The NHL Players' Association signed off on a bold realignment plan Thursday under which, among other moves, shifts the Winnipeg Jets to the Western Conference and play in a more time-zone friendly Midwest Division starting next year.
In the other significant shift, the Detroit Red Wings and the Columbus Blue Jackets will both move from West to East, leaving an imbalance in the league, with 16 teams in the Eastern Conference and just 14 in the West.
The NHLPA scuttled a major realignment plan l ast season, but gave its thumbs-up to the latest NHL initiative. In a statement, NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr said that after discussions with the union's executive board, it had given its "consent to realignment," but with the proviso that it be re-evaluated following the 2014-15 season.
The move also requires approval from the NHL board of governors, but that is viewed as a formality and could be accomplished within a week, if they vote by phone or fax.
Until now, the NHLPA had objected to the NHL's realignment proposal for two main reasons – travel issues and the inequities involved in the playoff format. Under the new format, which will go into effect for the start of the 2013-14 season, the travel will be improved for a number of teams, including the Dallas Stars, who now shift out of the Pacific Division, where they'd been playing against four teams two time zones away.
However, the playoff picture is still uneven. Eight of 16 teams will make the playoffs in the revised Eastern Conference, leaving them with a 50-50 chance of qualifying, while eight of 14 make it in the West, for a 57.1-per-cent chance of qualifying.
So the lucky 14 that make up the Midwest Division, which includes Winnipeg, Chicago, Colorado, Dallas, Minnesota, Nashville and St. Louis and the Pacific Division, which includes Calgary, Edmonton, Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Jose and Vancouver, will – until further notice – see their playoff hopes enhanced.
Meanwhile, the Eastern Conference will be divided into an Atlantic Division that includes Carolina, Columbus, New Jersey, the New York Islanders, the New York Rangers, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Washington, plus a Central Division featuring Boston, Detroit, Florida, Montreal, Ottawa, Tampa Bay and Toronto – four teams from the Original six, plus two teams in the state of Florida that will rely on snowbirds to increase attendance.
The top three teams in each division will qualify automatically for the playoffs, while the remaining two spots will go to the two wild-card teams with the best records. It means that five teams could potentially qualify out of one division and if that happens, one will need to cross over into the other division and play its playoff games there.
The NHL had previously wanted to put the new realignment plan in place until after the 2015-16 season, according to a memo it circulated to its member teams eight days ago. Now, it'll just be for two years before it is re-evaluated, which gives the league time to ponder expansion options and the future of unsettled franchises, such as the still-for-sale Phoenix Coyotes.
For scheduling purposes, every team will play an unbalanced schedule that will feature one game, home and away, against every other team in the league.
Teams in the seven-team divisions (Pacific and Midwest) will play 32 out-of-conference games, 21 games against teams in the other division within their own conference, plus 29 games against teams within their own divisions.
Teams in the eight-team divisions (Atlantic and Central) will play 28 out-of-conference games, 24 games against teams in the other division within their own conference, plus 30 games against teams within their own divisions.