Good timing for four NHL divisions

ST. PAUL, Minn. – High above the stage at the 2011 NHL draft hung the flags of the league's 30 franchises – the Western Conference in a row on top, the Eastern Conference in a row below, in alphabetical order, left to right.

The key to change hung in the lower right corner, a black flag with the NHL shield and the text "WINNIPEG 2011-12." Now that the Atlanta Thrashers have moved and become the new Winnipeg Jets, they will play in the Southeast Division for one more season. After that, the NHL will realign dramatically. One NHL executive said Saturday that he could "guarantee" it.

It's about time.

"Now it's not perfect in everybody's eyes," Nashville Predators general manager David Poile said. "I would think even in whatever realignment we do it may not be perfect. But I think it's time for … It's not maybe time, but it's certainly an opportunity for a change."

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said during the Stanley Cup Final that the league would discuss realignment during the first half of the 2011-12 season, and if he had to guess, it would move toward "a slightly more balanced schedule."

Then Bettman made a proposal at Tuesday's board of governors meeting, according to a report in the Ottawa Sun. Sources told the newspaper the league would have four divisions – the Pacific, Midwest, East and South. Two divisions would have eight teams; two would have seven. Teams would play a balanced schedule in the regular season, with the top four teams in each division making the playoffs. The first round would be divisional play. Then teams would reseed for conference play.

One NHL executive said Saturday the plan would have four divisions – two with eight teams, two with seven – as outlined in the Ottawa Sun report, but he was vague about whether there would even be Western and Eastern Conferences. He said the divisions would be based on time zones, a common-sense solution to TV and travel problems that some teams face and have been frankly unfair for years. He said the league's board of governors would rule on the issue in December, though there remains a lot to talk about.

"I think the league would be happy to hear anybody's opinion," Poile said. "There's nothing that's been formulated. I haven't seen any proposal. The league certainly hasn't sent out anything, saying, 'Would you like to do this or that?' This is, I think, the start. So if you've got an idea, send it to me. Send it to the league. I think it will be looked at."

With two conferences, six divisions and an unbalanced schedule, two teams in the Eastern time zone play in the Western Conference: the Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets. They must visit each team in the Pacific time zone twice each season, spending time, energy and money to make the trips, with a good portion of their road games starting at 10:30 p.m. for their local TV audience. They don't play full home-and-home sets against each team in their own time zone.

The Wings have long wanted to move to the East, and Jackets GM Scott Howson said Saturday: "I'm in favor of anything that puts us in the East."

The situation isn't much better for teams in the Central time zone. The Predators would like to move east, too. Then there are the Dallas Stars, who are isolated deep in the heart of Texas and play in the Pacific Division.

"I think it's a good time to look at it," Carolina Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford said. "It really doesn't affect a lot of teams like ours, but Dallas has been in a little bit of an odd situation for a long time. Now, part of that is geography. You can't change it. But I'm sure they'd like to get a little bit of a change."

It simply makes sense to align the teams in terms of time zones and play a more balanced schedule. There would be less distance traveled and less jet lag for Western teams. There would be better TV times for more road games. Regional rivalries would still be able to develop, but every building would be able to host every team every season.

"Six divisions to four divisions, that could be good," Poile said. "For every team in the Western Conference, if we talked about a more balanced schedule, I think we'd be all in for that. So I think it's an opportunity to put all of our heads together. ... Maybe we can at least help and appease everybody to a certain extent, and maybe it would be good for our fans also."

Just remember that no matter what happens, not everyone will get what they want, and hockey tradition doesn't always match up with geography.

"I'd like to play in a division with the weakest teams," Rutherford said, smiling.

Teased that he played in the Southeast, Rutherford smiled even wider.

"Let me think now, the Stanley Cup champions – Tampa, Carolina …," he said, referring to the 2004 and 2006 winners. "It's always the weakest division. Where are you guys from? Where do you live?"