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Rivalries, balanced schedule among high points

Tuesday, 12.06.2011 / 7:20 PM / NHL Insider

By Dan Rosen - NHL.com Senior Writer

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Rivalries, balanced schedule among high points
With realignment approved by the Board of Governors on Monday, Tuesday became a day of revisiting the decision and dissecting some of the finer points of the four-conference system the NHL intends to implement for the 2012-13 season.

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- With realignment approved by the Board of Governors on Monday, Tuesday became a day of revisiting the decision and dissecting some of the finer points of the four-conference system the NHL intends to implement for the 2012-13 season.

Here are five items from the radical realignment plan that deserve a closer look:

1. Intensifying rivalries
 
The Stanley Cup Playoff format in the four-conference alignment is set up to create new rivalries and add energy to traditional ones.

Since the first two rounds of the playoffs will be played within the conference, the teams that battle each other for the majority of the regular-season games will be the teams faced in the early playoff rounds.

This is the same system the NHL had in place from 1982-1993 when the top four finishers in all four divisions played in the divisional playoffs before getting down to the Conference Finals.

It was back then that rivalries such as Washington vs. Pittsburgh and Detroit vs. Minnesota were born.

"Those were the same teams that you saw the next year, so it would carry over," Washington President Dick Patrick told NHL.com. "It wouldn't be just like a team that you're only going to play twice the next year -- it would be against teams that seem like they're coming in every other week. It really creates tremendous rivalries."
What happens to the seeding once the two intra-conference rounds are complete and there are four teams remaining has not yet been determined, but NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman offered a few ideas Tuesday.

"I think it's a little premature because it's something I'm going to let the general managers do, but if you use the two eastern-most conferences against the two western-most conferences you reduce travel," Bettman said. "But, by the same token, you have a myriad of possibilities if you reseed based on points.

"Somebody even suggested to me today that you can have a random drawing. I'm not advocating that. All I'm saying is this is a discussion I think the general managers can weigh in on effectively and can make a good decision on in March when they get together."

2. Balanced schedule

The Bruins won the Stanley Cup in Vancouver last season, but, because of the unbalanced schedule, their only chance of going back to the Pacific Northwest this season is if they meet the Canucks in the Final again in June.

Under the new four-conference alignment, that won't be a concern.

Part of the allure for Board members to vote in favor of the radical realignment plan was the ability to create a balanced schedule. Every team will play in every city at least once per season, giving fans across the NHL the opportunity on an annual basis to see all the League's top teams and superstars.

The unbalanced system that is currently in place means, for this season at least, fans in Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Colorado, Detroit and Nashville do not get the opportunity to see the defending Stanley Cup champion.

"In non-traditional markets, I have a hard time explaining to fans why they aren't seeing Sidney Crosby," Stars President Jim Lites told NHL.com. "Joe Nieuwendyk had a great quote in an article I saw in Dallas, where he said in the last six or seven years we've played Phoenix about 52 times and we've played Toronto five. As bad as our season-ticket base is, and part of my job is to fix it, the Friday after U.S. Thanksgiving we were sold out, every seat in the building, because we were playing Toronto. It matters. It's a big deal."

3. Thrilled in the Midwest

Detroit GM Ken Holland told NHL.com Monday night that six months ago the Red Wings were pushing for a move to the Eastern Conference to satisfy their travel and time zone concerns.

As a team that plays in the Eastern time zone, the Wings had just finished two rounds in the playoffs against San Jose and Phoenix -- and Holland said fans told him they just couldn't stay up to watch Detroit's road games because of late start times.

The four-conference alignment changes all of that for not only Detroit, but also for Minnesota, Dallas and Columbus.
 
All four teams had legitimate geographic concerns in the present system due to heavy travel and late start times for road games.

Those concerns are erased under the four-conference setup because the geographically based alignment of the conferences limits travel and time-zone disadvantages.

"This was a compromise that satisfies everybody to the largest extent possible," Columbus GM Scott Howson said.

4. Seven-team conference vs. eight-team conference

Bettman said the League felt it was necessary to bring into focus the discrepancy between having two conferences with seven teams and two more with eight teams when it made its realignment proposals to the Board of Governors on Monday. The response from the executives in the board room was the discrepancy didn't seem to matter enough to nix the entire plan.

As Bettman pointed out, as recently as this past summer, Major League Baseball was operating with 16 teams in the American League and 14 teams in the National League -- and it didn't seem to be an issue.

The view of the Board, Bettman said, is that the last-place teams in each conference won't factor into the playoffs anyway, so it's not a big deal.

Having two conferences with seven teams and two conferences with eight teams allows for flexibility to move teams around or potentially add more in the future.

Bettman noted this, but stressed that at this time the League does not have any desire to relocate a franchise or expand to other markets, and neither factor was considered in the realignment vote.

5. Washington gets back its old rivals

The Capitals were content playing in the Southeast Division, but the fan base has always wanted the team to join back up with their old Patrick Division foes to create regular-season rivalry games that bleed into intense playoff matchups.

The four-conference alignment will do exactly that for the D.C. faithful as their Capitals will be once again be back in the same conference as the Devils, Rangers, Islanders, Flyers and Penguins. Carolina will also be in that grouping.

"I think it is a big thing for the Caps and for Caps fans," Patrick said. "This puts us back with a lot of the teams from the old Patrick Division, and for our fans those are still the most popular opponents that we have. We were in favor of it, we like it and we think our fans are really going to enjoy it."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter: @drosennhl

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