The Winnipeg Jets are in the Western Conference, the Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets are in the East and all is right with the NHL. Right?
Not quite. Realignment into four divisions—the eight-team Metropolitan and Atlantic in the East and the seven-team Central and Pacific in the West—will solve some travel problems but also create more questions.
Uneven playoff odds between the conferences is where the debate starts. Buffalo Sabres forward Ville Leino and others have questioned whether having 16 teams for eight spots in the East is “really fair” compared to 14 teams for the same amount of playoff berths out West.
“It’s going to be so many percentage points tougher for us to qualify for the playoffs, and every team on our side,” Toronto Maple Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said. “(It) kind of makes you scratch your head over the course of the summer: ‘Why is that happening in this side and not the other side?'”
The short answer is that teams in the Western Conference still have tougher travel than those in the East, something that could be argued as a trade-off for shorter playoff odds.
“Within your conference and your division, you’re balanced against everybody else you’re competing against,” commissioner Gary Bettman said. “And, frankly, the addition of a team, seven versus eight, those aren’t the teams that are really competing for the playoffs. It’s really the top five or six teams that are doing it. I don’t think it’s a good idea for clubs to be using this as an excuse as to whether or not they make the playoffs.”
But the balance isn’t perfect. Teams play some division foes five times and others four times, and three games against conference rivals outside the division make for some uneven scheduling. For example, the Jets host the Kings twice and travel to Los Angeles once, while the Minnesota Wild have to play twice at Staples Center and get the Kings at home once.
One thing that is uniform is that every team will see every other team at least once on the home and on the road. Players gave that change rave reviews.
“I think it’s great for the fans, they get to see all the players,” Edmonton Oilers forward Jordan Eberle said. “Maybe the Sidney Crosbys, the (Alex) Ovechkins, who were only there once every two years, now they get to see them every year.”
That was part of the allure of realignment. Of course there are other benefits.
New York Islanders winger Matt Moulson said it got “monotonous” to play division rivals so often, and though that won’t go away, there’s much more variety over 82 games.
“A lot of people like to compare the East versus the West and how those teams are different and what it takes to get to the playoffs in each conference,” Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said. “I think you’ll see maybe less of a contrast because the teams are playing each other more often. I think it’ll be exciting in a way to see different teams on a more regular basis and almost a relief in a way to not have to play those rivalry games, those division games that you’re used to seeing those teams over and over and over throughout the regular season.”
Teams will still play either 29 or 30 games within their division, and the new playoff format puts a heavier emphasis on division play. The top three teams from each make the playoffs, plus two wild cards from each conference.
Then, the playoffs happen within the divisions until four champions are crowned and move on to the conference finals. Of course it’s possible that the Montreal Canadiens come out of the Metropolitan Division playoffs or the Vancouver Canucks out of the Central if they qualify as wild cards.
Changing how teams get into the playoffs and adding that cross-over potential has created plenty of unknowns going into this season.
“It’s going to be a lot different,” Nashville Predators captain Shea Weber said. “I think it’s tough to really understand the whole thing. It’s new to everyone, I think it’s going to take a little adjustment period.”
Likewise, New York Rangers defenceman Marc Staal figures that the new alignment and playoff format are “going to take a year to feel it out.”
NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr said that some reservations remain about the new system, but players approved it so it’s time to wait and see.
“We’ll take a look at it and if down the road it appears not to be providing the kind of benefits that are hoped for, then we’ll have to have some more discussions with the league about it,” Fehr said. “But that’s the decision which has been made. Now we’re in the process of watching what happens. It doesn’t do any good to try and re-argue things from a year or two years ago.”
There’s no arguing that realignment takes some travel pressure off the Red Wings and Blue Jackets.
“Tremendously easier travel schedule for us,” Detroit goaltender Jimmy Howard said. “Now in conference our longest flight is two hours. I think we’re all looking forward to it.”
The Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning aren’t necessarily looking forward to having to fly over the entire Metropolitan Division to play everyone else in the Atlantic. That’s something of a competitive disadvantage.
“I guess we’re the team that’s going to travel the most in the (Eastern Conference),” Panthers forward Jonathan Huberdeau said. “But it’s part of hockey and we’re not going to complain. There will be no excuses for us. We’re going to be ready for it.”
Even though the Jets still have to travel long distances for conference games in places like Anaheim and Phoenix, they’ve welcomed a move to the West. The Southeast Division had them competing with the Panthers, Lightning, Washington Capitals and Carolina Hurricanes, not exactly natural, geographic rivals.
But the gateway to the West isn’t paved with easy wins.
“It’s going to be an adjustment, I think, in terms of style of play,” Winnipeg captain Andrew Ladd said. “The West is, I think, a little tighter checking and a little more physical, so we’re going to have to get used to that quickly.”
Changing styles of play will be an intriguing aspect of the NHL’s new alignment.
For years the Red Wings have been successful thanks to a blend of speed and skill, while the Boston Bruins have won with size and grit. Only one team can win the Atlantic.
“They are a puck-possession team and they’ve been doing that for a long time,” Bruins centre Patrice Bergeron said of the Red Wings. “I don’t think we should necessarily change our system and really our approach. But you need to be aware of that.”
Realignment is something every team is keenly aware of, especially when it comes to what it takes to qualify for the playoffs. Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford said competing against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers, New York Rangers and Capitals—all teams that spend up to the salary-cap limit—stretches Carolina’s payroll “as far as we can.”
Like Bergeron, Capitals GM George McPhee has said it’s important not to abandon an identity based on how other teams within the division prefer to play. But it’ll likely be more difficult for a team that won the Southeast five out of the past six seasons.
“We’ve been lucky we’ve snuck in playing in that Southeast Division a couple of times,” Washington defenceman Karl Alzner said. “We won’t have that luxury. At the same time it will keep us a little bit more honest, which will be probably a good thing for our team.”
It’s not just the Capitals. Trading a non-playoff team in the Jets to the West for a perennial contender in the Red Wings, plus the improving Blue Jackets, could mean something of a squeeze in the East.
“It makes it more difficult for us to qualify for the playoffs,” Carlyle said. “But those are things that are out of your control as a coach, so you just take note. You have my personal feeling about it. But you’re part of a league, you’re part of the NHL and you’re expected to be a good partner and that’s what our job is, is we’re playing in a situation where they’ve made it a little bit more difficult for us to qualify for the playoffs. Accept it, accept the challenge.”