The National Hockey League and their partner the National Hockey League Players’ Association have finally agreed on realignment. Both sides have been working on a deal since before the lockout and before the subsequent reworking of the Collective Bargaining Agreement. The league formed the plan and took it to the NHLPA for approval. Approval was given and the plan takes effect for the next NHL season. There is one final hurdle with the Board of Governors needing to sign off, but at this point that is a formality.
The move sees three teams shift conferences and an entire new playoff structure. The Winnipeg Jets will move to the Western Conference with both the Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets moving east. The Eastern Conference will have 16 teams while the west will only have 14.
The realignment will be reevaluated after the 2014-15 season. This means that with realignment might come relocation of teams, in regards to the Phoenix Coyotes, or expansion teams, in regards to Seattle, Quebec City and Markham.
Travel has always been an issue with teams like the Blue Jackets, Red Wings and Dallas Stars. Their worries will now be put to rest for the time being. The Western Conference will have two divisions. The Midwest Division will include the Stars, Jets, Chicago Blackhawks, Colorado Avalanche, Minnesota Wild, Nashville Predators and St. Louis Blues. The Pacific Division will include the Coyotes, Anaheim Ducks, Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks and Vancouver Canucks.
The Eastern conference will have two divisions as well. The Atlantic Division will be comprised of the Blue Jackets, Carolina Hurricanes, New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals. The Central Division will have the Red Wings, Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres, Florida Panthers, Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators, Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs.
Eight teams from each conference will still make the playoffs with the top three in each division getting automatic berths. The next two best wildcards fill out the seventh and eighth team playoffs. The playoffs will now begin inter division and then move to inter conference.
This means that teams in the Western conference have a better shot at making the playoffs than the Eastern. Teams in the east have a 50-50 chance of making it to the postseason while teams in the west have a 57.1 chance. The schedule will be unbalanced, but at a minimum each team will have a home and away date with every other team in the league.
More details will follow, but at a quick glance the Central Division has four of the original six teams in it. It will still be as hard for the Maple Leafs to make the playoffs as it always is. Actually it will be harder because now they have more dates against the Red Wings. Travel will be less for some teams and snow bird fans in Florida will get to see more of their Canadian teams.
This is a bold move by the NHL and NHLPA. It solves problems and leads me to believe that relocation and expansion is upon us quicker than we all thought. Rivalries will grow even larger as the divisional playoffs are back.
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