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Realignment plan promising, but unfinished

The Stanley Cup makes an appearance during a photo opportunity at the Hockey Hall Of Fame on November 14, 2011 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

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The Stanley Cup makes an appearance during a photo opportunity at the Hockey Hall Of Fame on November 14, 2011 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

There will be those who will be applauding the NHL over its radical realignment scheme. Some will note that for perhaps the first time in history, the men who run the league looked beyond their own selfish interests and actually did something for the good of the collective.

Others will laud the fact that teams will now play each of their 29 competitors at least twice per season, once at home and once on the road. There will be kudos all around for a system that takes a few teams out of their comfort zone in order to make things a little more comfortable and palatable for teams that have been playing at a disadvantage for years.

The NHL indeed deserves a pat on the back for all of those things. In accepting the Gary Bettman-backed proposal, the board of governors took a bold and positive step to be sure.

But how on earth can the league announce this major realignment and not come to some sort of closure on which teams will meet in the Stanley Cup final? Isn’t that kind of like building the Taj Mahal and delaying putting on the roof?

This much we know, people who like geographic rivalries are going to love this new format. And the fans in either Toronto or Quebec City are going to really, really like it because once the Phoenix Coyotes become either the second team in Toronto (the bet we’re hedging) or the reincarnation of the Quebec Nordiques as early as next season, they’ll be treated to a steady diet of games against their new rivals, five a year if the Coyotes move to the conference that contains the Boston Bruins, Florida Panthers, Toronto Maple Leafs, Buffalo Sabres, Ottawa Senators, Montreal Canadiens and Tampa Bay Lightning.

The Battle of Alberta, the good old Chuck Norris Division days of Chicago vs. Detroit and the Pittsburgh Penguins going against the Philadelphia Flyers will warm the cockles of the heart to be sure. And it should help in places where they need strong rivalries to sell tickets. Who knows? Perhaps the Panthers will be able to charge more than four bucks to all those snowbirds who want to see their favorite teams when they come into town.

But we still have no idea whether there’s a possibility of two teams from the east or two teams from the west meeting in the Stanley Cup final because, in true NHL fashion, the board deferred that crucial detail until later. We do know the top four teams in each conference will qualify for the playoffs and will spend the first two rounds deciding which of those four will move on to the two semifinals.

What we don’t know is which format the playoffs will take after that. We have no idea whether the league will pit the winners of Conference A and B – which make up the western teams – and C and D – which make up the eastern teams – in the semifinals. Or will there be some kind of geographical crossover in the semis that could conceivably result in two eastern- or two western-based teams playing for the Stanley Cup?

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That’s a pretty pivotal wrinkle to still iron out. If the league bases its semifinals on points rather than geography, it runs the risk of having bigger travel burdens in three of its 15 playoff rounds rather than in just one, the way it is now.

But giving, say, the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers or the Vancouver Canucks and Winnipeg Jets the opportunity to meet in a final could be an enormous boon to the league. (Not to mention the possibility of added coverage, since media outlets would be more inclined to staff the Stanley Cup final if travel costs and time difference logistics were reduced.)

All in all, it looks like a good, but unfinished plan. The league knows the NHL Players’ Association must sign off on this and is waiting to see how the players feel about it. Aside from concerns over travel and the prospect of players in Conferences C and D having a better mathematical chance at playoff bonuses than those in A and B because there is one fewer team vying for the playoffs, the players will likely not have any major problems with it.

What will likely happen is the players and league will come to an agreement on the format so the league can begin working on next season’s schedule, with the realignment issue to be revisited and formalized in the new collective bargaining agreement.

Evidently, even the players know to do the right thing when it comes to the good of the league. Man, we’re on some kind of roll here, aren’t we?

Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column

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