NEW YORK, N.Y. - The NHL moved a step closer to realignment Thursday as the players' association approved a proposed plan that is set to go into effect next season.
Now that the league has gotten the go-ahead from union chief Donald Fehr, the NHL will only need to get approval from team owners to put it in place.
"The NHL Players' Association confirmed to us today that it has consented to a revised plan for realignment, effective for the 2013-14 season," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said in a statement. "Our next step will be to bring the proposed plan for realignment to the NHL board of governors for its consideration."
Fehr signed off on the plan after discussions with the union's executive board and said the realignment issue will be "re-evaluated following the 2014-15 season."
No official details of the changes have been released by the NHL, but it is widely believed that teams such as Detroit and Columbus will be put into more travel-friendly divisions in the Eastern time zone, and the Winnipeg Jets—formerly the Atlanta Thrashers—will leave the Southeast Division for a spot in the Western Conference.
"It's awesome," Detroit Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard said. "These West Coast swings, not only do they take a lot out on us and you guys, but also out on our fans, having to stay up and watch us late at night. To be able to play a lot more in the Eastern time zone is going to be very beneficial."
Up until now, there has been an even split of teams with 15 in each conference. Under the new plan, the East will have 16 clubs in it—making playoff qualification a bit tougher.
The two divisions out West will contain seven teams each. The East divisions will both contain eight.
Each conference will still have eight teams in the playoffs but the setup will be slightly different.
Instead of the current system, under which the top eight teams in each conference make the playoffs, the new plan will award spots to the top three teams in each division along with the next two teams with the best records as wild cards.
The new Atlantic Division in the East will be comprised of Carolina, Columbus, New Jersey, New York's Rangers and Islanders, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Washington. The Central Division will contain Boston, Buffalo, Detroit, Florida, Montreal, Ottawa, Tampa Bay and Toronto.
"It will definitely be a change," Red Wings forward Justin Abdelkader said. "The benefit will be less travel. The disadvantage is 16 teams in the East—so harder for a playoff spot. It's one of those things that you kind of take the pros and the cons, and it's part of the deal.
"It's something that'll be different, so we'll give it a couple years and see how it goes."
Out West, the new Midwest Division will feature Chicago, Colorado, Dallas, Minnesota, Nashville, St. Louis and Winnipeg. The Pacific Division will be made up of Anaheim, Calgary, Edmonton, Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Jose and Vancouver.
AP Sports Writer Noah Trister contributed to this report from Detroit.