Burning questions from NHL’s new realignment

It’s back to the future for the NHL, whose board of governors approved a new alignment for next season — and the plan harkens back to the four-division-format roots the league once abandoned after the 1997-98 season.

The league temporarily mushroomed to six divisions in 1998-99 when expansion Nashville joined the league. Once other franchises in Atlanta (1999-2000), Columbus and Minnesota (2000-01) officially joined the league, the new alignment called for five teams in each division.

Alas, with Atlanta’s relocation to Winnipeg following the 2010-11 season, the league needed a new arrangement that made more geographic sense. In a conference call on Thursday, Commissioner Gary Bettman said the NHL most likely would not have tackled realignment without the Atlanta-to-Winnipeg move. In the process, the league elected to tinker with a few other elements of the schedule and playoffs.

The league has yet to name the divisions. Bettman said that would happen in a few weeks, with the groupings likely having geography-based names.

Division A (Western Conference) will have all Pacific and Mountain Time Zone teams: Anaheim Ducks, Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, Los Angeles Kings, Phoenix Coyotes, San Jose Sharks and Vancouver Canucks.

Division B (Western Conference) comprises mostly Central Time Zone teams plus the Colorado Avalanche (Mountain): Chicago Blackhawks, the Avalanche, Dallas Stars, Minnesota Wild, Nashville Predators, St. Louis Blues and Winnipeg Jets.

Division C (Eastern Conference) has four Original Six teams, plus the two Florida franchises and a third from Canada: Boston Bruins, Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators, Toronto Maple Leafs, Buffalo Sabres, Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning.

Finally, Division D (Eastern Conference) includes the old Patrick Division, plus the Carolina Hurricanes and Columbus Blue Jackets: Hurricanes, Blue Jackets, Wahington Capitals, New Jersey Devils, Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers, New York Islanders and New York Rangers.

Here are five burning questions involving the new realignment:

1. How will the playoffs be different?

The top three teams in each division automatically earn playoff berths, as opposed to the current conference format. The seventh- and eighth-place teams in each conference will be determined by most overall points. Thus, it’s possible that five teams from a division could qualify.

The top seed in each conference will play the qualifier with the least amount of points in the first round, and the team with the second-most points will play the team with the second-fewest points to qualify. The No. 2 and 3 seeds in each division will play each other.

In the event of five teams qualifying from the same division, and a No. 8-over-No. 1-seed upset in the first round, the No. 8 seed would, effectively, switch divisions at that point for the second round, playing the winner of the 2 vs. 3 matchup. From there, the division winners play in the conference finals, with the conference champs reaching the Stanley Cup Final.

2. Will this make the playoffs better?

The league believes that promoting divisional rivalries better suits the game. It’s true that when teams play each other year after year in the postseason — whether they’re in the same division or not — rivalries develop.

One of the league’s best over the last few years has been between Chicago and Vancouver, even though they compete in different divisions and have no natural geographic or historical rivalry.

When the league previously had a four-division format, the rivalries carried a ferocious intensity, as teams fought to get out of their divisions. Boston and Montreal enjoyed — if that’s what you can call it — one of the most fabled rivalries in all of sports.

In today’s world of highly paid pro athletes, who all seem to be friends, the new format allows for teams and players to work up a genuine dislike for each other.

The downside is the concession the league had to make to gain the assent of the NHLPA, which scuttled the plan last season. Because the two Western Conference divisions have only seven teams while the Eastern Conference divisions have eight, the players felt Western teams had an unfair chance of making the playoffs.

That’s why the format changed from the top four in each division to add the wild cards for seventh- and eighth-place overall in each conference.

For the West, that could mean lengthy travel, which the plan was intended to reduce, could still be a factor, with Pacific Time Zone teams having to travel as far East as Nashville.

3. Which teams are realignment winners?

Unquestionably, the Red Wings and Blue Jackets and their fans, by moving to the Eastern Conference, rank among the winners. Both teams reside within the Eastern Time Zone and faced incredible travel demands during the regular season and playoffs. Their fans no longer have to tolerate a slew of game times at 10:30 p.m.

Washington is another winner. As a member of the Patrick Division, the Capitals enjoyed geographic proximity to rivals in Philadelphia, New Jersey, Pittsburgh and New York. Those fans often helped at the gate in the old Capital Centre. When it moved to the Southeast, Washington was grouped with three expansion teams and relocated Carolina. Caps fans will enjoy the new/old rivalries.

Dallas and Minnesota also should benefit, as only one divisional team plays outside its time zone. The Stars formerly played their divisional games two time zones away and the Wild — the easternmost club in the Northwest Division — suffered long travel to Western Canada. Like Minnesota, Colorado had to travel to Canada – and go through customs — against three of four opponents on the road.

Also, the Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa fans vacationing in Florida during the frigid winter will benefit seeing their hometown teams more often, a point Bettman acknowledged made good business sense for the Lightning and Panthers, if not for the players.

4. Which teams are realignment losers?

Orphaned Chicago becomes the only Original Six team in the West, losing its long-standing rivalry with Detroit (dating back to 1926). The Blackhawks and Red Wings were briefly separated, division-wise from 11 years (1970-81), before reuniting in the Norris Division. Central teams like St. Louis and Nashville, which relied on the Red Wings for gates and geographically enhanced rivalries, will lose out in that respect.

The Central Division was also the league’s third-most compact but now gains Winnipeg and Colorado — thousand-mile trips for the Predators. As Nashville general manager David Poile pointed out recently, lengthy travel could still result in the first round for the top overall team. With each successive round, that travel takes its toll. When Vancouver lost to Boston in the 2011 Stanley Cup Final, it had endured tough series (including air miles) with Chicago and Nashville in the first two rounds.

In the East, the Florida teams face long travel for divisional games. The Panthers face a minimum of 1,000 air miles for every road divisional foe. They also have a mathematically lower chance — as does every Eastern team — of making the playoffs, with 16 teams vying for eight spots in the East. Of course, the league could always expand to 32 teams by adding a team to each division in the West, but the league isn’t talking about that right now.

5. Will this be better for fans?

Most likely, yes. Division C might as well be renamed the NBC Division. With all the ties to Original Six teams, it’ll be the darling division of nationally televised games.

The schedule matrix also calls for teams playing every NHL club twice (home/away). In other words, Sidney Crosby will travel to every NHL city each season, which has not always been the case.

A more balanced schedule also benefits teams like Nashville, which favored the plan that called for 70 of 82 games in the Eastern or Central time zones, making it easier for fans to watch the Predators.

While Detroit often hosted far Western opponents for nationally television games, Bettman believes the more balanced schedule won’t detract from the Western clubs’ exposure with national TV. Of course, they might be on the road more when doing so.