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Stars fingers crossed with realignment looming

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

One wouldn’t think the Dallas Stars would be affected much by the relocation of the former Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg this season, but the truth is, that one development has set in motion a series of events that could have a profound impact on the Stars’ future.

That’s because the new incarnation of the Winnipeg Jets are playing this season in the Eastern Conference’s Southeast Division, with their journey north from Georiga coming too late for the league to change its schedule for 2011-12.

But now, the subject of league realignment, in order to accommodate the Jets’ transfer to a far more sensible place in the Western Conference, is a pressing issue and has several teams jockeying to change their current circumstances, including the Stars.

With the NHL’s Board of Governors convening Monday and Tuesday in the hockey hotbed of Pebble Beach, Calif., the realignment issue tops the agenda and could be settled before they depart.

As various scenarios are considered, such as who moves into the Eastern Conference to replace Winnipeg and what other peripheral changes to individual divisions might occur, the Stars hope for a chance to exit the Pacific Division.

Recently re-hired Stars President Jim Lites, who served on the NHL Board from 1982-93 as Detroit’s Chief Operating Officer and then from 1993-2002 and 2003-07 as Dallas President, is well aware of all the politicking that goes on and recognizes that several different clubs have a stake in what can be an emotional topic.

“It’s a tough issue, realignment, and I’ve been on the Board of Governors of the National Hockey League since 1982, obviously off the last four years, but it’s always been a thorny issue,” Lites conceded. “It doesn’t matter what the situation is and what the circumstances are. It’s all about geography.

“For us, we’ve had great rivalries and great games again and again and again with San Jose, Los Angeles and Anaheim. The problem is, and it always has been, our television games on the road start too late, and we lose a significant marketing opportunity by having people watch our games so late, and being able to introduce it, more importantly, to younger people. Television in this marketplace is 7-10 pm and we have too many games starting at 9, 9:30 and that’s our issue and always has been our issue.”

Playing three road games in each divisional opponent’s city under the current schedule format means that the Stars play nine contests per year in the Pacific time zone, two hours later, and Lites has a point when noting that kids are not likely to stay up watching them. Factor in the weird arrangement that has Arizona not switching to Daylight Savings Time every Fall and that puts at least two if not all three of our road games against Phoenix two hours later as well.

Two more road games against Western Conference foe Vancouver, which is in the Pacific time zone but in the Northwest Division, brings the total to 14 West Coast-based games each year, 17 percent of the Stars’ schedule.

That’s why it’s an issue.

With Winnipeg moving to the West, both Detroit and Columbus are angling to move to the East, as they are the only two Western Conference clubs in the Eastern time zone. There’s also been talk that Nashville, which actually is in the Central time zone, also might prefer the Eastern Conference, and geographically, would logically fill the open spot in the Southeast Division.

All three of those likely Eastern-bound teams are in the Central Division and the concern for the Stars then becomes who fills their vacated slot in the Central? Dallas would love to be the one so it could play more games against teams in the Central time zone.

“Our natural geographic rivals are Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, Minnesota, Nashville, Columbus - those are the cities that are closest to us,” noted Lites. “So is Denver, you could put them there, but the time zones are what really matter, and we would obviously rather play Central and East rather than constantly West. I enjoy the games when we play against San Jose, Anaheim and Los Angeles, they’ve been really great over a long period of time, but with that said, you want to do the right thing to grow the business.”

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, who was in town on Nov. 21 for the press conference announcing Tom Gaglardi’s purchase of the Stars, acknowledges that Dallas has a major interest in the realignment question and that Gaglardi himself has repeatedly broached the subject with him.

“I think the first time I met Tom to discuss the acquisition of the Stars, going back to 2009, that was one of the first questions that he asked me,” Bettman said. “And every time I saw him, he asked me again. I understand the issue, and as I think everybody knows, we’re in the process of working our way through realignment, since we have to get Winnipeg out of the Southeast Division and the Eastern Conference. I’m well-versed on Dallas’ view of the world and at the last Board meeting in September, one of the elements of our discussion included the Dallas issue, as it’s been called, and it’s something we’re working on.”

The Stars actually were originally in the Central Division from their first season in Dallas, 1993-94, through ’97-98 before the league’s last significant realignment, related to the last wave of expansion, precipitated an increase from four total divisions to six in 1998-99 and the Stars were moved to the Pacific.

Some possibilities that have been mentioned include a straight swap of Nashville to the Southeast and Winnipeg to the Central. In some ways, that would be the simplest idea for the league because fewer teams are impacted.

Any other ideas create ripple effects that become much more complex and involve more clubs shifting divisions and disturbing the status quo.

For example, if Detroit moves to the Eastern Conference, it doesn’t make sense for them to go to the Southeast Division - they should probably end up in the Northeast. But then that means someone has to shift from the Northeast to the Atlantic, and then bumps another team (Pittsburgh? Philadelphia?) to the Southeast.

The notion of splitting up Pennsylvania rivals Pittsburgh and Philadelphia is hard to fathom, as well as the possibility of moving Philly out of the same division as longtime foes New Jersey and the New York Rangers.

Then, in the West, it probably makes more geographical sense for Winnipeg to go to the Northwest Division, which forces another change.

Minnesota is pushing to move from the Northwest to the Central for a lot of the same reasons the Stars want to move - so it too could play more games in its own time zone, although all of their division rivals are just one time zone behind.

That scenario, though, would put four Canadian teams together in the Northwest with Colorado, and the thought is that the Avalanche wouldn’t relish that situation, as it is probably a tougher sell to their fans.

Or if Winnipeg goes to the Northwest, perhaps that pushes Vancouver to the Pacific, which would then allow Dallas the coveted switch to the Central. That has to be the best-case scenario for the Stars, but there is some evidence suggesting Vancouver isn’t interested in leaving the Northwest Division, where it regularly faces Canadian rivals Edmonton and Calgary. 

Other, more wide-ranging changes have also been discussed, such as possibly going back to just four divisions, two in each conference, instead of the current set-up of three divisions per conference. But with 15 teams per conference, that would leave one division with eight clubs and one with seven in each.

A revamping of the playoff system has also been attached to the debate, with the possibility of returning to a divisional playoff system that the NHL employed from 1982-83 through ’92-93. Under that formula, the top four teams in each division battled each other, 1 vs. 4 and 2 vs. 3 in the first round with the two winners facing off to determine a divisional champion that then advanced to the Conference Finals.

Lites, who spent 11 years with Detroit’s front office and considers owner Mike Illitch his mentor in the business, believes that is what the Red Wings really favor, as opposed to fully moving to the Eastern Conference.

“I know the issue is out there, but you know what? Detroit’s issue isn’t so much going East as it is not having to play their first-round playoff games three time zones away, because that is really tough to do,” said Lites. “That really stinks when you think about it, they’re playing road games at 10:30. Playing road games early in the playoffs in the first round, west to east, that’s why this set-up is tough for them, that’s their issue and they’ve talked about it. I don’t think their issue is the same as ours, but they have the same types of issues.”

With so many different teams having their own unique interests attached to realignment, it’s no wonder that it’s such a complicated topic and one that could intensify if the Board can’t come to an agreement by Tuesday night. That would postpone the debate until the next Board meeting at the All-Star Game in January and would clearly dominate the agenda in order to not delay next season’s schedule-making process.

“I think Commissioner Bettman wants to do the right thing,” Lites said. “There’s a window for change right now, and I don’t know what it will look like, you might see something a little more dramatic, but we’re really just in favor of playing our road games played inside our time zone - or certainly not two time zones away.

“Hopefully, Commissioner Bettman is going to craft an all-inclusive way to take care of everybody’s issues, which is why he does what he does.”

Then, of course, there’s still the uncertainty surrounding the owner-less Phoenix Coyotes, with speculation they could relocate, possibly as soon as next season, to somewhere like Quebec City or a Toronto suburb… which would then require a transfer to the Eastern Conference and drudge up this whole issue all over again.

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