ST. PAUL, Minn. — Every time the Minnesota Wild play a Northwest Division road game, they change time zones. Whether they’re on Mountain Time against Colorado, Edmonton and Calgary or enduring the two-hour switch to Pacific Time against Vancouver, Minnesota’s players are well accustomed to adjusting their wrist watches.
Their watches will get a break starting next season.
The league recently revived its hope for conference realignment and reportedly sent out a memo to all teams two weeks ago outlining the latest plan. The Wild, long one of the busiest travel teams in the league, would be one of the biggest beneficiaries of the new plan, exchanging divisional games against Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton for closer opponents such as Chicago, Nashville, St. Louis and Winnipeg.
“I think it’s huge for us,” Minnesota coach Mike Yeo said of the new realignment plan. “I would argue its bigger for us than possibly anybody in the league, minus maybe a couple teams. The travel that we have, it’s not just the distance, it’s the time zones.”
Multiple reports Thursday indicate the NHL players’ association consented to the new plan, which will go into effect next season and cuts the current six-division format into four divisions, two in each conference. In the West, the Pacific Division will be comprised of Anaheim, Calgary, Edmonton, Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Jose and Vancouver. The Wild will be slotted in the Midwest Division with Chicago, Colorado, Dallas, Nashville, St. Louis and Winnipeg.
Detroit and Columbus, which both play in the Central Division of the Western Conference now, will join the Eastern Conference. The Central Division in the East will feature Boston, Buffalo, Detroit, Florida, Montreal, Ottawa, Tampa Bay and Toronto. The Atlantic Division will have Carolina, Columbus, New Jersey, the New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Washington.
Minnesota, projected to travel the most miles in the NHL this season, was immediately in favor of the proposed changes. Zenon Konopka, selected to represent Wild players during realignment talks, said it was a quick meeting when he brought the plan up for discussion in the locker room. And travel isn’t the only benefit. The new plan calls for the usual eight teams in each conference to still make the playoffs, but the realignment has 14 teams in the Western Conference and 16 in the East.
“It’s pretty cut and dry,” Konopka said. “We’ve got 14 teams on our side, so any time you’ve got a better chance to make the playoffs, it’s a bonus, and there’s a lot less travel for us. So, for us, it was a no-brainer that we approved it right away. We hope it goes through. I’m sure there’s a few other people that have something to say about it.”
The plan resembles a previous attempt at realignment, agreed to by the NHL in December 2011 but voted down by the players’ association, but that plan kept Detroit and Columbus in the West. Opponents of the current plan didn’t like the lopsided nature of the conferences with more teams in the East.
Minnesota forward Mike Rupp, who has spent the majority of his career in the Eastern Conferenc before coming to the Wild in a trade this year, understands how teams in the East would feel.
“I don’t know how I feel about the lopsidedness of it,” Rupp said. “But, the scheduling makes sense as far as the geographic locations of the teams. Hopefully being able to stay in your time zone for your division is a big thing. I think that all makes sense. My personal opinion, I’m not sure how the more teams in the one is going to fare, but that’s for them to figure out.”
One issue, for the players and the league, is there is no perfect solution to realignment with the 30 teams that currently construct the league.
“The problem is there’s no perfect way,” Konopka said. “There’s no perfect solution, so it doesn’t matter what you’re going to do, there’s going to be teams that aren’t happy. So you just try to find that happy medium that kind of caters to most of the league and then everyone else has to live with it. But there is no, no perfect way to go through it.”
Within the new plan, three teams from each division would qualify for the playoffs, with the final two spots designated as wild-card teams. The division winners would face the wild-card teams in the first round.
“I think it’s the 14 teams on this side,” Konopka said. “Having two extra teams, the parity of the league is so good now that 95 percent of the teams are in the playoff running and have a legit chance to make the playoffs. You add two more teams, that’s a big deal.”
The NHL and NHLPA reportedly have been working together on this proposed plan for weeks. Gaining the approval of the NHLPA was considered an important step. The final step will be consideration of the plan by the NHL’s Board of Governors. The realignment will be re-evaluated following the 2014-15 season.
The Wild can’t wait to see it implemented.
“To me, I just think that the travel factor would help us,” Yeo said. “You look at the injuries that we’ve had to deal with the last couple years and you look at the amount of times that we lose practices, we’re handcuffed in a lot of situations because of that travel.”