Hockey fans in Detroit and Columbus have grown accustomed to the inconvenience. When the Red Wings and Blue Jackets are on the road, they’ve usually had to stay up well past most bedtimes to watch, or wait until morning to find out how their teams did way out West.
With the NHL’s first significant realignment in 15 years, everybody can sleep a bit easier this fall.
“It’s definitely a lot better for us for rest, economically for our team,” Columbus centre R.J. Umberger said. “It just makes a lot of sense.”
The NHL is altering its conference lineups, dropping two divisions and changing the makeup of its schedules in both the regular season and the playoffs.
The biggest change sends Detroit and Columbus to the 16-team Eastern Conference, while the Winnipeg Jets head to the 14-team West. Those uneven numbers are the subject of some concern, but there’s no doubt they add up splendidly for the three teams on the move.
“I think the travel sometimes takes years off all our lives,” Detroit goalie Jimmy Howard said. “I think (moving East) will be great for us from the travel, even though we’re all used to it now. It will be a lot of fun to play a lot of games in the Eastern time zone. It will be great for our fans, too, not having to stay up until all hours of the night to watch us.”
The moves are the culmination of years of debate and manoeuvring. Detroit, which has been in the Western (originally Campbell) Conference since 1981, has desired a return to the East for years. Columbus, an expansion team in 2000, also jumped at the chance to shorten its list of road games starting at 10 p.m. or later back home.
The Red Wings are joining the reconfigured Atlantic Division along with fellow Original Six franchises Toronto, Montreal, Boston—and, in the quirkiest part of the realignment, Florida and Tampa Bay. Columbus is in the cleverly named Metropolitan Division alongside Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and the three New York City-area teams.
“It’s going to be great for our fan base to be able to see us play in the Eastern time zone a lot more,” Umberger said. “All of our away games used to be in different time zones. For us, a chance to grow some close rivalries with different teams like Buffalo and Pittsburgh, maintain Detroit, I think we’re just excited.”
Winnipeg, the erstwhile Atlanta Thrashers, will no longer spend the bulk of its road time in the American South. The Jets are grateful to be in the Central Division with Minnesota, Chicago and the rest of the NHL’s Midwestern teams.
It’s too soon to tell whether Detroit, Columbus and Winnipeg will gain a significant competitive advantage from the switch. The Red Wings weren’t exactly struggling to win while making the playoffs in each of the past 22 seasons out West, while the Blue Jackets wouldn’t suggest the only reason they’ve never won a playoff game was all those road games in Phoenix.
“I think it’s a great time for our fans,” Red Wings defenceman Niklas Kronwall said. “They’ll be able to watch our games in prime time a lot more than they have. Playing Montreal, Toronto, Boston more often, I’m hoping it’s going to spark that (excitement) even more. I know it will for us.”
But the three moves are just part of a competitive restructuring that will affect every NHL team.
The league is back to a four-division format, dropping the six-division setup introduced in 1998. The NHL also went back to a version of the divisional playoff schedule used from 1982 until 1994.
The top three teams in each division get post-season berths, and two wild-card spots go to the two remaining teams with the best records in either division. The first two rounds of the conference playoffs will be within the division, which means the last wild-card team could be required to face the teams on the other side of the conference for a spot in the conference finals.
“I love the four-division format,” said Anaheim coach Bruce Boudreau, whose Ducks won the Pacific last season. “I really think for the fan, it’s easy to understand. It keeps more teams involved, and with the crossover, if you’re in a stronger division than others, you’re not necessarily done, because you can always move to the other division.”
The NHL Players’ Association initially objected to the uneven conferences, saying it would be tougher to make the playoffs with two more teams in the East. The union dropped the objection after the lockout.
“This going to the East in the new divisional concept, it’s going to be a difficult time for any of these teams to make the playoffs,” said John Davidson, the Blue Jackets’ director of hockey operations. “It’s going to be a real battle. We have to understand that. I think we do.”
The schedule matrix also has been tweaked after several years of emphasis on divisional rivalries. Every team in the league faces everybody else twice this season, giving fans in every city a chance to see every star.
“If I was sitting in the stands, I would tend to think that I’d like to see the Ovechkins come into my building and the Crosbys come into my building,” Boudreau said.
The change benefits West Coast fans, but some West teams aren’t looking forward to long Eastern trips on their already mind-numbing travel schedules.
“Miles-wise, teams in California don’t get a break, for sure,” Los Angeles coach Darryl Sutter said.
AP Sports Writers Larry Lage in Detroit, Rusty Miller in Columbus and John Wawrow in Buffalo contributed to this report.