A new era in NHL hockey is set to begin.
Although it won't go into effect until the 2012-2013 season pending approval by the NHL Players' Association, the NHL Board of Governors has constructed and approved a drastic realignment plan that will completely change the league's current structure.
The plan, instigated by the relocation of the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg last spring, nixes the East/West two-conference, six-division system for a four-conference blueprint without any divisions. The four conferences, arranged somewhat geographically, are below.
Conference A: New Jersey, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, New York Rangers, New York Islanders, Washington and Carolina
Conference B: Boston, Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, Buffalo, Florida and Tampa Bay
Conference C: Detroit, Columbus, Nashville, St. Louis, Chicago, Minnesota, Dallas and Winnipeg
Conference D: Los Angeles, Anaheim, Phoenix, San Jose, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and Colorado
The new structure will certainly help with the three priorities the NHL set forth at the start of the planning period:
- Move Winnipeg into a group of western teams;
- Prevent in-conference travel across more than one time zone; and
- Keep historical rivalries together.
But while the new system will greatly improve some areas of the league, not everyone benefits. The Southeast Division was completely obliterated, with former clubs heading in three different directions. As well, the currently unnamed conferences are not only quite unbalanced in number of teams (A and B have seven, C and D have eight) but also in strength of those teams.
Here are a few winners and losers of the new system.
The Carolina Hurricanes are already having a disastrous season. Now, they get the pleasure of being the smallest fanbase and arguably the worst team in the NHL's new toughest conference.
The entire Atlantic Division, plus typical powerhouse Washington, will be their new opponents. While the Islanders might be a more-than-fair match and the Devils aren't at peak form, 24 games every year against the Capitals, Flyers, Penguins and Rangers leaves a lot to be desired. All of those four teams finished in the top four of the Eastern Conference in '10-'11 or are currently there this season.
But it only gets worse.
In the first two months of this season, the 'Canes stand at 2-8-1 when facing any of their six future conference opponents except for the Islanders, whom they have yet to play. Last year, their record was only slightly better against those foes—6-11-5.
Considering that Carolina had benefited greatly from the Southeast Division's weaknesses over its short history, this change in alignment forces it into a far tougher schedule at the worst possible moment.
These Winnipeg Jets have only existed for a brief 25 games to date, but they're in for a literally long season.
The Jets play a whopping 36 of their 41 road games out of the Central time zone for an incredible 43.9 percent of their 82-game season. That translates into a wide variance in game start time from day to day, a mental strain on the players and a major hassle on their developing fanbase.
Next season, as they hoped would happen, almost all of those problems will go away.
Although they can't avoid the usual travel difficulties of being a western team, where hockey cities are simply farther apart, Winnipeg's new conference opponents are much closer—four of them are in the same time zone, and the other two (Detroit and Columbus) aren't much farther away.
Adding to their relief is the fact that this Midwestern conference is perhaps the weakest of all. Chicago and Detroit will be permanent powerhouses, but the remaining two playoff spots will be wide open and relatively uncontested. If Winnipeg can continue moving in the right direction, its new arrangement will only make its emergence as a viable franchise even sweeter.
The Florida Panthers appear to be on pace for their first playoff berth in a decade. There's certainly a lot of hockey left to play, but a ferocious offense and shockingly impeccable "D" have hoisted them into top-class dark-horse status.
While their new conference next season won't be too great of a challenge, the ridiculous travel they'll be forced to endure might be catastrophic to their weak foundation in an anti-hockey region.
With the exception of local rival Tampa Bay, Florida will have to play three road games every season against all five members of the old Northeast Division: Boston, Buffalo, Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa.
From Sunrise, Florida, the Cats will have to travel an average distance of 1,271.2 miles to these five cities 15 times every season.
For a club like the Panthers that ranked 25th, 22nd and 21st in home attendance during the '09-'10, '10-'11 and '11-'12 seasons, respectively, these whopping travel expenses might just break the bank.
Although politics was certainly the main reason, the NHL made a dumb move to force all of these unnecessary costs on Florida.
The Detroit Red Wings wanted to move to the Eastern Conference.
That didn't happen, but they did get a very fair deal nonetheless. Detroit's new conference is right up its alley, and not just because of geographical proximity.
In addition to their much-decreased travel costs, the Wings have been given the gift of a cupcake conference—only Chicago can truly compete with them year in and year out.
The rest of their collection of conference opponents—the Blue Jackets, Predators, Blues, Wild, Stars and Jets—won't rattle anyone's teeth.
Even though Dallas and Minnesota are off to hot starts this fall, neither made the postseason last April; meanwhile, the rest of those teams are really struggling to find much traction in '11-'12, just as they have in past years.
On the other hand, high-powered dynasties such as Vancouver and San Jose have been taken out of the equation, making Detroit a definitive lock for a high seed absolutely every year.
For the Vancouver Canucks, winning the division title has been the expectation, not the goal.
That's what was bound to happen when one of the league's biggest powerhouses sat in the Northwest Division, which has filled a grand total of two at-large playoff slots over the past three seasons—the average division would've filled five.
But that cakewalk is no more.
The Canucks are now stuck with a plethora of talented West Coast opponents, including a perennial power in San Jose and several up-and-comers in Anaheim, Los Angeles and Phoenix.
It's true that three of their old punching bags (Calgary, Edmonton and Colorado) will follow them there, but that trio won't attract much concern. Instead, Vancouver will be worried immensely about its new opposition that could easily provide a challenge it can't conquer very often.
The Canucks' 2011 Stanley Cup bid was eventually halted by the wear and tear of a deep playoff run; with Vancouver now having to face such strong opposition throughout the regular season too, a drop-off in playoff success may be in store.
On the reverse end of the intriguing Pacific and Northwest Division merge are the Phoenix Coyotes, an underestimated squad simply hampered with a brutal schedule in years past.
In last night's announcement, the 'Yotes failed to escape their old adversaries but were rewarded with the infusion of three teams worse than they into Conference D.
The aforementioned trio of Calgary, Edmonton and Colorado are constant bottom-dwellers, so, at last, Phoenix will have a decent number of "easy" games to build upon. With 18 games a year against those pushovers, luck might finally have turned on the Coyotes' side.