NHL approves radical realignment plan
ESPN.com news services
Updated: December 6, 2011, 4:57 AM ET
PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- NHL officials approved a radical realignment plan Monday that will give the league four conferences instead of six divisions and guarantee home-and-home series among all teams.
The Board of Governors authorized commissioner Gary Bettman to implement the proposal pending input from the NHL Players' Association. It could be put in place as early as next season.
The league considered two plans to accommodate Atlanta's move to Winnipeg this past summer. The first would have simply moved the Jets to the Central Division and either Detroit or Columbus to the Southeast.
"The simple one wasn't as simple as it looked when you got done with it," Bettman said.
The board opted to go with the more dramatic switch, creating four geographic conferences -- two with eight teams and two with seven.
The new format will increase overall travel in the regular season, especially for Eastern Conference teams who will now have more trips West. But it cuts down on travel for some Western Conference teams, which was a critical issue for teams like Detroit, Dallas, Columbus and Nashville.
"More teams are going to have to do more travel. There's things in there that everybody likes to a degree and some they wouldn't like but ultimately it's about compromise," Detroit general manager Ken Holland said. "From the Detroit Red Wings perspective, we like it."
The debate process lasted for roughly an hour. While no official vote count was released, the changes required at least 20 of the 30 teams to ratify.
"This is not a subject that everybody is going to get their first choice on," Bettman said. "What you try to do is come up with something that everybody can live with, get comfortable with and understands the value of. Because if you ask 30 clubs, you'd probably get 30 different solutions. That's what makes this a difficult process."
Representatives from about a dozen teams spoke before the plan was approved.
"I don't even really get it," Phoenix defenseman Keith Yandle said. "If you look at our division, or conference, it's tough. Our division right now is pretty tough, too. There's no off nights. You'll have to be ready to play every night, as you are this year."
Bettman said the NHLPA has expressed concerns about the new plan and that he will discuss it with union chief Donald Fehr before implementing it. Bettman said the change doesn't need union approval, a stance the NHLPA contests.
"Realignment requires an agreement between the league and the NHLPA. We look forward to continuing our discussions with the league regarding this matter," union spokesman Jonathan Weatherdon said in an email Monday.
The new look has two conferences with seven teams all based in the Eastern time zone: New Jersey, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, New York Rangers, New York Islanders, Washington and Carolina in one and Boston, Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, Buffalo, Florida and Tampa Bay in the other.
The Penguins, who feared being separated from cross-state rival Philadelphia, were pleased the league maintained historic rivalries.
"It was important to us to stay with long-time rivals. Not just Philly ... I think it was important to us to make sure we maintained the rivalries that we developed over the years and they're very good rivalries and our fans love to hate some of the teams we play against. I'm sure their fans love to hate us too. So we're encouraged by that," Penguins CEO and president David Morehouse said Monday. "In the end I think this will be a good thing for the league."
The third conference consists of eight teams in the Eastern and Central time zones: Detroit, Columbus, Nashville, St. Louis, Chicago, Minnesota, Dallas and Winnipeg. The fourth conference has eight teams in the Mountain and Pacific time zones: Los Angeles, Anaheim, Phoenix, San Jose, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Colorado.
The conferences have not been named.
"The chance to stay in our time zone the chance to play two Original Six teams lots (Chicago and Detroit) and other very good teams in that conference and the chance to have every team in the league come into our building every year I think is a real positive," said Mark Chipman, chairman and governor of the Jets.
Teams will play home-and-home series against all nonconference teams and five or six games in their conference. The top four teams in each conference will make the playoffs, with the first two rounds consisting of solely intraconference matchups. Bettman said he will consult with general managers in the spring before deciding whether to reseed the playoffs in the third round or to have pre-determined matchups.
"It's going to be different," Phoenix captain Shane Doan said after the Coyotes won 4-3 in a shootout at Chicago. "Once you win your conference, you cross over to play somebody. I don't know who. Does it rotate? Does Conference A play Conference D, then B and C?"
"But now, the Western teams don't have to leave the time zone every single time we have a road trip. We leave our time zone every single time now. We've got most of our division, other than Dallas in it. Now, our rivals are Dallas and L.A. We'll play L.A. and San Jose the same number of times (as now)."
Bettman said he liked the current format that he devised of six five-team divisions but that Winnipeg's move from Atlanta forced some change. He didn't take a stance on either proposal, but simply explained the pros and cons and allowed the teams to vote.
There was about an hour of discussion, and representatives from about a dozen teams spoke before the plan was approved.
"I think there were more than two or three teams not happy with the current situation," Columbus general manager Scott Howson said. "This was a compromise that really satisfies everybody to a large extent."
Chipman added there was no acrimony in the discussion that led up to the change.
"I think it was a matter of everybody trying to make their points but I got the sense that people were acting in the best interests of the league and there was a compelling argument that what was agreed to today was in the best interests of everybody," Chipman said. "You can't satisfy everybody, everybody knew that going in."
Toronto, for instance, would have preferred to maintain the status quo from a hockey perspective, but general manager Brian Burke said they supported the realignment plan because it was better for the overall health of the league.
"It had very strong support and we support it too," Burke said of the new alignment.
"Sometimes you have to vote with your team's interest in mind but there's times when you can vote with the league hat on and that's what we tried to do."
Burke said concerns about the effect of additional travel appear to have been addressed by the league.
"We don't have much input as players but I'm sure that they've worked every possible situation and it's like with anything, it's not going to fit everybody perfect but Florida in January's not too bad," Ottawa captain Daniel Alfredsson said following the Senators' 4-2 win over Tampa Bay.
The four-conference format will also allow for more flexibility should the team need to move the Coyotes franchise that is currently owned by the NHL.
The league remains hopeful it will be able to sell the team to an owner that will keep the franchise in Arizona. However the NHL has said it will not continue to own and operate the team in Phoenix beyond this season, which means it could be sold and relocated before the start of next season.
Information from ESPN.com's Scott Burnside and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
A New Look
Here is the four-conference format approved by the NHL Board of Governors Monday night. Under the realigned format, which still needs to be officially implemented by commissioner Gary Bettman, every team would play every other club in a home-and-home matchup:
New York Islanders
New York Rangers