NHL officially approves realignment plan

The NHL announced Thursday that its board of governors has approved the much-discussed league realignment plan, which will take effect next season.

The new format will feature two eight-team divisions in the Eastern Conference and two seven-team divisions in the West. The teams being relocated are the Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets, both moving to the East, and the Winnipeg Jets, who are headed to the West after moving from Atlanta before last season.

In the West, one division will include the Anaheim Ducks, Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, Los Angeles Kings, Phoenix Coyotes, San Jose Sharks and Vancouver Canucks. The other will feature the Chicago Blackhawks, Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars, Minnesota Wild, Nashville Predators, St. Louis Blues and Winnipeg Jets.

In the East, one division will include the Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres, Detroit Red Wings, Florida Panthers, Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators, Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs. The other will feature the Carolina Hurricanes, Columbus Blue Jackets, New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins Washington Capitals.

The top three teams from each division will make the playoffs, as will two wild-card teams from each conference.

The division winner with the best record will play the lowest-seeded wild-card team. The other division winner will play the remaining wild-card team. The wild-card teams could be from the same division, meaning one division could have five playoff teams and the other division in the same conference could have three.

The new alignment has every team playing in every NHL building at least once a year, and teams will play division rivals at least four times a season.

It’s a plan Commissioner Gary Bettman called “fan-friendly,” because it aligns teams by divisions that are mostly in the same time zones. And Bettman noted that it will re-establish numerous rivalries by geography and tradition.

“We think this is a common-sense, practical realignment,” Bettman said.

Without providing details, Bettman said the vote conducted by email was not unanimous but was “well in excess” of the two-thirds majority required.

The NHL Players’ Association had already signed off on the realignment format, which will be in place for at least three seasons.

All three teams switching conferences will benefit, as they will no longer have to make extended road trips outside of their time zones.

“As much as we enjoyed those trips down south, I think our team and our coaches are very pleased to know we’re going to be playing in a Central time zone,” Jets chairman Mark Chipman said. “I think it’s very exciting for us as an organization and our fans to be geographically located where we ought to be.”

The Dallas Stars, Colorado Avalanche and Minnesota Wild should also benefit from the change. They will now be in a division mostly made up of teams that play in the same Central time zone.

Stars CEO Jim Lites said the switch from the Pacific Division will benefit his players and fans.

Lites said TV ratings dropped by as much as 60 percent because of the later start times when the Stars played against their division rivals on the West Coast. He also noted that the team lost between seven and 10 practice days a season because of travel.

“No one is a bigger beneficiary in this than the Dallas Stars,” Lites said.

It’s no different for Columbus.

“I’ve done a lot of town hall conferences with our fans here, and 99.999 (percent) of our fans really wanted to desperately be in the East,” Blue Jackets executive Davidson said. “So when you get out the ledger sheet and you go pros and cons, I don’t think there is anything on the negative side. This is all positive.”

With Detroit and Toronto set to be in the same division, it revived questions of whether the two will meet in the league’s annual Winter Classic next season. The two were supposed to play at Michigan Stadium on Jan. 1 this season before that game was wiped out by the NHL lockout.

Bettman hinted of that being a possibility.

“We think the notion of having Toronto play Detroit at ‘The Big House’ is a good thing to do,” Bettman said. “Beyond that, you’ll just have to wait and see.”

On other issues, Bettman spoke regarding the Coyotes’ ownership search and said the league is working with a number of groups who have expressed interest in purchasing the franchise since Greg Jamison’s bid fell through two months ago.

“We are hoping to — in the not too distant future — get one of them to the place where we can move the transaction forward,” Bettman said.