Three Periods: The problems with the NHL's realignment proposal – and how to fix them

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo! Sports

Nicholas J. Cotsonika's weekly Three Periods column will appear on Thursdays. This week's topics include solutions for NHL realignment; Andrei Markov’s savvy rubs off on P.K. Subban; the aging Red Wings are suddenly too young; Simon Gagne’s memorable return to Philadelphia; and Roberto Luongo’s eight-goal Twitter joke.

FIRST PERIOD: Unsolicited solutions for the NHL's realignment proposal

The NHL expects an answer on realignment from the NHL Players’ Association by the end of this week. It remains to be seen what that answer will be, even though the league and the union have been working on the issue for three weeks and the league wants this settled so the schedule-makers can start on 2013-14.

The snag: The NHL’s new proposal did not fix a key problem the NHLPA had with the initial proposal. The league just changed the look of it.

Under the proposal passed by the NHL’s board of governors in December 2011, there would have been four conferences based on time zones – two with eight teams, two with seven teams. The top four teams in each conference would have made the playoffs, with the first two rounds played within the conferences.

The NHLPA did not consent largely because the odds of making the playoffs were imbalanced. In an eight-team conference, 50 percent would make it. In a seven-team conference, 57 percent would make it.

“At the end of the day, when you play in the same league, you want to have the same advantages,” said Niklas Kronwall, the Detroit Red Wings’ union representative. “Everyone should have an equal chance of making the playoffs, and it’s tough when you have [conferences] with eight teams compared to [conferences] with seven teams. Mathematically, to me, that would be unfair.”

The NHL tweaked its proposal. There now would be four divisions based on time zones, but there would still be two conferences – 14 teams in the West, 16 teams in the East. The top three teams in each division would make the playoffs, and the final two spots in each conference would be wild cards, going to the teams with the next-best point totals.

But the odds of making the playoffs would still be imbalanced. Eight teams would still make it in each conference, as they do now. But while eight out of 16 in the East would be 50 percent, eight out of 14 in the West would be 57 percent.

Sound familiar? NHLPA officials did not respond to requests for comment. But if the NHLPA would not consent to the initial proposal, why would it consent to this one? Just because it was consulted first, when it wasn’t last time?

Another flaw in the new proposal: The weakest wild card would face the strongest division winner in each conference. Crossing over is fine in the East, where everyone is at least in the same time zone. But what about the West?

Say Chicago earns the best record in the conference and has to play a wild card like Anaheim. The Blackhawks’ reward for a great regular season would be awful travel. The other division winner could face the same scenario.

The travel would be no different than it could be now, but realignment was supposed to solve that problem – and it would solve it for the second and third seeds in each division, who would play each other in the first round. Better travel in the West can be a bigger advantage than a better matchup. This is a league of parity in which the eighth seed in the West won the Stanley Cup last season.

The NHL discussed this internally before making the new proposal. The league realizes it isn’t perfect but doesn’t consider it a flaw. It is a reason why the league went back to two conferences. It didn’t want a league-wide wild card resulting in, say, a Vancouver-Florida first-round matchup.

Some solutions:

– Move Columbus or Detroit back to the West within this proposal. That would put 15 teams in each conference again and balance the odds. Problem is, the Blue Jackets and Red Wings live in the Eastern time zone. The Jackets need to go East to establish the franchise, giving their fans more marquee matchups and better TV start times. The Wings want it because they are an Original Six franchise that has been at a disadvantage in the West for years.

– After moving Columbus or Detroit back to the West, create a caveat: If both fourth-place teams in a conference make the playoffs, keep them within their divisions regardless of their point totals. Only cross over if three teams make it in one division and five make it in the other. Problem is, even though there is a way to avoid the bad-travel scenario, it still can happen. And if and when it happens, it won’t be fair.

– Keep the current alignment, but simply switch Winnipeg with Columbus or Detroit, moving the Jets to West and the Jackets or Wings to the East. The Jets could fit in the Central Division. The Jackets or Wings could fit in the Southeast, or there could be some more rejiggering of the divisions in the East. This is the simplest solution. Problem is, the NHL wants to realign to help as many teams as possible, and this will help only a couple.

It will be interesting to see what the NHL will do if the NHLPA does not give its consent. The collective bargaining agreement says the NHLPA cannot withhold its consent unreasonably. Will the league try to force realignment based on that standard? It didn’t last time, but labor talks were coming up then. Labor talks are done now.

There could be more problems ahead, too. What happens with the Phoenix Coyotes? If they stay, fine. If they relocate to Seattle, fine. But what if they were to go to Quebec City? And what if there were expansion to Quebec City or suburban Toronto someday? It could create more imbalance.

SECOND PERIOD: Subban picks up energy-saving tips from Markov

Andrei Markov played only 20 games for the Montreal Canadiens over the past two seasons because of injuries. He has played all 20 games so far this season. It’s among the reasons why the Habs have gone from worst to first in the East – and it seems to be having a positive effect on P.K. Subban.

Markov is logging 24:05 a game. He has five goals and 12 points. Ask Subban what he learns from Markov, and you hear what you’d expect from a young defenseman about a veteran – little things, like the way he passes the puck and moves his feet. But then you hear this: “I find with the guys in the league that are more experienced, they know how to get the job done with the least amount of energy.”

Subban still finds it easier to play a lot, because he’s into the flow, and he still wants to skate with the puck.

“That doesn’t mean you’re using more energy,” Subban said. “That’s just my game. My game is skating. If I have room to skate, I’m going to skate with the puck. Some guys don’t have the option of skating the puck. They’re not good skaters. So when they don’t have the option of passing it, it’s usually off the glass and out.”

The key is picking your spots. Subban can be more efficient now, because the team is structured differently and playing better, and he needs to be more efficient now, because the schedule is compressed and energy is at a premium.

“Even without Markie there, I had to kind of learn that, because I knew I would be playing 26, 27 minutes a night, so I had to make adjustments in my game,” Subban said. “I think I’ve made those adjustments. I don’t think I use nearly as much energy in a game as I would have my first year.”

How so?

“I think it’s just a matter of using the guys around me,” Subban said. “I think that when you’re on a team that’s been lower scoring, I think you can develop habits of trying to create more. You look at some defensemen, they have to do that for their team. They have to be activated in the rush. They have to jump in all the time. They have to try to get involved to create more offense from the back end.

“But every year’s different. Maybe last year I was expected to do that, but this year, they want us activated in the rush, but I don’t need to be leading the rush. And I’m fine with that. I’m happy. Hey, if we’re creating offense just with me making a breakout pass, that makes my job a lot easier. I don’t want to have to beat two or three guys to do something. I don’t want to have to do that.”

THIRD PERIOD: Detroit’s injury-induced youth invasion

For years, the Red Wings were supposed to be too old. Now they’re too young.

Already thinned by personnel losses, the Wings have been thinned further by injuries. They have lost more than 120 man-games even though they have played only 20 games. Divide 120 by 20. That’s six players out of the lineup per game.

As a result, they have played six rookies – and that doesn’t count Damien Brunner, who came over from Switzerland and had never played a pro game in North America at any level, even in the preseason. He has 10 goals but is ineligible for the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s rookie of the year because he turned 26 before Sept. 15, the cutoff date.

“Obviously, the Detroit Red Wings at this time in our existence, we’re in a bit of a transition,” said Wings GM Ken Holland.

Holland talked about how Scotty Bowman loved veterans as a coach because he knew what they would do. He listed players like Steve Yzerman, Nicklas Lidstrom and Chris Chelios. He could have gone on and on.

“Well, those days are gone,” Holland said.

The Wings still have Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, but they’re also playing Tomas Tatar and Joakim Andersson.

“We still think that we’ve got the potential to be a good hockey team, but with all the injuries that we’ve had, we’ve been forced to probably play a lot more kids than we had planned,” Holland said. “They’re going to make mistakes. That’s a part of being a young player. We’re prepared to live with their mistakes.

“We think that most of them can develop into good, solid NHL players, but they’re going to make mistakes along the way. That’s just part of developing players. We believe we’re going to wake up down the road and we’re going to be a better team because of the adversity and because of the experiences these players are getting.”

The Wings entered Thursday night 10th in the West. But they had 21 points, same as the eighth-place San Jose Sharks and ninth-place Phoenix Coyotes. They were only two points behind the fourth-place Nashville Predators.

It is going to be a fight to make the playoffs for a 22nd consecutive season, but the Wings are still in the mix and haven’t seen their real team yet. They have taken leads only to blow them. Once potent on the power play, they are a stunning 0-for-31 on the road. Get Todd Bertuzzi and Mikael Samuelsson back, and we’ll see. They badly need Darren Helm, too.

OVERTIME: Gagne’s perfect return to Philadelphia

Great story Wednesday in Philadelphia. After being traded by the Los Angeles Kings back to the Flyers, where he spent the first 10 seasons of his NHL career, Simon Gagne took a red-eye flight across the country and struggled to sleep in the excitement, then slipped on his old uniform and scored in his first game.

But let’s not get carried away. Gagne turns 33 on Friday. He wasn’t playing in L.A., even though he is a skilled player and the Kings need scoring. He had no goals in 11 games with the Kings and only seven in 34 last season. He was starting to think about asking for a trade. The Kings gave him away for a fourth-round pick. Asked to respond to critics who say he is getting old, Gagne didn’t even protest much.

“I still have some good hockey in me,” he said. “But at the same time, the end is coming.”

The positive is that the Kings have Philly connections and had the class to send him where he is comfortable, and the Flyers have a defined, supporting role for him. He can help, especially on the power play, but he isn’t the jolt the Flyers need. Expect much more from GM Paul Holmgren.

SHOOTOUT: Last shots from around the NHL

  • The Dallas-Montreal trade worked for both sides. Michael Ryder and Erik Cole each scored 35 goals last season, so they are equivalent players. But the Habs wanted cap flexibility, while the Stars wanted security with Jaromir Jagr, Brenden Morrow, Derek Roy on expiring contracts. So Ryder and his expiring contract were attractive to the Habs, while Cole and the two years left on his contract were attractive to the Stars, even at a hit of $4.5 million.

  • The weird thing is the third-round pick. Why did the Habs get that in the deal, too? You can say that balances the scales because Cole had more time left on his deal, but cap space is an asset these days, too, especially with the cap going from $70.2 million to $64.3 million next season. But Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk had three third-rounders to burn and this was the cost of doing business.

  • Gotta love Roberto Luongo. He has handled his situation in Vancouver with class and humor. He gives up eight goals in Detroit, then tweets this under his pseudo-secret handle @strombone1: “I just wanted to apologize to all the people who had to replace their Budweiser Red Light bulb after yesterday's debacle #LUON8O” See how much easier it is when you just admit your mistakes? People relate to you. More feel for you, and fewer pile on.

  • If you’ve ever complained about supplemental discipline – and if you follow hockey and have a heartbeat, you have – then watch this video and others like it. NHL disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan explains how the department of player safety makes decisions. If no one watches this stuff, if no one studies it, what’s the point? It’s not just about punishing; it’s about educating. At least it should be.

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