By Allan Muir
It's expected that the long-needed realignment of the NHL's conferences and divisions will finally be addressed in the next two weeks.
Details are sketchy, but one thing is clear: Plenty of people will be hacked off no matter how this plays out.
The league put forth a plan last year that addressed the most obvious issue -- Winnipeg being stuck in the Southeast Division after the franchise transferred from Atlanta -- but added an unexpected twist: an unbalanced, four-conference set-up designed to enhance geographic rivalries.
There were critics, of course, but it appeared to be a go for the 2012-13 season...until the NHL Players' Association crossed its arms, stamped its feet and scuttled the plan, sending its first shot across the league's bow ahead of last fall's lockout.
The PA's objections at the time were based on playoff inequities created by having two conferences with eight teams and two with seven, and the absence of a mocked-up schedule that would allow the players to consider the ramifications of travel.
But last week, PA director Donald Fehr told Larry Brooks of the New York Post that he now is willing to play ball. "If they present the same type of four-conference structure but have the information for us to review regarding scheduling and travel, and have a different playoff format that can ameliorate our concerns in that area, we’ll take it from there."
The league is thought to be full-speed-ahead on the four-conference plan, with some new tweaks that might soothe the PA. Hard to imagine what those would be though, unless a top-secret branch of elite hockey mathematicians has discovered a new form of division that would allow 30 teams to be split equally among the four conferences.
Of course, 32 is easily cut into four equal pieces...but the league has told us that expansion isn't in the short-term plans, so that can't be it, right? Right?
Another proposal said to be on the table was reported today by Bruce Garrioch of the Ottawa Sun:
• The Winnipeg Jets could move from the Southeast Division to the Northwest to replace the Colorado Avalanche with Vancouver, Minnesota, Edmonton and Calgary. The Jets have always wanted to be among their Canadian rivals.
• The Avalanche would then go to the Pacific Division to replace the Dallas Stars. Colorado wouldn't mind the move because it would eliminate the Avs from having to go into Canada to face their divisional opponents.
• The Stars would then move to the Central Division to replace the Columbus Blue Jackets. It has been a major complaint for Dallas because the club plays most of its games two time zones away and it has hurt local TV numbers.
• The Jackets would take Winnipeg's spot in the Southeast Division with Tampa, Washington, Florida and Carolina. That would be a good for Columbus because it would move them out of the highly competitive Central in the West.
Seems fairly straightforward, and easier to implement than the other approach. It keeps the current six-division format, and flips two teams, Winnipeg and Columbus, to different conferences.
Of course, Columbus would rather stay in the Central with Detroit and, geographically anyway, Nashville might be a better fit for the Southeast. And it probably makes more sense for Vancouver to join the Pacific rather than Colorado because (a) it eliminates the time zone disparity that arises from adding Winnipeg to the Northwest and (b) it sets up a divisional rivalry when Phoenix transfers to Seattle (you knew that was coming, right?). And Detroit, always the good solder, would love to move to the East, and ... All we know now is that change is coming. And no matter how it plays out, there are going to be unhappy partners.