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NHL Realignment: Talk of divisions within conferences, wild-card spots

By Brian Stubits | CBSSports.com

Change is coming to the NHL in the form of realignment and a new playoff structure. (Icethetics.info)
Change is coming soon to the NHL in the form of realignment and a new playoff structure. (Icethetics.info)

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The NHL realignment train rolls on, spouting ideas like steam from the engine. Or maybe it's just that at this point it mostly feels like nothing but hot air.

The NHL is still bandying about a plan that involves four conferences with Winnipeg going to the Western side while Detroit and Columbus go to the Eastern side. That plan called for two conferences of eight and two conferences of seven.

The change on Tuesday was that the language was altered a slight bit. Now instead of four conferences they are going back to using the current nomenclature of divisions within conferences. The idea behind it though is still mostly the same as the previous plan; playoffs will stay within the division until the conference finals.

Or as closely as they can approximate that.

According to a memo making the rounds obtained by Pierre LeBrun of ESPN.com, each division would have three guaranteed playoff spots. Then each conference would have two additional wild-card spots available with the two wild cards being the four seeds in each of the two divisional-playoff formats. It is possible that a division could have five teams and one would be playing in the other division's playoff pool.

In other words, you would have four pods of 1 vs. 4 and 2 vs. 3, then once you get down to a pod/division winner, you play the other conference division winner before getting the cross-conference Stanley Cup Final.

Really, there's very little change from what was proposed before other than the change in the lexicon. Considering they were already treating the "four conferences" like divisions by pairing them up anyway, this makes sense. It also makes it all just a touch less confusing and less confusing is a good thing.

So now the Eastern Conference would have the Atlantic and Central Divisions while the West would have the Pacific and Mid-West Divisions. Those divisions are still aligned the way they were in the plan that was floated already, just follow the dots above.

People are going to complain about the division names -- because really, you can always complain about something -- but to me that's all window dressing. Is it really a big deal if the teams in Florida play in a division called the Central? It's just a title, call it the Mars Division or the Adams Division, it doesn't matter, it won't change anything.

As you can see, though, there's still an issue of some teams having fewer obstacles than others. They tried to address this issue with the wild cards, but it doesn't do a whole lot to solve that nasty issue of every team having an equal shot at the playoffs. This will likely remain a sticking point because it doesn't look fair, the teams in the smaller divisions have a mathematically greater chance of reaching the playoffs than those in the bigger conferences.

A reminder that any realignment plan still has to be approved by the players, and the last time the NHL thought it had realignment figured out the players rejected it. This time around they are working more closely together but there's still no guarantee the players will give the stamp of approval on a structure like this because of that inequality issue.

The fact of the matter is there is no perfect system to be made right now, any way you go somebody is going to be unhappy.

For more hockey news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnHockey and @StubitsCBS on Twitter, subscribe to our YouTube account and like us on Facebook.

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