WINNIPEG – The Winnipeg Jets are officially moving west in what NHL commissioner Gary Bettman calls a “fan friendly” realignment that was approved Thursday by the league’s board of governors.
“We’re very relieved, as much as we enjoyed those trips down south,” said Jets governor Mark Chipman.
Other teams also get some of their wishes fulfilled and fans will not have to deal with as many time zone issues starting next season to watch their home teams play away games.
But Bettman said the driver for realignment was the relocation of the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg.
“But for the relocation, this isn’t something we would have undertaken,” he said.
Dallas Stars president Jim Lites sounded just as happy, though.
“No one is a bigger beneficiary of this than the Dallas Stars,” he said of the move which puts the Stars in the same division as Winnipeg.
“We’ve spent quite a bit of time competing two time zones away in the West, which is always difficult.”
The new format will feature two eight-team divisions in the Eastern Conference and two seven-team divisions in the West.
The Jets will move into what is now known simply as Division B in the Western Conference, giving them a far friendlier travel schedule than they have now in the Southeast Division.
The other teams in the new division are Chicago, Colorado, Minnesota, Dallas, Nashville and St. Louis.
“I thought it was necessary,” said Nashville coach Barry Trotz before the Predators’ game in Vancouver. “As long as I’ve been in the West, there was a lot of travel.”
Detroit and Columbus will move to the two eastern divisions. Bettman says the league is still working on proper names for the divisions that will make it easier for fans to remember where the various teams are located.
Trotz said realignment will cool his club’s rivalry with Detroit following some heated playoff battles.
“We’re going to miss them, and our fans are going to miss them, because we have a lot of Detroit people who have moved to Nashville,” Trotz said. “But at the same time, we’ll form some new rivalries.”
The other three Western Canadian teams—Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver—are all moving to what is now being called Division A, with Anaheim, Los Angeles, Phoenix and San Jose.
Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa are heading to what is temporarily billed as Division C in the Eastern Conference, along with Boston, Buffalo, Detroit, Florida and Tampa Bay.
The commissioner says the new lineup will hold for three seasons, barring a move or expansion franchise which he said is not expected during that time frame.
“We’ll deal with possible relocation and expansion if and when we find ourselves in those processes,” said Bettman.
The final eastern division includes New Jersey and the two New York teams, plus Carolina, Columbus, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Washington.
The Jets are the only Canadian team without a national rival in their division but Chipman says that was hard to avoid and he pointed out that under the new system, every team will visit every arena at least once every year.
“What we’ve learned in the last couple of years playing in the Southeast is our fans like to see all the teams,” he said.
“It would have been nice perhaps to play Edmonton and Calgary more often but we are going to play them, we’re going to play the Habs and the Leafs and Ottawa and Van and all those teams. . .”
“The fact that we’re not seeing all of the Canadian teams as often as we might have liked is a very reasonable compromise for us.”
Realignment will also create changes in determining the 16-team playoff field. The top three teams in each division will qualify for the post-season. The next two teams with the best records in each conference will earn wild-card berths.
That makes it more difficult for teams to qualify in the East, because the conference will have two more clubs than the West competing for eight berths.
The NHL Players’ Association has already signed off on the realignment.