Scott Burnside and Craig Custance debate the domino effect of Monday's realignment vote:
Burnside: Good morning, my friend. Another beautiful day here in the Pebble Beach area. It is a new dawn for the NHL, too, as they introduced a significant overhaul to the current alignment of teams, moving from a six-division, two-conference setup to four distinct conferences. I did a little tour around the league this morning via the Internet to see how Monday's changes were being received, and the reports were almost universally glowing. In a lot of markets, there is even unabashed praise for the plan conceived by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, a plan that was approved by the league's board of governors after only an hour's worth of debate. Are you surprised by the reaction to the new alignment plan? Is the four-conference plan that appealing?
Custance: The praise is well-deserved. This plan is a fair compromise on an issue that could have gotten ugly. The commissioner certainly deserves credit for his leadership on this issue, but I think we should also give credit to the teams that made concessions for the greater good of the league.
This plan should really help struggling franchises such as Dallas and Columbus, and there were quick fixes available that wouldn't have benefited either franchise. I spoke with Blue Jackets GM Scott Howson immediately after the meeting ended and it was quite obvious he was pleased. "It satisfies everybody to the largest extent possible," he said. Finally, some good news for the Blue Jackets this season.
It would have been really easy, and probably defensible, for some Eastern Conference teams to dig in and prevent dramatic realignment. The current system is a pretty darn good setup for them, but the mantra from the governors leaving the meeting was about compromise.
"Sometimes you have to vote with your team's interest in mind, but there's times when you can vote with the league hat on, and that's what we tried to do," Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke said.
To me, that's a strong message coming from the owners.
Burnside: OK, so how do you feel about the eight-team groups versus the seven-team sets? The argument is it creates a distinct disadvantage for those teams in the eight-team conferences, all of which are Western Conference teams with the exception of Winnipeg. Simple math tells you it's going to be harder to finish within the top four of an eight-team group than seven. And the two seven-team, Eastern-based conferences, they seem to be the weaker of the four given the current level of play.
I suspect the balance of power will shift from conference to conference over time, but it does create some interesting dynamics. You can bet when two or three teams in those eight-team conferences miss the playoffs despite having significantly higher point totals than teams from the seven-team conferences, we will hear about it.
Custance: It's a fair issue to raise, although the NHL may not agree. During Monday's news conference, Bettman said he didn't think the new plan created any advantages for the franchises in the seven-team conferences and pointed out that Major League Baseball spent years with an unbalanced setup.
"When you look at the map of North America, it's not geographic perfection," he said. "We're looking for something that makes the most sense and makes most fans with most clubs as comfortable as possible."
Ultimately, I think it's going to come down to the strength of the teams in the conference rather than the number of teams. I'd much rather be in a conference with a few garbage teams in an eight-team conference rather than battle against seven contenders. But that will change from season to season, and in today's NHL, the difference between the best and worst teams is smaller than ever.
"I don't think it helps anybody," Red Wings GM Ken Holland said when I asked about competitive advantage. "I think parity is here. You look at the scores and the races every day and how many games go to overtime and extra time, I don't think it matters what division you're in."
The plan certainly leaves flexibility to add teams into the seven-team conferences at some point, either through expansion or relocation. What are the chances either happens anytime soon?
Burnside: It's funny how the perception has already become something approaching reality when it comes to how these conferences may look as early as next season, depending on what happens with the Phoenix Coyotes. NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told us last night there was no news regarding the Coyotes, which is still under the league's stewardship. The NHL's position remains the same: It doesn't want to move the team and hopes to find ownership to keep the team in Phoenix.
But radio silence has descended on the ownership issue after months of perpetual rumor and innuendo regarding who might buy the team. Although Bettman didn't come right out and say, "This is it for Phoenix, either find an owner or get moving," that's the reality. And if I had to put a list together of where that team might be headed, it seems that Quebec City would be the most logical (unless the reports of an NHL-style arena potentially being built in the Markham, Ontario, area emerges as a real possibility). Do you see any cosmetic surgery on this new system even before the puck drops next season?
Custance: Maybe a nip and tuck. With realignment over, Phoenix becomes the center of debate again; but that's nothing new for the Coyotes, who are completely unflappable. This is a tough stretch in the schedule for the Coyotes, who play in Nashville tonight after beating the Blackhawks last night in a shootout. But they keep finding ways to win, improving to 8-4-1 on the road. We may not know where they'll be playing next season, but we know coach Dave Tippett will keep them competitive. It's remarkable.