by Scott Stuart
The National Hockey League concluded its annual winter meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 6, with the league looking differently in comparison to when the meeting began.
Realignment of the NHL was the primary matter of business for the Board of Governors who met both Monday and Tuesday in Palm Springs, Calif.
The Board of Governors – comprised of the 30 owners of NHL teams – knew that a change would likely occur since the sale of the Atlanta Thrashers last summer. The team subsequently moved to Winnipeg yet has remained in the Eastern Conference – a place it did not belong.
“The idea was, I think, to create the best overall solution and I think that’s what they achieved today,” said Mark Chipman, governor and chairman of the Winnipeg Jets, in an interview on Tuesday.
The league voted in a 26-4 decision to realign into four conferences – instead of the previous two – which resemble what were once known as “divisions.” Two conferences will contain eight teams each while the other two contain seven teams each. The new alignment, with conference names yet to be decided, will look as follows:
Along with the restructuring of conferences, the league will now schedule teams to play the majority of their season against inter-conference opponents while facing out-of-conference opponents twice – once at home and once on the road.
“It’s going to be a little weird we’ll only be playing [the Vancouver Canucks] twice,” said David Bolland, a member of the Chicago Blackhawks and an arch nemesis of the Canucks. “I’m going to have to find some new guys to bother around the league.”
Although Bolland and the Blackhawks will miss the frequency of play against the Canucks, they are happy to retain their rivalry with the Detroit Red Wings, according to Joel Quenville, the coach of the Blackhawks.
Along with shaking up some rivalries, the NHL’s new format includes a change to the playoff structure marking the end of the Western and Eastern conferences. In place of the present system that admits the top-eight teams to the playoffs from each of the two conferences, each conference will now send its top-four teams. The first two rounds of the playoffs will be used to crown a conference champion who will then continue their quest to obtain the Stanley Cup.
“Down the road, if it means Calgary plays Edmonton in a playoff series, that would be a great thing,” said Kevin Lowe, the Edmonton Oilers president of hockey operations.
Edmonton and Calgary have a natural rivalry as the only two teams from the Alberta province of Canada. The two teams now have a chance to meet in the playoffs routinely as part of the same conference.
To some, this plan feels like a warm blanket, according to Greg Wyshynski of Yahoo! Sports. Wyshnski points out that the new format is reminiscent of hockey’s roots back in the 1980s – something that old puckheads will be fond of. Back then, the league consisted of four-divisions that resembles the new conferences.
Although many are happy, there are others making their discontent heard.
“I started in this league after the lockout and I’ve been used to two conferences, 15 teams, eight teams make the playoffs and I kind of like it that way,” said Alexander Burrows, a forward for the Canucks, on Tuesday. “Travel-wise, maybe we’re going to save on some flights going north-south as opposed to east-west. It might be easier to go to bed at night, but some teams might have less points than a team that will finish fifth in another conference and get in, so I don’t understand that.”
While the Canuck’s remained relatively unscathed by the realignment, the Tampa Bay Lightning’s situation worsened. Instead of playing the bulk of their schedule against Washington, Florida, and Carolina, they will be spending a great deal of time in the Northeast and Canada.
“Maybe we should build a practice facility in Vermont,” said Marty St. Louis, a forward for the Lightning. “And [we could] live in Vermont and take little flights here and there, live in the hotel when we come for home stretches.”
Similar reactions were felt throughout the NHL as players tried to grasp the outcome of Tuesday’s meeting.
“I think you have to do what’s right for the greater good of the 30 teams involved,” said Chipman. “I don’t think any one particular alignment is going to address everybody’s needs.”
The new alignment will become effective at the start of the 2012-13 season.