PEBBLE BEACH, Calif.
-- The NHL's Board of Governors on Monday approved a radical realignment plan, eliminating the current two-conference, six-division setup in favor of a configuration that features four conferences based primarily on geography. Two conferences will have eight teams and the other two conferences will have seven teams.
The Board authorized Commissioner Gary Bettman to implement this proposal in Monday evening's vote, pending input from the National Hockey League Players' Association. The League's intention is for the four-conference set-up to be in place starting with the 2012-13 season.
The vote to approve realignment required a two-thirds majority of the League's 30 governors, and it passed on the first of two days of meetings here at The Inn at Spanish Bay.
The makeup of the yet-to-be-named four conferences is as follows:
* New Jersey, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, New York Rangers, New York Islanders, Washington and Carolina
* Boston, Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, Buffalo, Florida and Tampa Bay
* Detroit, Columbus, Nashville, St. Louis, Chicago, Minnesota, Dallas and Winnipeg
* Los Angeles, Anaheim, Phoenix, San Jose, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Colorado
Realignment was necessary due to the fact that Winnipeg had to move out of the Eastern Conference after playing in the Southeast Division this season due to the late relocation of the franchise from Atlanta to the Manitoba capital.
"I had nothing against the existing format, and but for the move to Winnipeg we wouldn't be looking to change it," Bettman said. "It wasn't a question of being dissatisfied, but we had a number of clubs that were unhappy with the current state of affairs, and in the context of having to make a change anyway felt it was important for their needs and their concerns and their issues to be recognized. It was intended to be as much a global solution as possible."
The Board voted in favor of the four-conference alignment over a simpler realignment solution that had Winnipeg moving to the Western Conference's Central Division and either Detroit or Columbus moving to the Eastern Conference's Southeast Division.
Bettman said the discussion on realignment lasted only about an hour.
"I opened by describing pros and cons of both (realignment plans), and I think we laid it out in a comprehensive way -- not selling, but it was here is everything good that you'll like about the simpler view and here are the negatives. We did the same thing with the four-conference format," Bettman said. "The board seemed to be, not unanimous, but of pretty good mind where they were going with this."
The four conferences are designed to alleviate geographic concerns among several current Western Conference teams that had been unhappy about their extensive travel through one, two, and sometimes even three time zones. Chief among those teams were the Red Wings, Columbus Blue Jackets, Minnesota Wild and Dallas Stars.
Some of those teams argued that the late start of road games in the Pacific time zone were having an adverse effect on fan interest, especially among younger fans. Detroit General Manager Ken Holland said he noticed a problem in last season's Stanley Cup Playoffs, when the Red Wings had to travel to Phoenix in the first round and San Jose in the second round. Each of those cities is a three-hour difference from Detroit.
"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," Holland told NHL.com. "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."
The new alignment also enables the NHL to create a balanced schedule in which all teams will play each other at least twice every season, once at home and once on the road, giving fans a chance to see every team and superstar in the League. The remaining games will be played within the conferences.
In the seven-team Conferences, teams would play six times -- three home, three away -- for a total of 36 inter-division games. In the eight-team Conferences, teams would play either five or six times in a season on a rotating basis -- for a total of 38 inter-division games.
The teams in the seven-team Conferences will have 46 out-of-conference games, including 23 at home and 23 on the road. The teams in the eight-team Conferences will have 44 out-of-conference games evenly split between home and away.
"I think it's certainly very good for our fans in terms of almost every market," Nashville General Manager David Poile said. "I know our fans really appreciate to see everybody at least once every year and I think that was a strong move."
As a result of the new four-conference alignment, the Stanley Cup Playoffs will follow a different format as well.
The top four teams in each Conference will qualify for the playoffs. The first-place team in each conference would play the fourth-place team in the same conference; the second-place team would play the third-place team.
The four respective Conference champions would meet in the third round, with the survivors playing for the Stanley Cup.
A decision on how the League will seed the remaining teams for the semifinals will likely not come until the general managers meet in March.
"That's something I plan to do with the general managers at their meeting in the spring," Bettman said. "We'll figure out what they want from a competitive standpoint. This is a decision I'll let the GMs make."
Bettman acknowledged that in the four-conference format, there will be added travel for some teams due to the fact that every team has to visit every city at least once per season. However, he did say that the schedule can be made to be more efficient so there will be less travel between stops on road trips.
"We need to be more efficient and the schedule maker believes he can be," Bettman said.
He also conceded that there was a focus on the fact that there are two conferences with only seven teams as opposed to two with eight teams. However, he added that didn't seem to be an issue within the Board.
"Frankly it's not the seventh and eighth teams that are competing for a playoff spot," Bettman said. "When you look at the map of North America, it's not geographic perfection so we're looking for something that makes the most sense and most fans and most clubs as comfortable as possible."Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter: @drosennhl
Author: Dan Rosen | NHL.com Senior Writer