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Realignment proved best option for multiple teams

by Dave Lozo / Vancouver Canucks

There was a "simple" option for NHL realignment discussed during the first day of the League's Board of Governors meetings, but as Commissioner Gary Bettman noted, "Simple may have not been so simple."

So instead of just shuffling Winnipeg to the Central Division and either Detroit or Columbus to the Southeast, the Board approved a more dramatic change, but also one that helps ease the concerns of more franchises. The new four-conference format is expected to help most teams, either with lessened travel, more games in the local time zone or more games against the League's marquee opponents -- or all of the above.

"I think it's a real good step today, and it's good for almost everybody in the League," Nashville general manager David Poile said. "I think it's certainly very good for our fans in terms of almost every market. I know our fans really appreciate to see everybody at least once every year and I think that was a strong move. At the end of the day, my best answer is I think we did the right thing."

The schedule will look dramatically different under this plan, which still must be implemented by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. Teams will play one home and one road contest against every franchise from the other three conferences. Clubs in the seven-team conferences will play six intra-conference games -- teams in the conferences with eight will play each other either five or six times against each other.

Detroit, Columbus and Winnipeg are among the teams that will benefit the most from the new plan. The benefits for the Jets are obvious -- many more games against teams in the Central time zone and far less travel.

Either the Red Wings or the Blue Jackets would have been helped by the "simple" solution, but one would have been left as the lone remaining Eastern time zone team in the Western Conference. Both clubs will be able to maintain rivalries with teams like Chicago (and each other), and more games will start between 7 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. -- as opposed to having so many late-night contests on the West Coast.

The Red Wings and Blue Jackets currently play 16 regular-season games in the Mountain or Pacific time zones. Under the plan passed Monday, that number will be cut in half.

"The biggest part for us was to get the home-and-away with every team," Columbus general manager Scott Howson said. "That really takes away one Western Canadian trip and takes away a California trip. So, we're only going to visit those teams once, which will reduce the amount of travel on us. Where we settled after that we didn't have a strong preference but we're really pleased with the way it worked out."

Minnesota and Dallas also are big winners with the League's new look. The Wild and Stars no longer are grouped with teams two time zones away as they are now in the Northwest and Pacific divisions, respectively.

A big part of the new realignment plan also focuses on postseason rivalries. The top four teams in each conference will make the playoffs, and the first two rounds will be contained within each conference -- just as it was in the old four-division format from 1981-82 to 1992-93.

This will provide the opportunity for teams to face the same foes with more frequency during the postseason.

Teams currently in the Eastern Conference will have more games against teams currently in the West, but there also will be less travel during the first two rounds of the postseason for everyone.

"I think it will help. There's going to be that opportunity," Vancouver General Manager Mike Gillis said. "There's new rivalries that get created every year with playoff rounds. If you look at us and Chicago, it is a really strong rivalry now that people look forward to, but that got created really through (multiple) playoff rounds."

The four new conferences are aligned geographically, but there is no perfect fit for the 14 teams currently in the Eastern Conference and not named Winnipeg. Bettman said there were teams in the Mid-Atlantic region that voiced concerns about losing rivalries that have been built, so the solution was not to break up the Atlantic Division clubs.

Instead, Washington -- an old Patrick Division rival -- and Carolina will join those five Atlantic teams to form a new conference. That leaves Florida and Tampa Bay from the current Southeast Division, and those two will be grouped with the current members of the Northeast.

"It will be good for our fans," Florida General Manager Dale Tallon said. "From the business side, getting Toronto and Montreal and Boston to come to our building is really good for us. Travel is the negative, but hopefully we can work around it. ... The travel is not exactly easy to Winnipeg in our division this year, so we're dealing with it. If this is what is best for the overall competitive League balance, then I'm OK with it."

Added Detroit General Manager Ken Holland: "From our perspective we think it's a lot better than the current system. We're going to see all the teams in our building at least once. We're going to have more road games on prime time (television). Any of the 15 teams in the Western Conference understand all the travel we've had to go through in playoff series; you're now going to have the first two rounds of the playoffs within your own conference. And, the other thing is come playoff time your road games in playoffs are going to be on (prime-time TV). We played a lot of road games in the playoffs last year in San Jose and Phoenix, and the games were on at 10 or 10:30 at night.

"I would talk to fans and they would watch one or two periods and wake up in the morning to get the score. Six months ago our thought was we wanted to be in the East, but after looking at this alternative … we felt it was a great compromise and I would say that we're happy."
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