NHL Realignment: League approves new look, playoffs for next season

The new look of the four divisions to be introduced in the NHL next season. (CBSSports.com Graphic)
The new look of the four divisions to be introduced in the NHL next season. (CBSSports.com Graphic)

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In the final step of this long saga, the NHL Board of Governors has approved realignment, meaning the new layout of the league will take effect next season.

The news was first reported by Aaron Portzline of the Columbus Dispatch.

Voting was conducted Wednesday via fax (apparently we're still living in the 1990s) with decisions due by 5 p.m. ET.

The news doesn't necessarily qualify as a surprise. The big obstacle wasn't really the Board of Governors approving the new realignment plan; it was the NHLPA giving its consent. That happened last week and set the wheels in motion for what was an inevitability: the NHL's landscape will be changing.

The realignment talk was precipitated by the relocation of the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg before the 2011-12 season. The Jets have remained in the Southeast Division in the last two seasons, a problem that needed to be rectified. The result was not just a simple swap of one team in the West for one team in the East; it was a revamping of the entire divisional format.

Winnipeg goes to the new Western Conference while the Columbus Blue Jackets and Detroit Red Wings move to the East. It fulfills those two teams' desires to join all the other teams in the Eastern Time Zone but also creates a problem of unbalanced conferences. The East now has 16 teams, the West 14. With eight teams from each conference still getting playoff berths, it means teams in the West have better mathematical odds of reaching the playoffs.

There will be four total divisions instead of six, two in each conference. There was some talk that they would be named the Pacific, Midwest, Atlantic and Central (the division with the Florida teams, Detroit and the current Northeast Division), but there was some backlash based on the Central name. Until names can be decided, the divisions will simply be known as A, B, C and D.

The NHL had a desire to return to the old playoff format in which the first two rounds are battled out within your divisional (or in the old NHL, conference) foes. To try to alleviate some of the problems with the unbalanced conference, the league will also introduce four wild-card spots.

From the NHL's release, here's precisely how the new playoffs will set up.

The top three teams in each division will make-up the first 12 teams in the playoffs. The remaining four spots will be filled by the next two highest-placed finishers in each conference, based on regular-season points and regardless of division. It will be possible, then, for one division to send five teams to the postseason while the other sends three.

The seeding of the wild-card teams within each divisional playoff will be determined on the basis of regular-season points. The division winner with the most points in the conference will be matched against the wild-card team with the lowest number of points; the division winner with the second-most points in the conference will play the wild-card team with the second fewest points.

The teams finishing second and third in each division will play in the first round of the playoffs. The winners of each series will play for the divisional championship.

The two divisional champions in each conference will then play in the conference finals to advance to the Stanley Cup Final.

To see the new divisions, connect the dots in the map above. Or, if you're not up on your geography, here they are in a different format.

Eastern Conference
Division D Division C
Carolina Hurricanes Boston Bruins
Columbus Blue Jackets Buffalo Sabres
New Jersey Devils Detroit Red Wings
New York Islanders Florida Panthers
New York Rangers Montreal Canadiens
Philadelphia Flyers Ottawa Senators
Pittsburgh Penguins Tampa Bay Lightning
Washington Capitals Toronto Maple Leafs

And the Western side.

Western Conference
Division B Division A
Chicago Blackhawks Anaheim Ducks
Colorado Avalanche Calgary Flames
Dallas Stars Edmonton Oilers
Minnesota Wild Los Angeles Kings
Nashville Predators Phoenix Coyotes
St. Louis Blues San Jose Sharks
Winnipeg Jets Vancouver Canucks

Here's how the schedule matrix will work: 

A breakdown of the new schedule matrix created for the new alignment plan:

Western Conference (7-team divisions)

Within Conference (Division): 29 games

* 5 games vs. five teams (3 Home/2 Away vs. two teams, 2 Home/3 Away vs. three teams) AND 4 games vs. one team (2 Home/2 Away). Teams rotated on a yearly basis.

* 5 X 5 =25 games

* 1 X 4 = 4 games

Within Conference (Non-Division): 21 games

* 3 games vs. each team (2 Home/1 Away vs. four teams, 1 Home/2 Away vs. three teams). Teams rotated on a yearly basis.

* 3 X 7 = 21 games

Non-Conference: 32 games

* 2 games vs. each team (1 Home/1 Away)

* 2 X 16 = 32 games

(Exception: one team from each division plays one less game inside Division and one more game inside Conference outside Division)

Eastern Conference (8-team divisions)

Within Conference (Division): 30 games

* 5 games vs. two teams (3 Home/2 Away vs. one team, 2 Home/3 Away vs. one team) AND 4 games vs. five teams (2 Home/2 Away). Teams rotated on a yearly basis.

* 5 X 2 =10 games

* 4 X 5 = 20 games

Within Conference (Non-Division): 24 games

* 3 games vs. each team (2 Home/1 Away vs. four teams, 1 Home/2 Away vs. four teams). Teams rotated on a yearly basis.

* 3 X 8 = 24 games

Non-Conference: 28 games

* 2 games vs. each team (1 Home/1 Away)

* 2 X 14 = 28 games

One of the many goals was to keep teams in time-zone friendly divisions and reduce travel. For the most part, they achieved that goal.

The question now is how long will this format stay in place? There has been plenty of talk about expansion to bring the league to 32 teams. Not to mention that the Coyotes' future still remains up in the air at this point in Arizona. This new realignment is here, but it's likely not here to stay.

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