SBD/February 27, 2013/Leagues and Governing Bodies

Latest NHL Realignment Proposal Features Four Divisions, Playoff Wild Card Spots

Moving the Blue Jackets and Red Wings to the East is a key part of the realignment
The NHL yesterday officially notified teams of its "latest re-alignment proposal" and the previous plan to break the league into four conferences is "a goner, which means four divisions in two conferences," according to Elliotte Friedman of the CBC. The realignment plan would mean it is "no longer the top eight teams per conference that qualify" for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Instead, the "top three teams in each division are automatic qualifiers," and they will be "seeded 1, 2 and 3." The No. 4 seeds will be "given to the next two teams with the highest point total." The club with "fewer points would play the higher-seeded No. 1." That is on a "conference, not a league-wide, basis, which prevents a cross-continent matchup." This is "probably the biggest concession the league made to the union," and explains why the Blue Jackets and Red Wings "were moved to the East." Not only is it "better for their fans' television viewing, but the Red Wings really wanted assurances they wouldn't have to travel west in the first two rounds of the playoffs." The league-wide memo indicates that the NHL and the NHLPA will meet after the '15-16 season to assess the new divisions, "or earlier if circumstances warrant." Barring expansion or relocation, "both sides are committing to this for three years" (CBC.ca, 2/26). ESPN.com's Pierre LeBrun noted under the NHL's new plan, each team will "play teams in the other conference both home and away." The NHLPA "blocked the December 2011 plan, citing travel concerns for its players plus playoff inequity," so these changes "come as a result of those concerns." The two sides have been "negotiating for the past three weeks on finding a better solution for realignment." However, the NHLPA wants to "further address it with its players before consenting to it" (ESPN.com, 2/26).

PROS VS. CONS: USA TODAY's Kevin Allen writes of the NHL's proposed realignment, "The plus of this plan is it places Winnipeg in the West where it belongs and let's Detroit and Columbus join other Eastern time zone teams." But the "minus is the Eastern Conference has eight-team divisions and the Western Conference has seven-team divisions, and the idea that players wouldn't have an equal mathematical chance of making the playoffs is troublesome to the NHLPA." A divisional-based playoff with an unequal number of teams "is not unprecedented in NHL history." The league from '81-82 to '92-93 had "four playoff qualifiers coming out of both five- and six-team divisions." One reason the NHLPA "might be open to allowing the uneven numbers between the two conferences is that this might be the only way to get Columbus and Detroit in the East" (USA TODAY, 2/27). ESPN.com’s Craig Custance said of the proposed playoff format, “It’s still an advantage to be in the West.”
But the new plan still “doesn’t necessarily alleviate the concerns the players have” ("Hockey Today," ESPN2, 2/26). The GLOBE & MAIL's Sean Gordon writes, "It's hard to imagine some big-revenue teams won’t kick up a fuss at the competitive imbalance, and on the face of it, the plan makes no allowances for eventual franchise relocation or expansion to Quebec City and Southern Ontario." But at the same time, the new divisional line-up "would be a boon to prime-time television viewers -- a calculation that is top-of-mind for the NHL" (GLOBE & MAIL, 2/27).

TURNING UP THE DRAMA: The NATIONAL POST's Bruce Arthur writes the proposed playoff format would "create more annual blood feuds," which can be "a double-edged sword: on the one hand, seeing the same teams over and over could eventually dull the mouth-foaming hatred that certain fans harbour for other teams, but on the other hand the blood feuds could eventually reach the point where someone pulls out an actual double-edged sword, which based on the universal in-arena reaction to fights would be a big hit." But whenever the NHL talks realignment "you have to treat it like a shell game, waiting to be solved" (NATIONAL POST, 2/27).
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