The NHL approved realignment for the 2012-13 season on Monday night, going to a four-conference format with a new schedule and "divisional" playoffs.
Here's a look at some of the big winners and sad losers in this process.
This is The Bettman Plan. His concept; his molding and shaping it until skeptical opponents acquiesced; his lobbying for its passage, depending on loyalists in the Eastern Conference to overlook their travel headaches and rubber stamp it. As Brian Burke told Yahoo! Sports: "It's like a Chicago election in the '30s, you know? He's got a pretty good idea of which way it's going — not that it's fixed, but that he's got a pretty good sense of where the votes are going to come." He got the votes, he got his plan … and in about seven years we'll know if it was Bettman's New Deal or Bettman's Folly.
A promise made was a promise kept … sort of. The Detroit Red Wings owner claimed that the NHL promised him the Wings would be realigned to the Eastern Conference. They weren't. Instead, to accommodate the Wings, the NHL blew up its conference format, redid its travel schedule and ensured that their Central Division rivalry with the Chicago Blackhawks was maintained. Don't tell us the NHL never did you a solid, pizza boy …
Columbus Blue Jackets
The primary survival mechanism for the Blue Jackets as a franchise is playoff contention and advancement. It doesn't matter what time the games start if your team sucks and your fans are apathetic. But when things turn around, there won't be the multitude of games starting between 9:30-10:30 p.m. ET for the Jackets — and this is going to be essential for building a fan base. It's a huge moment for them.
Fun fact: Dallas is a land-locked city that's closer to the Gulf of Mexico than the Pacific Ocean. Its relocation to a division featuring the Red Wings, Blackhawks, St. Louis and Nashville is good for travel and good for business. As Tom Gaglardi, the team's new owner, told ESPN Dallas: "I'm not sure we're not the biggest winner in the whole league. … I feel pretty wonderful. It's something I've chased ever since I started to chase ownership of the Stars. It's a great day for Dallas."
After over a dozen years toiling in the Southeast Division, pretending that games against the Hurricanes and the Lightning matters an iota of how much games against the Penguins and Flyers did, the Caps are reunited with their old Patrick Division pals. The NHL gets Crosby and Ovechkin to showcase six times per season; transplanted fans in D.C. see extra visits from the former Atlantic Division teams annually.
The Patrick Division is back. The Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks are going to be meeting in the postseason with frequency. The old Adams Division will have the same brutal familiarity every season, as long as the Floridian teams don't spoil the Northeast party. Plus, Detroit and Chicago and the Flyers vs. the Atlantic Division were maintained.
It's become a standard joke that NBC and its cable network show the same few teams with absurd frequency. With home-and-away games mandated for every team, the network can use established ratings draws to boost up the occasional appearances by less-popular squads. It will also have copious amounts of rivalry games and Sidney vs. Ovechkin appearances from which to choose. Best of all — more games featuring the Red Wings and Blackhawks that begin in prime time on the East Coast rather than late night.
Hey Quebec City, Kansas City, Seattle, Houston and certain areas within the Leafs' fiefdom: If the Coyotes remain in Glendale, the conferences will be unbalanced. And they're not going to contract …
Six of the seven Canadian franchises are clustered into two divisions. Meaning that the available playoff seeds for these teams are limited. Meaning that they'll cannibalize themselves in the divisional playoff rounds. Meaning that Bettman will be accused of some kind of nefarious anti-Canada agenda. Again.
Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Lightning
Unless there's some massive plate tectonic shift, Florida is not in the Northeast. Hence, travel is going to be a bear for both of these teams. They won't feed at the point trough of the Southeast Division, now having to compete against perennially competitive teams. They're also going to see an odd shift in attendance as snowbirds now have more chances to see their Canadian and Northeast U.S. teams down South. (This could actually be a positive if it creates a better game-going atmosphere.)
From Dale Tallon to NHL.com: "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."
Prince of Wales and Clarence Campbell Trophies
Sorry, but you guys just feel … different now. We'd reach out to give you a hug, but touching you is bad luck.
Jesse Spector of The Sporting News sees the Canes as one of the only losers in this realignment: "If there is one team that truly loses, it is the Hurricanes, who go to a conference with the big-budget powerhouses of the Northeast, and whose only holdover as a division foes, Washington, will be busy rekindling old animosities."
The rivalries they'll kindle will be good for business, but Spector's right: It's a division with a few seeds conceded each season and it's a spend-to-the-cap arms race in the Atlantic. Well, save for the Islanders.
Playoff-Television in First Two Rounds
In theory, the first two rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs are going to be appointment television thanks to divisional rivalries. But as we noted yesterday, the NHL risks repetitive tedium in matchups and is sacrificing the use of teams like the Blackhawks and Red Wings to bolster interest in series against Pacific Time Zone teams. For American television, the chances for all-Canadian playoff series have increased as well.
The Coyotes were unaffected by realignment for the most part … save for being treated like a leper by everyone involved. Every plan and every comment about this plan had the caveat that the Coyotes are either in the brink of relocation or will relocate. The fact that this situation has lingered on to the point where the Coyotes are still being owned by the NHL during realignment for the 2012-13 season is an utter joke. The way they were treated in this process was like getting more sand kicked in their faces.
Really Good Teams In Really Tough Divisions
The romantic nostalgia of the divisional playoff format clouds the fact that there's also going to be a very good team getting screwed because they're in a more competitive conference than another team with fewer points. So get ready for the No. 5 team in in conference to raise hell about the No. 4 team in a weaker conference.
Columbus Blue Jackets
Wait … winners AND losers?
Sure. It's what we call a "copout."
Mike Priest, the team president, said: "This is what's right for the league, but it's also something that will make a big, big difference for our franchise, both on the ice and off the ice. This is huge." Indeed it is, but it also didn't place the Blue Jackets among Northeast teams like the Penguins, Flyers and Bruins who probably mean more to these fans than the Predators and Jets.
Some of the bloody fantastic rivalries built during the conference playoff format years are going to be cooled through the new scheduling. The Colorado Avalanche and Detroit Red Wings will see each other twice; ditto the Chicago Blackhawks and Vancouver Canucks and the Boston Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers. Plus, the new divisional playoff format ensures they won't see each other until the Stanley Cup semifinals.
The Players Association still has to approve this new configuration, but that's expected. They weren't down with the increased travel during the regular season for Eastern Conference teams and they feel as though the eight-team divisions put those teams at a competitive disadvantage. Whatever protest they made, it fell on deaf ears.
She's left the building, folks. Not only will Cinderella teams be hard to come by in a divisional playoff format, but the awesome thrill of the one-vs.-eight upset has gone the way of Crystal Pepsi. Somewhere, Arturs Irbe and Jaroslav Halak weep.