One day, the NHL might have 32 teams. It might be split evenly into two 16-team conferences and four eight-team divisions. The top four teams in each division might make the playoffs and face each other in the first two rounds.
One day. But not next season, and not the season after that. For now, it's just a vague vision. An NHL source insisted Thursday night that expansion is not in the works and won't happen for four or five years, if ever, despite all the talk about Seattle and suburban Toronto and Quebec City. The league has too many things to iron out before it can grow.
And so, in the meantime, we're going to have to live with a realignment plan that is an improvement, but imperfect. The NHL Players' Association has decided to give its consent, but only after heavy internal debate, only for the short term and only because this is the lesser of a few evils. The NHL board of governors is expected to approve the plan soon, but not without some dissension.
The NHL currently has two 15-team conferences and six five-team divisions. The top eight teams in each conference make the playoffs.
Under the plan, there will be two conferences and four divisions – two eight-team divisions in the East, two seven-team divisions in the West. The idea is to align the league based on time zones.
The top three teams in each division will make the playoffs. The last two playoff spots in each conference will be wild cards, going to the teams with the next-best point totals.
The schedule matrix will change. Every team will play in every arena at least once.
The NHLPA gave its consent with the stipulation that the realignment will be re-evaluated after the 2014-15 season – or if the NHL relocates a franchise or expands at any point. The future of the Phoenix Coyotes remains in question.
Under the collective bargaining agreement, the NHLPA had to give its consent, but it could not withhold its consent unreasonably. Had the players withheld their consent, the league would have kept the status quo or tried to implement the plan anyway, perhaps going to arbitration.
The players did not consent after the board of governors approved the league's original realignment plan in December 2011. Two stated reasons: The odds of making the playoffs were imbalanced, and the league did not provide enough mock schedule and travel information. One unstated reason: The league simply did not consult with the players enough first, right before labor negotiations.
Originally, the NHL proposed four conferences based on time zones – two with eight teams, two with seven teams – with the top four teams in each conference making the playoffs and the first two rounds within the conferences. The players didn't like that 50 percent of the teams in two conferences would make the playoffs, while 57 percent of the teams in the other two conferences would.
The new plan has the same imbalance. In one conference, 50 percent of the teams will make it. In the other, 57 percent will make it. Another flaw: The wild card could cause travel imbalance in the West. For example, the Chicago Blackhawks could finish first and have to face the Anaheim Ducks in the first round, while division rivals like the St. Louis Blues and Nashville Predators are matched up and have better travel despite lesser seeds.
So why did the NHLPA give its consent this time?
Well, it was no rubber stamp. Union leadership worked with the league for weeks, and it spent more time than the league wanted consulting with players – on conference calls, in large groups, in small groups – before the executive board made the decision. There were many different viewpoints and ideas.
But the players appreciated that the league came to them first this time. They asked for mock schedules for three teams, and the league provided them. They didn't want to leave the Winnipeg Jets – formerly the Atlanta Thrashers – in the Southeast Division for a third season since their relocation. This is considered a temporary Band-Aid that will allow them to see how they like it.
And frankly, it just wasn't worth going to war over this after a bitter lockout that cost almost half of this season. There really was no better option, because the NHL simply has more teams in the East and so many competing interests market to market. In the end, no matter what you do, not everyone is going to be happy.
Realignment is like real estate. It's all about location, location, location.
The Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning don't like the plan, because they have to travel to Boston, Buffalo, Detroit, Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto for division games. (The idea is that they will sell tickets to snowbirds when those teams come to visit.) The Nashville Predators don't like the plan, because they lose the Detroit Red Wings as division rivals.
But the Red Wings and the Columbus Blue Jackets love the plan, because they were Eastern time zone cities playing in the Western Conference. Detroit owner Mike Ilitch had been lobbying commissioner Gary Bettman for 15 years, so his team could have better travel and his fans could have better TV start times, and he felt he was owed the move to the East. The Wings are an Original Six team that sucked it up and played at a disadvantage for a long time. The Blue Jackets needed the move as they continue to establish themselves in the league.
The Dallas Stars and Minnesota Wild love the plan, because they are in a division with teams in the Central time zone. They won't be going west like they used to. The Jets obviously love the plan because they won't be jetting to Carolina, Washington, Tampa and South Florida like they used to, and those teams have to be glad they're not going all the way to Winnipeg all the time anymore.
Hey, it could be worse. The NHL could be a 21-team league with imbalanced divisions that put 16 teams in the playoffs. Good thing that's never happened.
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