NHL Realignment: What New Set-Up Means to the San Jose Sharks

MJ KasprzakSenior Writer IIDecember 6, 2011

NHL Realignment: What New Set-Up Means to the San Jose Sharks

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    I have been as critical of NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman as almost anyone I know.  That is not going to change just because he has overseen a realignment that improves league balance.

    He still deserves the bulk of the blame for failed franchises in Phoenix, Columbus and Atlanta, while cities that wanted teams lay vacant in Winnipeg, Hamilton and other locations.  He even deserves blame for not giving Winnipeg back its original Jets as he stubbornly tries to hold on to Phoenix.

    In fact, Bettman probably deserves some blame for the lockout in the first place (why is it up to the players to control the owners' spending?), and for leaving the league stuck with two more teams than it should have.

    But it takes boldness and consensus-building to make a change as radical as the one the NHL has approved in the Board of Governors meetings this weekend.

    According to NHL.com, the league will change to a four-conference alignment for the 2012-13 season.  Two conferences will have eight teams and the other two will have seven.

    The seven-team conferences play each other six times and everyone else twice, keeping the schedule at 82 games.  The eight-team conferences play four of their teams five times and three of them six, while also having a home-and-home for every other team.

    The thing that does not add up is that every team they play six times one year is played five the next and vice versa, but that would leave every other year with an extra game.

    As of now, the league has not named the conferences.  This slideshow will include a name and characteristics for each as well as some advantages those teams have in the new system...

Rocky Mountain Conference

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    This conference is characterized by all the teams being close to the Rocky Mountain range.  Every team is either in the Pacific or Mountain time zones.

    Four of the teams are from the Northwest Division—Vancouver Canucks, Colorado Avalanche, Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers—and will be able to retain the four longest-standing rivalries in that division.  Likewise for the former Pacific Division rival San Jose Sharks, Phoenix Coyotes, Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings.

    This also gives the league some flexibility if Phoenix is unable to retain the Coyotes.  That team could relocate to another city geographically within the conference, or to one of the seven-team conferences, making it eight.

    This looks to be, by far, the most competitive of the conferences; it has five of the top 12 teams in the league for each of the past two years. 

    Both conference finalists (Vancouver and San Jose) from last season are top contenders this year and reside within this conference, creating a ready-made conference rivalry from the outset.

    However, teams currently in the Pacific Division would see only Vancouver added to their already brutal schedule, representing little change. 

    In fact, based on the 2011 playoff seeds, a team like San Jose would only add a couple more games against contending-calibre competition.           

Heartland Conference

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    In the middle of the continent, there are plenty of lakes and rivers feeding farms and cities.  All eight teams in this conference are in the Central or Eastern time zones and reside in the heartland.

    Winnipeg, Minnesota and Dallas—the three teams in this conference with the shortest rivalries in their old divisions—join the five Central Division teams (Detroit, Columbus, Nashville, St. Louis and Chicago).

    There are a couple teams that have struggled financially in this conference, so having eight teams gives the necessary flexibility if one has to relocate outside the geographic area.

    Detroit's rivalry with Toronto is not renewed, but the one with Chicago is maintained.  Since those two teams have two of the four most recent Stanley Cups, and three of the four most recent conference titles, there is a marquee rivalry from the start, as well as lesser long-standing ones.

    With Dallas having been a relocated Minnesota franchise, there is a bonus fan rivalry as well.

Prince of Wales Conference

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    The best thing to name the strangest of conference alignments after is the trophy awarded to the former Eastern Conference champion.  Giving it the other conference name would only confuse the significance of the former award.

    If two Florida teams were not inexplicably included with the former Northeast Division rivals, it could get a more regional moniker.  The idea that they include snowbirds relocated from the other area is no more true than it is of any other but the Rocky Mountain Conference.

    Now if one of the Florida teams goes under, the other is like a fish out of water in this conference.  There are two sensible rivals a thousand miles south of where five other long-established rivals reside.

    It would have made more sense to add the New York and New Jersey teams to the Northeast instead of those from Florida, making a more geographical eight-team conference. 

    Columbus could have joined the teams from Pennsylvania and the Southeast Division (sans Winnipeg).

Liberty Conference

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    This conference is the reason questions will be made about the realignment.  It slices right through the middle of the other one in the Eastern time zone and forces two Florida teams to join the former non-regional Northeast.

    Canadians who have long complained about Bettman's pro-American bias have all the more fuel to the fire with the only conference completely within the United States clearly having the least travel time. 

    Every other division will have at least two teams hours away from the others, while this one can get from the furthest two cities within 90 minutes of one another.

    However, it does maintain the Atlantic Division rivalries and enhances Washington's rivalries with Pittsburgh and Carolina

    Also, each of these teams has ties to the conference name—the Statue of Liberty near New York and New Jersey, the Liberty Bell in Pennsylvania, and Carolina and Washington playing in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol.