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NHL realignment easy in theory, tough to execute

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and the board of governors will meet to discuss realignment. (Getty Images)

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NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and the board of governors will meet to discuss realignment. (Getty Images)

By Nicholas J. Cotsonika

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and the board of governors will meet to discuss realignment.

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – It is called the National Hockey League, but we're about to find out how much of a league it really is – or at least how powerful and persuasive commissioner Gary Bettman can be. Do the 30 clubs care most about what is best for the group as a whole? Or do they care only about what's best for them?

Realignment will be the biggest topic as the NHL's board of governors meets at a posh Pebble Beach golf resort Monday and Tuesday. Now that the Atlanta Thrashers have become the Winnipeg Jets, the owners must decide how to change the setup. It is a complex and contentious debate, and it takes a two-thirds vote to settle.

The easiest solution is the simplest. Keep the two-conference, six-division system. Move the Jets to the Central Division. Move one of the Western Conference's two Eastern-time-zone teams – the Columbus Blue Jackets or Detroit Red Wings – to the Southeast Division. Hit the links. Hit the road. Job done.

But the best solution is the boldest. Create four conferences. Base them on time zones. Balance the schedule. Reduce the inequities of the old system – evening out the travel from East to West, giving fans better TV start times more often, letting fans see each team in each building at least once a season. Give the top four teams in each conference a playoff spot, make the first two rounds intra-conference clashes, and reseed after that.

It remains to be seen what the owners will do. It remains to be seen whether the owners will even make a firm decision now, with the issue so heavily debated and the future of the Phoenix Coyotes still uncertain.

Actually, it remains to be seen how much the owners will listen to each other or to the commissioner. Or even how open some of them are to the very idea of radical change.

"I think everybody should accept a little bit of a burden to do what's right for the league instead of just saying, 'Well, this benefits us as an Eastern team because we don't want to travel,' " San Jose Sharks general manager Doug Wilson said. "To me, sometimes what has to be done for everybody needs to be presented, and I think that's what Gary is trying to look at."

Wilson compared the realignment debate to the rules debate during the 2004-05 lockout, which resulted in changes that opened up the game and made it faster and more exciting than ever before.

Back then, Wilson said, league leaders told each other: "Put aside your personal interests for a second. What's truly the right thing to do?"

Wilson smiled. Well, sort of smirked actually.

"Now, we'll see," Wilson said. "I'll leave it at that."

The divide is exactly what you expect. This is a league in which one conference, the East, has all 15 teams in one time zone and another conference, the West, that spans four time zones.

Talk to executives in the West, and you hear calls for change – at least for a more balanced schedule. Teams in the West are generally willing to travel even more, as long as the road trips are reasonable and teams in the East have to travel much more than they do now.

"My own personal belief is I'd love to see a balanced schedule in the sense that we'd play everybody home and away," St. Louis Blues GM Doug Armstrong said. "I know that there are certainly economic costs for the Eastern teams to go West, but I think for the good of the game, hopefully that's one thing that we can agree upon and get that into the next schedule."

The issue is especially emotional in the middle of the continent. Not only are Detroit and Columbus in the Eastern time zone but the Western Conference, Minnesota and Dallas are in the Central time zone while the rest of the teams in their divisions are in the Mountain or Pacific time zones. These teams are constantly going one, two or three time zones West, traveling long distances, making their fans stay up as late as 10:30 p.m. too often to watch games on television.

"I think that's one of the toughest things we have to deal with, especially in the playoffs," Red Wings forward Henrik Zetterberg said. "If we go all the way [to the Stanley Cup final], most of the time we have to go to the West Coast at least two – sometimes three – times. That is tough on the body."

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But talk to executives in the East, and you hear … very little. They don't want to say anything because they don't want to do anything. (Isn't it telling how outspoken Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke is keeping mum on the subject?) They like things the way they are, and why not?

As some Western GMs have grumbled, the East has its own little house league – especially in the Atlantic Division. Some teams are so close geographically that they could ride their bikes to road games. In the playoffs, they could win the Cup – as the Pittsburgh Penguins did in 2009, beating Detroit – without leaving their own time zone during the entire two-month marathon while their opponent has had to cross-cross the continent.

"Everybody's got their own agendas and things like that," Penguins GM Ray Shero said. "But it depends where you're situated."

The bottom line is that the winning proposal will have to attract at least 20 votes – or in other words, keep 11 or more teams from blocking it – and that's what leads you to believe the simplest solution will pass. But even the simplest solution isn't simple.

Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch has said publicly that Bettman promised Detroit would move East if the opportunity arose. The Wings are an Original Six team. They have been good soldiers for a long time. So just swap them with the Jets in the current system, right?

Well, Bettman can't make that promise because it's up to the owners, not him, and there is a good chance at least 11 Western teams won't vote to lose the Wings. Wilson has gone on record saying the Sharks want to keep them."We've got a great rivalry with them," Wilson said. "You don't really want to lose an Original Six out of the Western Conference."

So just swap the Jackets for the Jets in the current system, right? Not so fast. That doesn't address the problems of the Stars, Wild and Wings, nor does it address the fundamental travel inequity from East to West.

So Bettman has been working hard behind the scenes to convince enough owners to adopt the four-conference model. Some executives will tell you that Bettman always does his homework and won't bring something to vote unless he knows he can win. But even the commissioner has expressed uncertainty about the outcome.

Bettman has smoothed over some concerns, such as the desire of the Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers to maintain their division rivalry. But he can't make everybody happy no matter what he proposes.

Having two seven-team and two eight-team conferences is a sticking point for some, including reportedly the NHL Players' Association, because the top four teams in each conference would make the playoffs and that means some teams would have more competitors than others.

No, it's not ideal. But Chicago Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman has shrugged it off, pointing out the old Patrick Division once operated with an extra team, and that inequity pales in comparison to the current ones. Somebody is always going to be a the bottom, no matter the format. This way, there will just be an extra team at the bottom in two of the conferences.

To keep the Penguins and Flyers together, the league could put Florida and Tampa Bay in a division with Boston, Buffalo, Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto. Even though snowbirds might buy tickets in the Sunshine State, it might not fly with some because of the flights. A more balanced schedule under any scenario might not fly with Eastern teams.

"We have a terrible travel situation in Florida," Panthers GM Dale Tallon said. "It's really horrendous. I'd like to limit our travel as much as possible so our players can be at their best the majority of the time."

The Panthers do have a tough travel situation, the worst in the East. They're at the far tip of Florida, and flying north to Canada and out West more often cannot be that appealing.

But at least they would still be staying in the same time zone within their division. They won't get much sympathy in, say, Minnesota. The Wild has yet to play a road game in its own time zone this season. It won't play one in the Central until Dec. 13 – when it visits Winnipeg, which at least temporarily is actually an Eastern team.

Major change is needed, and this is a major opportunity to do the right thing for the league. We can only hope that as the governors gather here – especially those that came all the way from the East – they look out at the green fairways and the ocean vistas and they realize that some things are worth the trip.


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