NHL players largely seem in favour of a proposed realignment plan that will require the support of their union before taking effect next season.
The major four-conference shakeup endorsed by the NHL’s Board of Governors had players abuzz in dressing rooms around the league Tuesday. Some were still getting a handle on what it meant and a few voiced concerns, but the overall reception was positive.
“It looks pretty fair,” said Montreal Canadiens defenceman Hal Gill. “It’s a little different. But it’s not going to be perfect. Unfortunately, the map doesn’t lend itself to perfect. You don’t want to take away too many rivalries so you have to figure it out.”
Referencing the controversial way U.S. college football determines its champion, Gill added: “There’s nothing perfect—ask the BCS.”
The aspect of the proposal that elicited the most excitement from players was a new schedule matrix that includes a game in every city around the league.
Since the lockout ended in 2005, teams in the Eastern and Western Conference haven’t played each other home and away each season.
“I’ve played almost 100 games in the league and there are still teams I haven’t played yet,” said Ottawa Senators forward Zack Smith. “I think it’s good to get around and see everybody and go to every city. I think fans will really enjoy it as well. They get to see a lot of the stars in the East, but this way they’ll be able to see some of those guys in the West.”
Added Winnipeg Jets winger Evander Kane: “I get to go to Vancouver, my hometown, every year which is nice. But it will definitely be a new look to the league.”
One area of concern is the fact that two conferences feature eight teams while the two others have seven.
That represents a significant competitive disadvantage since the same number of teams (four) will qualify for the playoffs in each conference.
“Personally, I’d like to have the same shot at making the playoffs as everybody else,” said Flames winger Alex Tanguay. “If you’re in one of those conference that has eight teams, it’s definitely going to be much tougher that (those with) seven teams to make the playoffs.
“I don’t know how they can make that work. I’m sure there’s a solution.”
Added Vancouver Canucks forward Alex Burrows: “That’s wrong for me. I’m old-school.”
The realignment model proposed by the league owners on Monday night must still gain approval from the NHL Players’ Association. However, that isn’t expected to be a major obstacle.
An added benefit for players based in the West is the perception that the playing field will be levelled a little bit. The new plan calls for Eastern teams to be on the road more often than they have been in the recent past.
“We have a tough travel (schedule) to begin with anyway,” said Vancouver Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo. “For us, it doesn’t really change much as far as that’s concerned. The concern, I think, is probably for the teams in the East. They’re probably going to have to make a bigger adjustment more than anything else.”
Some players were still wrapping their heads around the impact of the new schedule.
Veteran New Jersey Devils forward Patrik Elias leaned back in his locker stall at Air Canada Centre with surprise upon learning that the new system would mean fewer trips to Toronto in the future—not to mention Montreal and Ottawa.
“Really? So where do we go?” he asked.
The Devils will continue playing the Rangers, Islanders, Flyers, Penguins, Hurricanes and Capitals regularly. They’ll only see everybody else twice a year.
“I’d rather be coming here, to be honest,” Elias said before New Jersey faced the Maple Leafs. “I’d rather play in the Canadian cities, it’s a lot more fun. People here, they’re more into hockey, they understand hockey.
“For us it’s fun to play here.”
Overall, there wasn’t much grumbling to be heard. In fact, most players were quite enthusiastic in their support.
—”It means less travel, more games in our time zone, so we’re excited about that,” said Blue Jackets captain Rick Nash.
—”It’ll be fresh and it’s good for the fans, and I think it’s good for everybody,” said Avalanche defenceman Shane O’Brien.
—”It’s kind of cool,” said Oilers forward Ryan Jones.
The players also seemed to recognize the many challenges involved with the realignment process. Even though it was virtually impossible to keep all 30 teams happy, the league managed to come pretty close.
“I don’t think there’s a perfect formula for anything,” said Oilers captain Shawn Horcoff.
With files from Bill Beacon in Montreal, Lisa Wallace in Ottawa, Scott Edmonds in Winnipeg, Laurence Heinen in Calgary, Monte Stewart in Vancouver and Robin Brownlee in Edmonton.