The downside to the new realignment plan approved Monday night by National Hockey League governors is that the Vancouver Canucks and Chicago Blackhawks will play two fewer games each regular season.
And that’s certainly a shame given where the Canucks-Hawks rivalry is these days. Any disappointment, however, must be offset by the fact that the new plan has provisions in place that make it possible for the Canucks and Hawks to potentially meet in the Stanley Cup Final – something that under the current divisional arrangement simply could not happen.
Now, the dramatic overhaul of the existing system wasn’t undertaken with only the Canucks and Blackhawks in mind. But it was done to further develop geographic rivalries within the league and, on the surface, it appears the governors got things right.
While there is no perfect solution to such a complex issue where the individual wishes of 30 teams had to be taken into account, the realignment plan appears to offer a number of benefits to the Vancouver Canucks – and to fans of the hockey club.
First off, with all teams outside the new divisions set to face-off twice each season – once in each city – it ensures hockey fans in Vancouver will see Sidney Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos and the many other stars who have been infrequent visitors to Rogers Arena during their careers on an annual basis. And that’s a good thing for fans of the game of hockey, who deserve to opportunity to see the best and brightest in the league each season.
Under the new format, the Canucks will be placed in an eight-team conference with Calgary, Edmonton, San Jose, Los Angeles, Anaheim, Colorado and Phoenix. The plan is to have the top four teams in that conference battle through the first two rounds of the playoffs to produce a winner. Based on that structure and using last season’s standings, the Canucks would have opened the post-season against Phoenix and had all things been equal would have advanced to face San Jose in the second round.
Not only would the travel to Phoenix and San Jose have been considerably less cumbersome than having to shuttle to Chicago and Nashville, the Canucks wouldn’t have had to deal with time zone changes as they traversed the continent in the opening rounds of last year’s post-season. Obviously the opponents had to deal with those issues too, but, gruelling travel has always been a burden for Western teams – particularly West Coast teams -- come playoff time. And one of the goals of this realignment plan is to remove some of the travel toll on teams at least in the first two rounds of the post-season.
But beyond the travel and the time zones for the teams and the players, the new format seems to open up a world of possibilities for the growing legion of Canucks fans that have shown a remarkable ability to follow their team on the road.
Realignment will add more regular season games in popular destinations like the Bay Area, Southern California and the Arizona desert – all direct flights and all spots Canucks fans already flock to whenever the team plays in those places. It would seem that this new plan plays right into the hands of hockey fans who want to make the trek to support their team wherever its playing.
As well, any plan that increases the odds of the Canucks facing the Flames or the Oilers in the post-season is a good one. It’s astounding to think it has been 20 years since Vancouver and Edmonton last met in the playoffs. And by the time next spring rolls around eight years will have already passed since the last Canucks-Calgary playoff series. These are divisional opponents and geographic rivals who see each other more than other teams during the regular season, but it has not resulted in playoff match-ups.
Rivalries arise from playoff meetings – look no further than the Canucks and Blackhawks and all the drama the past three years has produced. While it will be tougher for those two teams to meet in the post-season under the new configuration, regular playoff match-ups against the Oilers or Flames could begin to fill that void.
Under the new plan there are no guarantees, however the format increases the chances of one day getting those Canadian clubs together when the stakes are highest. And that is a good thing for hockey.
And that’s why, on the whole, realignment is a good thing for the game, too.