McKenzie: Realignment ignites passionate debate

Bob McKenzie
10/12/2011 7:51:03 PM
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Do you want to start a fire?

Just rub two sticks together and mention realignment to an NHL fan, owner or general manager.

It's guaranteed spontaneous combustion.

No issue in hockey -- not fighting or head shots or suspensions or rules of the game or labor strife -- can ignite passionate debate the way the mere mention of realignment can.

Last night was a prime example.

On Twitter, I put out a note that more and more NHL governors are believing that the Detroit Red Wings will be moving next season to the Eastern Conference, specifically the Southeast Division, and that the Winnipeg Jets could conceivably take the Wings' spot in the Central Division and that is both a plausible and possible scenario when realignment is done for real at a board of governors' meeting in Pebble Beach, Calif., in early December.

The response was immediate and overwhelming. Within minutes, there were hundreds and hundreds of responses, mostly panning the notion of the Wings leaving the Western Conference for the geographical inappropriate Southeast Division -- though there were a lot of Journey lyrics about "south Detroit" -- but there was also a torrent of opinion on exactly how realignment should be done.

That's the thing about realignment. Every fan thinks he has it figured out. Every team in the NHL is much the same. The only problem is they're almost never on the same page.

And in order to get a realignment passed at a board meeting, any new configuration requires a two-thirds majority -- or 20 of 30 votes. So any like-minded group of 11 clubs can put the kaibosh on any plan.

In terms of what could happen at the December board meeting, pretty much everything is on the table. But the general sense is that the realignment plan that has the best chance of getting the two-thirds majority is the plan that causes the least amount of upheavel.

Well, if that's the case, then it doesn't get any easier than the following configuration, which we'll call Plan A, for now:

Put the Winnipeg Jets in the Central Division and move the Nashville Predators from the Central to Winnipeg's spot in the Southeast. Boom. Done.

Nashville, even though it's in the Central Time zone, is geographically aligned with Carolina, Florida, Tampa and Washington better than any team currently in the Western Conference. While the ideal spot for Winnipeg would be in a division with Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver, that would necessitate a chain reaction of other moves and Plan A is based on nice and easy. Besides, Winnipeg is so damn happy to be in the NHL, its not about to complain about being in the Central.

But Plan A doesn't take into account the Mike Ilitch Factor. Ilitch, of course, is the venerable owner of the Detroit Red Wings and a couple of weeks ago he went public, suggesting that NHL commissioner Bettman years ago promised, when Detroit was put in the Western Conference, that if in the future a Western Conference team had to relocate to the Eastern side it would be the Red Wings.

Whether any "promise" was made -- technically, that's not a promise the commissioner can make since it is ultimately the board of governors that decides on realignment and it's the one issue where they're difficult to wrangle -- is almost immaterial. Ilitch believes the Red Wings are "owed" a return to the Eastern Conference and he'd like to collect on that IOU.

A quick history lesson: Detroit and Toronto were the two Eastern Time zone teams placed in the Western Conference when the league went to the conference format in 1993-94. But in 1998-99, Toronto was moved to the East, leaving Detoit alone. In 2000-01, Columbus entered the NHL and became Detroit's only other Eastern Time zone partner in the West.

The Wings' position is as follows: They've been a good solider for the NHL, being the marquee team of the Western Conference at their own expense in terms of local television exposure, or lack thereof, and hellacious travel, especially in the playoffs. Outside of games with Columbus, Detroit's road games within the division start at 8 p.m. or 8:30 p.m. Eastern when playing St. Louis, Chicago or Nashville. And when they're playing other Western Conference teams in Mountain or Pacific Time zones, the games don't start on local Detroit TV until 9 p.m. or even 10:30 p.m. and that is taking a toll on the younger generation of Wing fans who can't stay up that late to watch the team.

As for the travel issue, every Western Conference team has it rough, but Detroit quite often finds itself travelling to the Pacific Time zone for the first two rounds of the playoffs -- Phoenix and San Jose was last year's exactor but Anaheim usually figures in there, too. And for a team that usually goes deep into the playoffs, the Wings contend they are at a severe travel and competitive disadvantage in the playoffs with that much travel in the first two or three rounds of the playoffs.

That's why Ilitch is campaigning hard to get the Wings the get-out-of-the-West card. And more than a few governors are lining up behind Ilitch and agreeing that the Red Wings -- an original six franchise which in many respects is the model NHL franchise that has been carrying the league's water in the Western Conference for more than a decade -- are the team that deserves to move East.

So on that basis, here's Plan B: Put the Red Wings in the Southeast Division -- as geographically inapproriate as it may appear -- and put Winnipeg in the Central Division.

But that scenario would leave many unhappy teams in the Western Conference. Let us count them: Columbus, Minnesota, Nashville, Dallas. And those are just the teams that want a move of their own. Other teams, such as Chicago or St. Louis, would be sorry to see a division rival and drawing card like the Red Wings exit the West.

Columbus would like to see Plan C. That is, Columbus moves to the Southeast Division and Winnipeg takes the Blue Jackets' spot in the Central.

The Blue Jackets feel like they are dying on the vine in the Western Conference and all the same arguments about local TV exposure apply to them too. Columbus would argue that Detroit is a rock solid franchise economically that will fare well no matter where it's situated but that the Blue Jackets are really still trying to establish themselves in their market and a move East would help in that regard.

Mind you, Nashville might argue Plan D is the way to go. Oh, wait, that's not Plan D. We're back to Plan A, Nashville to the Southeast, Winnipeg to the Central.

It's actually Minnesota that has Plan D. It would really like to be in the Central Division, so the Wild would suggest Winnipeg should go to the Northwest with Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver and Colorado. Minnesota being in the Central Division would give them more natural geographic rivals from the Midwest such as Chicago and St. Louis. Whichever team leaves the Central to go east -- Detroit or Columbus or Nashville -- doesn't much matter to the Wild. They would like more games against American teams, more games in the Central time zone as opposed to the Mountain or Pacific zones.

But the problem with Plan D is that as much as Winnipeg would like to be with Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver, the NHL is not going to put a lone American franchise, in this case Colorado, in a division with four Canadian franchises. It's just not going to happen. And yes, you are correct to note that if Winnipeg goes into the Central it would be alongside four American teams, but Winnipeg is fine with that. New kid on the block isn't going to complain.

Many have argued Plan E is the way to go, but you're going to have to put your thinking cap on to absorb this one because it's starting to get a little complicated. Take any one of Detroit, Nashville or Columbus to the Southeast, put Winnipeg in the Northwest Division, move Colorado into the Pacific Division, and move Dallas to the Central Division.

The owner in Dallas loves this one. Well, if Dallas actually had an owner right now, he would love this one because the Stars are adamant they're the ones dying on the vine in the Pacific, playing division rivals on the road who are two times zones away. They look at Detroit's time zone misfortune and go pffffft, that's nothing, try going to the Pacific Coast for EVERY divisional road game. Dallas, because it doesn't have an active owner at this time, feels as though its concerns aren't heard when compared to Mr. Ilitch's lobbying efforts on behalf of the mighty Red Wings. Colorado wouldn't have any significant issues moving into the all-American Pacific Division. But the problem with this Plan E is the same as Plan D. That is, one American franchise, in this case Minnesota, would be in a Northwest Division with four Canadian teams. Not going to happen.

Okay, if you are thirsty or hungry or need a bathroom break, you may want to do that now, because we've still got a long way to go here.


Welcome back.

We're now up to Plan F. How about we take any one of Detroit, Nashville or Columbus to the Southeast, doesn't really matter at this point for the purpose of this argument. Let's put Winnipeg in the Northwest Division, but keep Minnesota, Colorado, Calgary and Edmonton there, and move Vancouver to the Pacific Division. Vancouver in the Pacific makes a lot of sense because, well, every team in the Pacific would actually be on Pacific time. That would allow Dallas to move from the Pacific to the Central.

Dallas would love that. Minnesota may not love it but they lose Vancouver, which is good, and gain Winnipeg, so it's not horrible for the Wild. But the Canucks would scream at losing natural rivalries with Edmonton and Calgary, and Edmonton and Calgary wouldn't like that either. Vancouver would not be happy as the only Canadian team in the otherwise all-American Pacific Division. Don't like the chances of Plan E working for that reason.

The common thread in all of these plans -- from A right through to E -- is that they are predicated on the current format of three five-team divisions in each of two conferences. How about a little outside-the-box thinking and overhaul the whole thing?

That would be Plan G and one that some think Bettman himself would like to see or at least be given serious consideration.

The conference format would be scrapped for four divisions built strictly on time zones/geography.

There would be two eight-team divisions and two seven-team divisions. No way to get around the imbalance in a 30-team league, unless there's a Plan Gor three 10-team divisions or conferences and if that's Plan H, for argument's sake, no one in the NHL is seriously considering it at this point. So back to Plan G.

One eight-team division would consist of only Pacific and Mountain Time zone teams -- Anaheim, Los Angeles, San Jose, Phoenix, Colorado, Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary.

One seven-team divison would consist of all Central Time zone teams and one Eastern team -- Dallas, Nashville, Chicago, St. Louis, Minnesota, Winnipeg and one of Columbus or Detroit

Another seven-team division would include one of Detroit or Columbus plus Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Boston.

The other eight-team division would be the three New York area teams -- Rangers, Islanders and Devils -- plus Philadelphia, Washington, Carolina, Tampa and Florida.

Honestly, when you look at those four divisions, from a practical viewpoint, there isn't any single franchise that would have a significant beef with the time zones or the geography in the regular season. It would address the needs and desires of Dallas, Nashville, Detroit, Minnesota, Columbus, Winnipeg, take your pick.

But things start to get complicated once we get into the Plan G playoffs.

In other words, we would have to move away from the Conference playoff format and return to the days of first two rounds of the Stanley Cup playoffs being contested entirely within the division.

And there's the rub on Plan G.

Plan G works like a dream in the regular season. Every team in the new four-division NHL would play every other team in the league in a home-and-home regular season series for a total of 58 games (2 x 29). The remaining 24 games (assuming the 82-game schedule remains intact) would be against only division rivals, so travel would be minimized and geographic and time zone rivalries would be enhanced.

But in order to do that in the regular season, there is no choice but to scrap the 1 vs. 8 and so on Conference playoff format. Because there would be so much empahsis on divisional play, the point totals in one division could not be compared equal to another division, so the playoffs would absolutely have to go back to divisional matchups (1 vs. 4, 2 vs. 3) for the first two rounds of the playoffs.

And there's one more post-season problem with Plan G. Four teams would miss the playoffs in two divisons, only three teams would miss the playoffs in the other two. The teams in the eight-team division do not like those odds. It's not fair. There are teams virulently opposed to it on that basis alone.

One of the clubs that really likes Plan G suggests there can be an cross-over element that if the fifth place team in one division has more points than the fourth-place team in another division, there could be a one-game sudden-death play-in between for the right to the final playoff spot, but you can see where this is going. It's starting to get really messy, with a whole bunch of new wrinkles.

Going to a four-division system that makes so much geographic sense in the regular season means doing away with the current NHL playoff format and there are a lot of NHL teams asking themselves why the league would be turning things upside down when the current post-season system works very well.

Plan G involves radical change and a lot of NHL teams -- say, every team in the Eastern Conference for starters, and that's 15, four more than is necessary to kaibosh any realignment vote -- don't have a burning desire for big changes to appease the few clubs -- Detroit, Columbus, Dallas and perhaps Minnesota -- that would like to improve their lot in realignment life.

So away we go, let's start all over again and look at Plan A or B, which are predicated on nice and easy, if there is such a thing.

All of which gives you some idea of how contentious and troublesome realignment is for the NHL and what dynamics will be at work when the governors convene in Pebble Beach in December.

Bob McKenzie


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