SUN Hockey Pool

A Band-Aid or surgery?

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. REUTERS/Christinne Muschi

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. REUTERS/Christinne Muschi

CHRIS STEVENSON, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 3:46 PM ET

MONTEREY, Calif. - A Band-Aid or major surgery.

A nip-and-tuck or a major facelift.

Those seem to be the choices NHL owners face when it comes to tackling the always-contentious issue of alignment, which will likely make for the liveliest debate as the league's board of governors meet for two days here starting Monday.

By lively debate we mean blood on the floor.

The alignment talk has been given new life with the relocation of the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg this season. The move was made too late for changes this season so the Jets remain in the Southeast Division which, even for a league that has had the geographical absurdity of Detroit in its Western Conference for more than 20 years, is a bit much.

So, how to fix it?

That will be the big question between rounds of golf at Pebble Beach for the league's major domos.

"From the board perspective of making whatever decision they want to make, people are all over the place," said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman on his weekly radio show on NHL Home Ice. "If you ask each of the 30 clubs what their preference is, my guess is you'd get 30 different preferences and, as a result, what we really have to do is find the biggest layer of common ground. You're not going to get everybody's first choice.

"If we don't get it done now, we're going to be in really tough shape if we don't get it done by the All-Star Game (at the end of January). I don't even think we can wait that long. But I haven't figured out what we'll do if it doesn't happen (at these meetings)."

The simple solution is to swap Winnipeg and the Detroit Red Wings, with the Jets taking the Wings' place in the Central Division and the Wings moving to the Southeast. It still sounds dumb to have Detroit in the Southeast, but much less dumb that having them in the West.

The Wings deserve to be accommodated with a move to the east.

They have been the good soldiers of the current model. What they have accomplished as the only Eastern time zone team in the Western Conference for much of the last 20 years is pretty remarkable, given the added burden of travel they have had to bear, particularly in the playoffs.

Then there is the challenge they face with their fan base, given they will play only 11 road games with a start time of 7 p.m. or 7:30 p.m. this season Another 11 games start at 9 p.m. or later, which means they won't finish until about 11:30 p.m., which is late for those folks in Detroit still fortunate enough to have a job to get up to the next morning.

Even those games that start at 8 or 8:30 p.m. ­-- the majority of the Wings' games in Chicago, Minnesota, Nashville, St. Louis, Winnipeg -- make it tough for the next generation of Wings' fans, the kids, to stay up and watch.

You can make all the same arguments for the Columbus Blue Jackets and probably multiply them by X. The Blue Jackets have none of the history or entrenched passion for their franchise which exists in Detroit.

Coupled with their on-ice struggles, a bad television schedule is another strike against a franchise building a fan base and making a go of it in Columbus.

The Dallas Stars face a similar situation. They are the only team in their division in their time zone, meaning most of their road games start late in Big D, too. All of their road divisional games are at least two times zones away.

"Dallas, who's in the Pacific, plays a lot of its road games very late at night and so younger people in particular have a tough time staying up to watch the games on a regular basis, like when they're in Anaheim or Los Angeles or San Jose. So that's an issue," said Bettman.

"Minnesota is in a place where they're playing a lot of their games in the Northwest. And then you say, well, OK, if we put Winnipeg in the Northwest and we move Minnesota to the Central, isn't that great, and then Colorado says, wait a minute, then I'm the only U.S. club (in a division) with four Canadian ones. Crossing the border these days is rather time-consuming, and that puts us at a disadvantage. And you have the old arguments about the teams like Detroit and Columbus that are in the Eastern time zone, and they're saying, we're playing all of our teams or too many of our games west, from a TV standpoint."

As unjust as the current system is for teams like Detroit, Dallas and Columbus, the problem is it requires a two-thirds majority (20 of 30 teams) to approve any changes to the current alignment. The prevailing feeling is the teams in the East are more than happy with the status quo. All it would take to scuttle any sweeping changes is 11 of the 15 Eastern Conference teams to vote as a block to prevent any drastic or sensible evolution of NHL alignment.

Under one of the rumoured proposals, as reported by Elliotte Friedman of the CBC Saturday night, the two seven-team divisions would be in the East which would increase the odds of making the playoffs in the East. Maybe that would be enough to curry more favour in the East for a four-division setup.

Taking a sampling of which way the wind is blowing, I could see the owners going with the Band-Aid solution, particularly since the fate of the Phoenix Coyotes is still up in the air. It has been quiet in the desert, which is not a bad sign, but what if the NHL can't find a buyer willing to keep the franchise in Glendale for next season and beyond?

What then? Another move?

Quebec City is the choice destination of the Coyotes for most fans (and players and hockey writers), but it is not the turnkey opportunity Winnipeg presented. There is no NHL-calibre rink at this point.

Do owners wait and see what happens with the Phoenix franchise before pulling the trigger on a major overhaul? Or do they build in a potential Phoenix-to-Quebec porthole in a sweeping alignment change?

That proposal would likely see two divisions of eight teams and two of seven (with both the seven-team divisions in the East, a move of the Coyotes east, if necessary, would be easily accommodated) with a more balanced schedule. Every team would play a home-and-home with every other team in the league for a total of 58 games, with the remaining 24 to be played against their remaining six or seven conference rivals.

Everybody gets to see everybody in their building at least once a year. Teams like Detroit and Columbus would play a home-and-home with the 22 teams outside their division and the rest against their divisional rivals. It would cut their travel to the West Coast in half.

It would also keep divisional rivalries going, though I think what we've learned is that rivalries are built in the playoffs, not the regular season, no matter how many times teams play, because that's when the stakes are highest and emotions run the deepest.

The Vancouver Canucks' biggest rival right now is the Chicago Blackhawks. That's not based on geography or how many times they've played in the regular season. It's based on the ferocious playoff series they've had the last three years.

In a four-division system, the first two rounds of the playoffs would be played within the division, which would foster the development of those playoff rivalries. You're cutting the mix in half from the old conference-based system, meaning the chances of meeting the same team a few years in a row is increased.

From the first two rounds, a division champion would be crowned. They would meet to decide the conference champ. The East-West Stanley Cup final format would be preserved.

What I would like to see is the four remaining teams after the first two rounds reseeded according to their regular-season point totals and have them go at it. I know some will complain there is an inequity because of the schedule, but right now the team with the most points gets home-ice advantage in the Stanley Cup final with an unbalanced schedule.

I'm certainly not married to the idea of there having to be an "East versus West" Stanley Cup final. Maybe you need it for the Grey Cup because of the long-standing tradition in the CFL (admit it: the game isn't the same when the Winnipeg Blue Bombers are representing the East), but it has no real tradition in the NHL.

East versus West in the NHL has been a misnomer given Detroit has represented the West six times in the current format.

For those who would argue reseeding the four teams for the last two rounds could open up the possibility of more travel, I'd argue the chances would be just as good two Eastern-based or Western-based teams could meet in the final which would mitigate whatever additional travel might be incurred in the third round.

Plus, the crossover format increases the odds of the two best of the four remaining teams meeting in the final, which isn't always the case in the current system.

Just a thought.

When the debate over the next two days goes beyond the simple Detroit-for-Winnipeg swap, you can bet it will get testy.

"It's not easy to balance the fact that, yes, we play to 94% of capacity in the regular season, and 101% of capacity in the playoffs, and that's great on a macro basis," said Bettman, "but there are some clubs that say, this has been a little harder on us than on everybody else. That's why this is not an easy issue."

"Maybe there's a little burden for everybody to do something that really benefits the game," San Jose Sharks GM Doug Wilson told the San Jose Mercury News.

That's a great thought.

The big question is how many NHL owners share it.

CHARTABLE

Possible NHL realignment scenario (four divisions in two conferences).

Teams will play all other teams home-and-away in regular season with rest of games divided among division rivals.

Playoffs would see the first two rounds played within the division (1 vs. 4; 2 vs. 3) with the two winners playing to decide division champ. The divisional champions would play to determine conference champion.

Eastern Conference

The "Winter Vacation" Division

Boston Bruins

Montreal Canadiens

Ottawa Senators

Toronto Maple Leafs

Buffalo Sabres

Florida Panthers

Tampa Bay Lightning

"The Commuter" Division

Philadelphia Flyers

Pittsburgh Penguins

Washington Capitals

Carolina Hurricanes

New York Rangers

New York Islanders

New Jersey Devils

 

Western Conference

"The Not Perfect, But We'll Take It" Division

Detroit Red Wings

St. Louis Blues

Chicago Blackhawks

Dallas Stars

Minnesota Wild

Winnipeg Jets

Nashville Predators

Columbus Blue Jackets

The "Best Sushi" Division

Calgary Flames

Edmonton Oilers

Vancouver Canucks

San Jose Sharks

Los Angeles Kings

Anaheim Ducks

Phoenix Coyotes

Colorado Avalanche

chris.stevenson@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/CJ_Stevenson


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