We know realignment is coming, the question that has lingered, however, is in what shape will it come? Reports are starting to hint it will be vastly different, if nothing else.
Word started to come out (the Sporting News) of the draft in Minnesota that commissioner Gary Bettman and NHL executives would like to see a four-division layout instead of the current six. We know Winnipeg, the driving force behind the realignment, will be moving to the Western Conference after this season. But to fill the void in the East, there are three teams seeking to make the move: Detroit, Columbus and Nashville.
The plan is expected to be finalized during December's Board of Governors meeting.
“I’m just happy we’re discussing it. Maybe there’s a way for Detroit and Columbus to get in the East,” said Blue Jackets general manager Scott Howson. “I’m glad we’re all open to it. We’ll see where it all goes.”
Howson said the Blue Jackets plan a proposal that would place Columbus in the Eastern Conference. He said he hopes the league would be open to the idea of 16 teams in one conference and 14 in the other.
“We’re going to work something up over the summer and see if it has any legs,” Howson said.
Part of the restructuring would also involve changing the layout of the schedule. For the past few seasons the NHL has featured unbalanced schedules, meaning no guarantees to play each team home and away every season. But the new idea would return to a balanced format where all teams play every other team at least twice, guaranteeing a home and road game against every opponent, especially nice for displaced fans. Red Wings fan in Carolina? Rangers diehard in Los Angeles? Start planning now.
The way the playoffs would work would feature the top four teams in each division moving on. The first round would be only divisional battles, then they re-seed for the conference semifinals. This would likely go a lot further in trying to establish division rivalries than the unbalanced schedule with the intensity of playoff games being the driving force behind most of the great grudges in history.
There's still a lot to be discussed, but this seems the most logical plan at the moment. First the NHL will have to be OK with having 16 teams in the East, 14 in the West. Obviously some teams in the East wouldn't be too happy their foes in the West have a greater mathematical chance to get in the playoffs. That could be a hard hurdle to clear. Chicago likely wouldn't enjoy being the only Original Six team in the West and losing its big rival in Detroit.
And while it certainly would not happen anytime soon, you have to wonder when the Westward expansion question would arise. With two more franchises in the West, you'd have balance and everybody is happy ... except for those who hate the idea of more expansion. Which is just about every hockey fan out there. Instead of having new teams in Kansas City and Milwaukee (seriously, why doesn't it have a team?), Seattle or maybe even Salt Lake City, I'd venture about 90 percent of fans would prefer the unbalanced conferences, with the dissenting 10 percent coming from the possible expansion cities.
The expected layout would be based on time zones primarily. Here's what the divisions would likely be.
Pacific: Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, San Jose, Los Angeles, Anaheim, Phoenix
Central: Winnipeg, Minnesota, Colorado, Chicago, St. Louis, Nashville, Dallas
North: Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, Buffalo, Boston, New York Rangers, New York Islanders, New Jersey
South: Detroit, Columbus, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Washington, Carolina, Tampa Bay, Florida
Surely there are better division names so we don't have the awkward things like Detroit and Pittsburgh being in the "South." I'm sure there'd be a lot of sentiment for the old Norris and Adams Divisions. How would you lay out the divisions?
-- Brian Stubits