, NY Islanders, NY Rangers, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Washington