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NHL realignment: There's no simple solution

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There are two things everyone needs to understand about NHL realignment: One, the East holds the key. Two, this goes beyond how the league is divided. It also involves how the schedule is structured. Will there be more crossover games, and if so, how many?

There are several scenarios on the table, ranging from radical to simple. But as one general manager put it Thursday, what it comes down to is this: "You've got to figure out a formula that attracts votes." At least two-thirds of the clubs must agree for a proposal to pass at the NHL’s board of governors meeting Dec. 5-6, and so the process has become highly politicized.

"Alignment tends to be one of those complicated and emotional issues because everybody's got a particular interest, which typically transcends in that unique case the greater good of the league," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said this week, sounding a little frustrated. "We'll get something done. I just can't predict what it is yet."

In other words, everyone is looking out for himself. Considering that, why would the Eastern teams want to change much? They generally have easier travel, and many are well-established with long-standing rivalries. The majority like things the way they are. As far as they're concerned, move the Winnipeg Jets to the West, pick someone to replace the former Atlanta Thrashers in the Southeast Division, and be done with it. Don't mess with the schedule. All it takes to block a proposal is 11 like-minded teams, and there are enough to form an Eastern bloc.

All of the issues come from the West, where there are more travel problems, more emerging markets and fewer sexy divisional matchups. The biggest issues come from a small group of teams – the Columbus Blue Jackets, Dallas Stars, Detroit Red Wings and Nashville Predators. The Jackets and Wings don't like being the only Eastern time zone teams in the Western Conference. The Stars are a Central time zone team stuck in the Pacific Division. The Predators argue that they belong in the Southeast based on geography.

How do you address the problems of the few in a way that appeals to many? Can you?

Bettman proposed four divisions – two with eight teams, two with seven – based on time zones to smooth out TV start times and travel for everyone. One NHL executive said at last June’s entry draft that he could "guarantee" dramatic realignment.

But one GM said Thursday "that ain't going to fly." Why? Though some say it's unfair – with the top four teams making the playoffs in divisions with different numbers of teams – that really isn't the hang-up. The discussion hasn't even gotten that far because enough Eastern teams just don’t want radical realignment.

So if the NHL sticks with six divisions – and assuming the Phoenix Coyotes stay put – the board of governors must answer three questions: Who moves to the East? What are the divisions? What is the schedule format?

Remember that at the Stanley Cup final Bettman said if he had to guess the league would move toward "a slightly more balanced schedule." Right now teams play 24 games within their division, 40 more within the conference and 18 against the other conference.

The schedule format can have a significant impact. Take the Wings. They could live with moving to the Southeast, even though they would prefer the Northeast, but Western teams want them as a draw and might not vote for a package that brings them to their buildings only once or not at all. The Wings could live with staying in the Central, even though owner Mike Ilitch feels Bettman promised him a move to the East, but only if the schedule is balanced enough that it decreases their Western travel. Eastern teams might not go for that because it would increase their Western travel.

This much is certain: A lot more lobbying and brainstorming will be done before the vote in December, and not everyone is going to be happy with the outcome.

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FIRST PERIOD

One proposal: Increase the number of crossover games, so fans have a chance to see more teams and the travel is spread out at least a little more, and align the divisions like this:

– Atlantic: Boston, Philadelphia, New Jersey, New York Islanders, New York Rangers.

– Northeast: Buffalo, Detroit, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto.

– Southeast: Carolina, Florida, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, Washington.

– Central: Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Nashville, St. Louis.

– Northwest: Calgary, Edmonton, Minnesota, Vancouver, Winnipeg.

– Pacific: Anaheim, Colorado, Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Jose.

You lose division rivalries like Detroit-Chicago, Boston-Montreal and Pittsburgh-Philadelphia, and the Minnesota Wild might not be happy in a division with four Canadian teams.

But you gain division rivalries like Detroit-Toronto, Detroit-Montreal, Boston-New York and Pittsburgh-Washington, and except for Detroit-Chicago, those other rivalries would remain within the conference. It makes sense geographically. It would help Dallas and Detroit and wouldn’t hurt Columbus or Nashville.

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SECOND PERIOD

Jets fans welcomed Bettman back to Winnipeg by chanting, "Gary! Gary! Gary!" Bettman was smart to play it down, saying he was used to noise at hockey games, that he preferred passion to being ignored, that he thought they were chanting for another guy named Gary.

But they should chant for him. He got the owners their salary-cap system, and without it, there wouldn't be another team in Winnipeg. He will be the one leading the charge in the next round of negotiations, as the collective bargaining agreement with the players expires Sept. 15.

You have to wonder if Winnipeg is a bit of a catch-22. Even though they play in the smallest market and the smallest arena in the league, the Jets will bring in more revenue than the Thrashers did. The league continues to crow about how it has been raking it in, going from a $2.1-billion business to a $3-billion one.

"We've had tremendous growth," Bettman said. "We seem to be bucking the trend in that regard, and we're optimistic that even after six years of record revenue growth, we're going to have a seventh this year. So we're doing OK."

But the salary range is tied to league-wide revenue. The cap has risen to $64.3 million, the floor to $48.3 million – $9.3 million above the original cap. Some teams are struggling. Some are for sale, being sold or seeking investors. One obviously moved. It will be Bettman who argues that the players must make concessions despite that revenue growth so all markets – especially small ones like Winnipeg – can be competitive.

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THIRD PERIOD

For the Los Angeles Kings and Philadelphia Flyers, it was one of those where-were-you moments. Kings captain Dustin Brown(notes) was actually at the airport in Philly on June 23 when he heard the Flyers had traded their captain, Mike Richards(notes), to L.A. Brown was coming back from the NHL Awards in Las Vegas, making a connection to his hometown of Ithaca, N.Y. He was reading Twitter on his phone.

"I was a little bit shocked," Brown said. "I was shocked that with his contract and the type of player he is, you wouldn't think he would be on the market. For whatever reason, he was." About 20 minutes later, some Philly fans sat down right next to Brown. They were talking about the deal that sent Richards to the Kings for center Brayden Schenn(notes), winger Wayne Simmonds(notes) and a second-round pick in 2012, on the heels of the deal that sent Jeff Carter(notes) to the Columbus Blue Jackets for winger Jakub Voracek(notes) and first- and third-round picks in 2011.

"They were like, 'I can't believe they made those trades,' " Brown said.

Brown didn't say a word, and the Philly fans didn't know they had a King in their midst. Smart move. He didn't call Richards for a while, either, even though he has known him since they were teenagers in the Ontario Hockey League. It should be interesting when Richards returns to Philly on Saturday night.

"He might have a chip on his shoulder," Brown said. "I think talking to him, he was probably pretty devastated by the trade. I think it took him by surprise just as it took a lot of people by surprise. He might be motivated to show some people what he's all about, questioning him."

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NHL POWER RANKINGS

Top 6

1. San Jose Sharks: OK, they've played only one game. But they won it 6-3 and they're my preseason pick to win the Stanley Cup. So as we introduce Three Periods' spanking-new NHL Power rankings, with a Top 6 and Bottom 6 format, the Sharks start out on top.

2. Pittsburgh Penguins: Sidney Crosby(notes) has been cleared for contact, and though there remains no timetable for his return, that's obviously great news for a team off to a 3-0-1 start.

3. Philadelphia Flyers: Why could the Flyers trade Carter and Richards? 'Cause Claude Giroux(notes) is a stud. He scored three goals as the Flyers opened with three victories, including wins over the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins and runner-up Vancouver Canucks.

4. Washington Capitals: Jason Chimera(notes) has three goals, too. In two games. He has never scored more than 17 in a season.

5. Detroit Red Wings: Ian White(notes) is no Brian Rafalski(notes), but he got off to a good start pairing with the ageless Nicklas Lidstrom(notes) on defense as the Wings opened 2-0-0.

6. Buffalo Sabres: After starting with two victories in Europe, the Sabres return home triumphantly to Pegulaville.

Bottom 6

25. Carolina Hurricanes: The rebounded from an 0-2-1 start to beat the defending Cup champs. Tomas Kaberle(notes) earned his first assist for Carolina. No, it wasn't on the power play.

26. Boston Bruins: The Bruins aren't going to stay in the bottom six, of course. But have they stopped parading the Cup around yet? They're 1-3-0, including losses to the 'Canes and Colorado Avalanche.

27. Phoenix Coyotes: Oh, the irony. The Coyotes' home opener is Saturday night against … the Winnipeg Jets. Can they draw more than 15,004?

28. Ottawa Senators: Nice win over the Wild. If only they could face Dany Heatley(notes) every night.

29. Calgary Flames: The Flames lead the league in one thing: bad contracts.

30. Columbus Blue Jackets: Wonder if Jeff Carter is feeling any better about that trade. The Jackets are 0-3-1 and just drew a record-low crowd of less than 9,000.

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PLUS/MINUS

Plus: Chris Pronger(notes) was born to give good quotes, just like Daniel and Henrik Sedin(notes) were born to lead the Vancouver Canucks' power play. "It's scary good out there," Pronger said. "They've all been together, some of them since birth."

Minus: Bettman's update on the Phoenix situation: "It remains a work in progress, and there are actually a couple of active potential owners who are going through the process of seeing if they can make it work." Sigh.

Plus: Senators coach Paul MacLean didn't complain when Toronto Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf(notes) drilled center Stephane Da Costa(notes). Da Costa didn't complain, either. Good, hard, clean hit. See, we still have those in the game. Right, Don Cherry?

Minus: As much as coach Bruce Boudreau seems principled for starting Michal Neuvirth(notes) in the opener because of his strong camp, he seems short-sighted for sitting Tomas Vokoun(notes). The guy came to the Caps for the bargain price of $1.5 million so he could win, and that's what he gets?

Plus: Wonderful work by the Pens and Caps on Thursday night, when the rivals were set to wear commemorative patches to honor the KHL's Yaroslavl Lokomotiv. They will auction off the jerseys on NHL.com to benefit the families of those killed in the plane crash.

Minus: Agent Allan Walsh went overboard when he called the NHL's discipline system a "kangaroo court" because of a two-game high-sticking suspension to client Pierre-Marc Bouchard(notes). It took away from legitimate points about Brendan Shanahan's(notes) ruling and a system in which the commissioner – who handpicked his man Shanahan – handles the appeals. This will be an issue in CBA negotiations.