Cross Checks: Realignment



I’m not surprised that, in the end, the NHL Players’ Association gave its consent to the NHL’s realignment plan.

While there were still reservations among player membership regarding the unbalanced 16/14 split in conferences, it wasn’t worth the fight it would have become.

Had the NHLPA pushed, the league could have had the matter resolved through a systems arbitrator whose decision would have been binding. A source told ESPN.com that had the league turned to an arbitrator to decide realignment and the ruling came in the league's favor, the union would have had to play under that system for as long as the NHL wanted. By agreeing on the matter, the players get to re-evaluate the four-division system after two seasons, and have only consented to play in the system for three seasons.

Secondly, NHL owners still haven’t consented to participating in the Sochi Olympics next February. Perhaps not worth poking the bear on realignment if your players desperately want to go to Sochi.

The league delivered its proposed realignment plan to owners nine days ago, but the union waited until Thursday to give its response.

There’s a tremendous time pressure element, because the NHL’s schedule maker has usually finished next season's schedule matrix by this time of year.

But, the NHLPA needed more time to gather the proper feedback from its membership.

All 30 player reps -- which constitute the executive board -- were fully debriefed on calls and in face-to-face meetings in some cases. But the reps were also seeking feedback from their own teammates.

So the process took a while, with every team playing nearly every second night in a compressed schedule.

Now all that remains is an ownership vote and realignment is a go. That vote should materialize within the next week. What remains to be decided if is the owners want to meet in person to do it, or execute it via fax vote.

1. Oh no, Canada

Not a banner year for most of Canada’s seven NHL entries whose fans continue to blindly support them in spite of, in some cases, repeated futility. When the dust clears Saturday night at the close of the regular season, all seven Canadian buildings will have been sold out from beginning to end, yet only Ottawa and Vancouver will be preparing for playoff games.

Edmonton and Toronto have combined for one playoff appearance since the lockout and zero trips to the postseason since 2006. The Flames have missed three straight seasons and haven’t won a playoff round since 2004, which makes their run to the Cup finals that year look like one of the most impressive flukes of all time. Winnipeg, for all of the good will that accompanied their return to Canada and fans who actually care, remains virtually indistinguishable from the Atlanta teams that wandered around the corners of the NHL for a decade, failing to win one single playoff game. About the most positive thing to say about Montreal as it remains nestled in last place in the Eastern Conference is that it is in a state of flux, while Edmonton reminds us of a hamster on a treadmill with "rebuild" written on the side.

It is too simplistic to suggest that Canadian ownership/management is complacent because they sell out regardless of the product on the ice. And let’s not forget that teams in Calgary and Ottawa have endured financial hardships and empty seats, while Montreal struggled to find an owner before George Gillett bought the team back in 2001. There seems to be no pattern to futility beyond the futility itself, and the sad part for Canadian fans is that the immediate future doesn’t look much brighter. Indeed, it wouldn’t be a surprise at all if we are having this exact same conversation a year from now. Of the five northern teams that will be spending the summer trying to fix their tattered machines, is there one you can point to with any degree of certainty and say, yes, this is a playoff team? No. Not one.

2. Realignment

Some time ago, a top NHL executive explained the allure of the six-division alignment in this way: It’s important for teams like Atlanta, Tampa, Phoenix, Anaheim et al to have something to fight for, something tangible fans can relate to, and in some cases that means a division title.

Now, we don’t exactly buy that fans in Phoenix are salivating at the prospect of hanging a Pacific Division banner on Jobing.com Arena. And that lonely Southeast Division banner that marked the Thrashers’ one and only trip to the playoffs in 2007 certainly didn’t represent much of anything when the moving trucks backed up to Philips Arena last June.

Has the race for the Pacific Division title been compelling? Of course. Four different teams -- Phoenix, Dallas, San Jose and current leader Los Angeles -- have enjoyed at least a brief ride at the top in recent weeks. But fans are jazzed about the race because it means a playoff berth. They get that. They don’t care about the nonexistent cachet of a division title.

Now the league is faced with the double embarrassment of having the Pacific Division and Southeast Division champs own home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs, even though the Pacific champ will have the sixth-best point total in the conference, while the Florida Panthers will possibly have the seventh-best point total in the conference. Ugly.

Maybe the fact the NHLPA stomped its collective feet to derail realignment plans for next year will give both sides pause to come up with not just a new alignment plan but a playoff plan that will save the league further embarrassment. What’s wrong with two 15-team conferences seeded top to bottom with the top eight playing on in the spring? Or divide the teams up however they like geographically but seed them one through 16, thus ensuring the best teams have the best chances of succeeding?

3. Captains

We were asked during a radio interview recently about Dion Phaneuf's adequacy (or rather as the question was posed, his inadequacies) as captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Hockey is unique in that the captaincy is in many ways considered a sacred trust. It certainly is in places like Montreal, Toronto, Philadelphia and New York, among other cities where the C denotes more than the guy that gets to talk to the referee. And when the position is handled well, having the right captain is a significant asset in moving a team forward.

There was a lot of debate when Dale Tallon made Jonathan Toews the youngest captain in franchise history and the third-youngest captain of all time. But it was obviously the right choice as Toews has evolved quickly into one of the top leaders in the game and has a Stanley Cup ring and Olympic gold medal to show for those skills.

In Toronto, the Leafs appear to have forced Phaneuf into a role he was either ill-equipped or simply not ready to handle. But like the game as a whole, nothing happens in a vacuum. Toews didn’t transform the Blackhawks into a Cup winner by sheer dint of will. He had help in the form of guys such as Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. Likewise, Phaneuf’s shortcomings as a captain are not the sole reason the Leafs embarked on one of the more eye-popping flameouts in recent years.

The discussion reminded us of covering the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998 during back-to-back Cup runs. This Red Wings team, starving for a championship, was undeniably Steve Yzerman’s team, yet having worn the C since he was a lad himself, he was completely comfortable in sharing the burden. When the team lost, Yzerman was invariably available to comment but his was not the lone voice. Brendan Shanahan, Larry Murphy, Igor Larionov and others shared that burden on both good days and bad. That’s how leadership is supposed to work.

4. Seriously Dude?

We have lots of awards and goodness knows we probably don’t need any more, but if we were to suggest another, it might be the "Seriously Dude?" award, which would go to the player who confounds the hockey world with otherworldly play that is simply off the charts.

This award wouldn’t be for the Steven Stamkoses or the Evgeni Malkins but the everyday blue-collar guys who rise up out of the shadows and shoulder their way into the limelight. Our "Seriously Dude?" winner would be Phoenix netminder Mike Smith, who was waived last season by Tampa and then perhaps saved his career with a couple of stellar turns in net in relief of Dwayne Roloson during the playoffs. Phoenix goaltending coach Sean Burke lobbied GM Don Maloney to bring in Smith because he felt he could work with him as he had with Ilya Bryzgalov. The Yotes signed Smith to a two-year deal and he has rewarded them with stretches of superlative play that should see the Coyotes journey to the playoffs for a third straight year. As of Thursday morning, Smith was riding a three-game shutout streak, including a 54-save outing against Columbus this week that produced his eighth shutout of the season.

Other finalists for the "Seriously Dude?" award would include Philadelphia’s Scott Hartnell, who has gone from scrappy, penalty-prone winger to scoring assassin. His 37 goals are tied for fifth in the NHL and his 16 power-play goals are second. Go figure. Montreal’s David Desharnais would also get consideration, as the undrafted center has meshed nicely with Max Pacioretty as two bright spots in an otherwise dark season for Les Habs. Desharnais is second in team scoring with 60 points and hasn’t gone more than three games without registering a point since mid-December. Throw in impending free agent P.A. Parenteau of the Islanders, whose 49 assists rank ninth in the league and whose 67 points are good for third on the Islanders, and you’ve got a pretty good collection of surprise achievers.

5. Next season's playoffs

These are hard days for the 14 NHL teams that will fail to qualify for the postseason. Sitting on the sidelines is a mark of failure; it is an acknowledgement that the planning of last offseason, the personnel decisions, the game plan and the players’ effort has been found lacking. In some cases, the gap between expectation and reality has been significant, as was the case in Anaheim and in either Buffalo or Washington (only one of which is likely to make the playoffs).

But here are five teams that we think will be standing on the other side of the playoff line a year from now. With new head coach Kirk Muller already paying dividends, we suspect the Carolina Hurricanes will return after a three-year absence. Watch for Justin Faulk to continue to turn heads on the Carolina blue line. Anaheim will be back, too. The Ducks are too talented, and watch for Bruce Boudreau to have them back in the top eight and challenging for a Pacific Division title.

We often make sport of the New York Islanders, and it’s easy to do given the foibles of ownership and management, but there’s no denying the bright future guys like Parenteau, Matt Moulson and emerging star John Tavares represent. Still not sold on Evgeni Nabokov as "the answer" in goal, but watch for the Isles to jump up in the standings next season. We’re pretty much counting Dallas out of the picture in the Western Conference given its recent slide, but we like what GM Joe Nieuwendyk and rookie head coach Glen Gulutzan have going on in the Big D. New ownership and the stability Tom Gaglardi brings should see the Stars back in the top eight next season. We’re figuring either Buffalo or Washington to finish outside the playoff puzzle this spring, but whichever team fails to sneak in, we’re guessing both will be back in the top eight next season regardless of the significant upheaval a playoff miss will bring in either city.
Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun discuss whether the realignment breakdown is just the beginning of a long, ugly collective bargaining fight.

BURNSIDE: Good day, my friend. Well, so much for a pleasant walk in the park for the National Hockey League and the National Hockey Players Association when it comes to the upcoming collective bargaining agreement. The players’ union fired the first shot across the bow by refusing to give consent to the league’s hard-fought realignment design, and the league announced Friday night that they were shelving it for the 2012-13 season. Take that, Winnipeg. And Dallas. And, well, you get the point.

Or was it the league that fired the first shot across the bow, knowing the union had concerns about how the schedule was going to look and about the inequality of the playoff format with the uneven distribution of the teams over the proposed four conferences and imposed a hard deadline of Friday for the union to get on board with it?

Hmmm, maybe more than a little of both sides taking stock of the other over this issue.

One thing for sure is this must feel like déjà vu to you. You were front and center during the labor dispute that cost the NHL -- and its fans a group often trod upon during these days of “negotiations” -- an entire NHL season and the playoffs in 2004-05. Now, do you think fans should be worried that the realignment plan, one that in the scheme of things isn’t a huge deal to the players compared to other issues that will come up in the coming months, is that big a deal? I’ve already seen where some observers/commentators are drawing a line between this moment and the likelihood the start of next season will be delayed if not worse by the fight to get a new CBA worked out?

LEBRUN: Well, if anyone wondered how Donald Fehr’s leadership would transcend for the NHLPA after decades as a hardline baseball union leader, they got their answer Friday. Make no mistake, the union’s rejection of the league’s realignment plan is absolutely draped in labor politics, the opening statement in the soon-to-begin collective bargaining talks (the current CBA expires Sept. 15). On the one hand, if I were an NHL player, I’d be comforted by seeing my union and my leader send a message that my side isn’t going to be pushed around when talks begin. That’s the message from Friday’s news.

Remember that the players essentially gave into a salary cap 7-8 years ago during the last CBA battle, a process that forced out their longtime leader Bob Goodenow. It was ugly. So Friday’s power play certainly demonstrated at least early on that the players aren’t going to be pushed around. That’s incredibly important for this specific group of players who still have the scars of having fired two of its leaders (Ted Saskin and Paul Kelly) over the past several years. They need to be a unified group. As a player, I take solace from Friday’s news that my group seems ready to stand for our rights in the upcoming labor talks. On the flip side, if I were a player, I would perhaps also question whether this is the issue where I wanted my side to flex its muscles on. After all, the realignment plan was largely greeted positively by fans and the ticket-buyers, and there’s potential here for the NHLPA to take heat from those fans for having that four-conference setup delayed at least a season. That’s the gamble Fehr and the players took Friday. Then again, the fans may also blame the league for forcing a deadline on the players. And so it goes round and round and round.

BURNSIDE: OK, so what about this theory espoused by an official who has seen many of these labor square dances over the years: The league’s not unhappy about this turn of events. Sounds crazy, I know, but why would the league let the union pull the pin on this plan if they truly wanted it to go forward. The league could have forced the union to grieve the league’s unilateral move to the four-conference plan and let the chips fall where they may. They could have had their schedule-makers build in a Plan B if the union was successful in such a grievance. Instead, when the union refused to grant consent, the NHL just threw up its collective hands and said, darn you, and went back to the status quo.

Since when does the league take that kind of position? The union doesn’t like something, and, oh, guess we have to stop? Do you think the fact the playoff situation remained murky beyond the first two in-conference rounds and the fact they had no names for the conferences and the fact that the 24-6 vote in California would likely have been a lot closer if they voted via secret ballot instead of in the open forum?

Maybe the issue was less important to the league than we imagined, given how quickly it all came together in Pebble Beach.

Shall I call Oliver Stone and have him start working up a script?

LEBRUN: I was just going to say, can you uncover JFK’s killer when you get to the bottom of this as well?

No question, though, there were more than four teams that didn’t like this realignment proposal but changed their vote at the last moment when they realized they had lost their attempt to block it. The Toronto Maple Leafs would be a prime example. Still, overall this is disappointing for most teams. You mentioned Winnipeg and Dallas, I can tell you the Detroit Red Wings are very dejected as well. They pushed hard for change in order to alleviate their Western travel.

But who really is to blame in all

Realignment delay: Heard around the league

January, 6, 2012
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NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr:
"Over the last month, we have had several discussions with the League and extensive dialogue with Players, most recently on an Executive Board conference call on January 1. Two substantial Player concerns emerged: (1) whether the new structure would result in increased and more onerous travel; and (2) the disparity in chances of making the playoffs between the smaller and larger divisions.

"The League set a deadline of January 6, 2012 for the NHLPA to provide its consent to the NHL’s proposal. Players’ questions about travel and concerns about the playoff format have not been sufficiently addressed; as such, we are not able to provide our consent to the proposal at this time. We continue to be ready and willing to have further discussions should the League be willing to do so." (Read full statement here)

NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly:
"It is unfortunate that the NHLPA has unreasonably refused to approve a Plan that an overwhelming majority of our Clubs voted to support, and that has received such widespread support from our fans and other members of the hockey community, including Players." (Read full statement here)

Dallas Stars president Jim Lites:
"Really disappointed. It's depressing. I know fans overwhelmingly want this. We fought for this for years, and now to have it there and delayed for reasons that don't make any sense to me, I don't get it."

Carolina Hurricanes captain Eric Staal:
"Obviously, there's been some conflict as far as the decision-making goes, so eventually, probably going to have to find a common ground, to find some way to make it work. The way it is now, I don't mind.

"I think for us, for our team, going into a division against Washington, New York, Pittsburgh, Philly, whatever. The division we were in, it would have been tough. But I think it's such a close league -- anybody you play against is tough. But for me, it's not going to be that much of a difference. Obviously, a couple trips to Winnipeg -- that's close to home for me, so I don't mind."

New Jersey Devils captain Zach Parise:
"I was surprised to hear that it didn't go through. I didn't like the change in the playoff format, so it's not bad for us. But I know some teams are going to be upset with the travel. I personally like it the way it is and didn't want any changes."

Florida player representative Mike Weaver:
"We were prepared for the realignment from the NHL, but we weren't given every bit of information regarding it. How can you make an educated decision without all the proper information? We asked for the reasoning and that reasoning was not produced. They were not open to discussions about it.

"As far as travel goes, it's a big important issue. I don't know why the NHL wouldn't make it easier for everyone. More travel means being away from families more. It is going to make it tougher. It's already tough now. I just wish they were fair with us. They didn't want to give us any information about it. We're going to have longer road trips, like 10 days on the road. It's tough enough now and they didn't make it any easier."

Minnesota Wild owner Craig Leipold told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune in an email:
"To say I am disappointed in the actions of the NHLPA to deny consent to implement realignment for next season is an understatement. Our fans were universally excited to be playing against Midwestern teams in the previous old Norris Division.

"I'm disappointed for our fans, our employees and our players. It appears everyone wanted this to happen except the leaders of the players' union. I pledge to Wild fans to continue to pursue this realignment plan as aggressively as possible."

Detroit Red Wings general manager Ken Holland told the Detroit Free Press:
"We'd be disappointed if it’s on hold for a year. This is the first I've heard of it, but we'd be disappointed. We voted for realignment."

Your take? NHLPA refuses realignment plan

January, 6, 2012
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The NHL said Friday that it won't go forward with its realignment plan and modified playoff format next season after the players' association refused to agree to the changes.

The changes were approved in December by the NHL's board of governors, with the league planning to switch from two three-division conferences to four conferences.

The league said it will maintain its current alignment and playoff format next season.

"It is unfortunate that the NHLPA has unreasonably refused to approve a plan that an overwhelming majority of our clubs voted to support, and that has received such widespread support from our fans and other members of the hockey community, including players," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said.

A source told ESPN.com's Pierre LeBrun a possible next step for the NHL could be to bring a grievance against the NHLPA, if the league feels the players' association unreasonably withheld its consent. If the league wins that grievance, it could unilaterally implement realignment for the 2013-14 season.

Daly told LeBrun the league got the final "thumbs down" from the NHLPA on Friday.

Tell us here what you think of the NHLPA's refusing the realignment plan.

Information from The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Complete and unedited release from the NHLPA regarding the NHLPA's decision to deny consent to realignment for 2012-13.

STATEMENT FROM NHLPA EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
DON FEHR REGARDING PROPOSED NHL REALIGNMENT

Toronto (January 6, 2012) -- National Hockey League Players' Association (NHLPA) Executive Director Don Fehr issued the following statement this evening regarding the League’s realignment proposal:

“On the evening of December 5, 2011, the NHL informed the NHLPA that they proposed to put in place a four-conference format beginning with the 2012-13 season. As realignment affects Players’ terms and conditions of employment, the CBA requires the League to obtain the NHLPA’s consent before implementation. Over the last month, we have had several discussions with the League and extensive dialogue with Players, most recently on an Executive Board conference call on January 1. Two substantial Player concerns emerged: (1) whether the new structure would result in increased and more onerous travel; and (2) the disparity in chances of making the playoffs between the smaller and larger divisions.

In order to evaluate the effect on travel of the proposed new structure, we requested a draft or sample 2012-13 schedule, showing travel per team. We were advised it was not possible for the League to do that. We also suggested reaching an agreement on scheduling conditions to somewhat alleviate Player travel concerns (e.g., the scheduling of more back-to-back games, more difficult and lengthier road trips, number of border crossings, etc.), but the League did not want to enter into such a dialogue. The travel estimation data we received from the League indicates that many of the current Pacific and Central teams, that have demanding travel schedules under the current format, could see their travel become even more difficult. On the playoff qualification matter, we suggested discussing ways to eliminate the inherent differences in the proposed realignment, but the League was not willing to do so.

The League set a deadline of January 6, 2012 for the NHLPA to provide its consent to the NHL’s proposal. Players’ questions about travel and concerns about the playoff format have not been sufficiently addressed; as such, we are not able to provide our consent to the proposal at this time. We continue to be ready and willing to have further discussions should the League be willing to do so.”
Complete and unedited release from the NHL regarding the NHLPA's decision to deny consent to realignment for 2012-13.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE / JANUARY 6, 2012

NHL REALIGNMENT DELAYED; NHLPA DENIES CONSENT

NEW YORK (January 6, 2012) -- The National Hockey League announced today that it will not move forward with implementation of the Realignment Plan and modified Playoff Format recently approved by the NHL Board of Governors for the 2012-13 NHL season because the NHLPA has refused to provide its consent.

“It is unfortunate that the NHLPA has unreasonably refused to approve a Plan that an overwhelming majority of our Clubs voted to support, and that has received such widespread support from our fans and other members of the hockey community, including Players,” said NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly. “We have now spent the better part of four weeks attempting to satisfy the NHLPA’s purported concerns with the Plan with no success. Because we have already been forced to delay, and as a result are already late in beginning the process of preparing next season’s schedule, we have no choice but to abandon our intention to implement the Realignment Plan and modified Playoff Format for next season.”

“We believe the Union acted unreasonably in violation of the League’s rights. We intend to evaluate all of our available legal options and to pursue adequate remedies, as appropriate.”

As a result of the League’s decision today, the NHL will maintain its current alignment and Playoff Format for the 2012-13 season.

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.

The NHL's board of governors got it right with their new four-conference setup. Well, almost right. Here's how it would have looked if I'd been asked my opinion (shockingly, I wasn’t).

Conference A
Boston
Buffalo
Montreal
Ottawa
Philadelphia
Pittsburgh
Toronto

Conference B
Carolina
Florida
Nashville
New Jersey
N.Y. Islanders
N.Y. Rangers
Tampa Bay
Washington

Conference C
Chicago
Columbus
Dallas
Detroit
Minnesota
St. Louis
Winnipeg

Conference D
Anaheim
Calgary
Colorado
Edmonton
Los Angeles
Phoenix
San Jose
Vancouver

LeBrun's plan: What I would have done

December, 5, 2011
12/05/11
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The NHL's board of governors resolved realignment Monday night, and I don't mind the four-conference lineup it came up with. But if I were given the power of 20 voting governors (you need 20 of 30 votes to pass realignment), here's what I would have chosen in the Pierre LeBrun Realignment Solution, which begins with going back to some old division names and some new ones:

Eastern Conference

Adams Division
Boston
Buffalo
Carolina
Detroit
Montreal
Ottawa
Toronto

Patrick Division
Florida
New Jersey
N.Y. Islanders
N.Y. Rangers
Philadelphia
Pittsburgh
Tampa Bay
Washington

Western Conference

Smythe Division
Anaheim
Colorado
Calgary
Edmonton
Los Angeles
Phoenix
San Jose
Vancouver

Norris Division
Chicago
Columbus
Dallas
Minnesota
Nashville
St. Louis
Winnipeg

Four-conference realignment plan

December, 5, 2011
12/05/11
10:02
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The NHL's board of governors approved a four-conference realignment plan Monday, creating two seven-team conferences and two eight-team conferences.

Under the format, every team would play every other team outside its conference twice -- once home, once away. Every team also would play every other team in its conference either five or six times.

The first two rounds of the playoffs will be played within the conferences, and the four conference winners will advance to play off for the Stanley Cup.

Conference A
Anaheim
Calgary
Colorado
Edmonton
Los Angeles
Phoenix
San Jose
Vancouver

Conference B
Chicago
Columbus
Dallas
Detroit
Minnesota
Nashville
St. Louis
Winnipeg

Conference C
Boston
Buffalo
Florida
Montreal
Ottawa
Tampa Bay
Toronto

Conference D
Carolina
New Jersey
N.Y. Islanders
N.Y. Rangers
Philadelphia
Pittsburgh
Washington

That discussion about Winnipeg being destined for a revamped Central Division for the 2012-13 season? Better cool your, er, Jets.

Despite Minnesota Wild owner Craig Leipold's assertions to a local radio station earlier this week that the realignment question has been all squared away and the Winnipeg Jets would join the Wild in a new Central Division, the relocation issue is far from being resolved.

An NHL source told ESPN.com on Wednesday it was premature to suggest any decisions have been made on how the NHL will look a year from now. Multiple sources have also told us the relocation of the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg will give the NHL an opportunity to rethink its entire structure, so the realignment question will not be resolved until all parties have had their say.

Our colleague Pierre LeBrun previously reported the NHL will take advantage of the Thrashers' relocation and consider paring down from six divisions to a four-division, two-conference set-up that would make it easier to install a balanced schedule.

Regardless of where teams land, the realignment decision promises to be an emotional one.

Detroit and Columbus are both itching to move to the Eastern Conference, while Nashville would also welcome a move from the West given its onerous travel schedule and the difficulty in garnering fans for late-night games on the West Coast.

It's hard to imagine the Wings moving to the East given how strong a draw they are throughout the Western Conference; there is also the issue of competitive balance given that the Jets will almost certainly continue to be a marginal team for the foreseeable future.

Most Eastern Conference teams would be opposed to a Jets-for-Wings swap since the Wings are a perennial powerhouse and would make the road to a playoff spot even more difficult.

Selling points

While the Phoenix Coyotes' ownership situation remains status quo (that is to say, it remains a mess with no end in sight), their former suitor is definitely moving on.

Matt Hulsizer has visited with St. Louis Blues principal owner and chairman Dave Checketts about purchasing the Blues, a source confirmed to ESPN.com.

Nothing is imminent regarding a sale of the Blues, whose ownership situation has been in limbo for some time.

According to a report from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Hulsizer isn't the only party interested in buying the team. The chairman of Game Plan LLC, the group handling the sale of the Blues, told the newspaper that there are "five very interested parties."

But with Hulsizer moving on and exploring other NHL opportunities, one wonders if there isn't a lot of second-guessing going on in Glendale. Hulsizer's last proposal to local leaders was to purchase the controversial municipal bonds that were key to a new lease agreement between him and the City of Glendale. That proposal would have put an additional $5 million in the city coffers, a source confirmed to ESPN.com.

But city officials weren't interested -- or, at least, key city officials weren't interested -- and Hulsizer and his more than $100 million in cash may now be headed to St. Louis.

The Blues are in a vastly superior place in terms of the marketplace after rebuilding their relationship with the fan base but are not quite there yet in terms of the on-ice product. It is pretty much the opposite of what Hulsizer was looking at with the Coyotes.

The surprising Heatley-Havlat deal

Of all the interesting, some might even say curious moves this offseason, none is as surprising as San Jose's move to trade Dany Heatley to Minnesota for Martin Havlat.

This is no question a risk for both teams as both players carry significant baggage.

Havlat has battled injury and never quite lived up to the significant talent he possesses. The big winger had just 22 goals this past season, although the drop from the 29 he scored in 2008-09 might be attributed to a decline in ice time and power-play opportunities. (Of course, these are all chicken-and-egg issues; did Havlat see less ice time because he was less productive, etc.?) Regardless, Havlat will be given top-six ice time in San Jose. It will be a major disappointment to GM Doug Wilson if Havlat doesn't get back to the 30-goal vicinity given the talented cast surrounding him. This is all assuming he stays healthy, of course.

Heatley is likewise hoping to rebound after a season that saw his goal production drop to 26 from 39. That was followed by another mediocre playoff performance as the Sharks bowed out in the Western Conference finals for the second straight postseason. While Heatley's health may have been a contributing factor in his playoff performance, he was essentially a third-line winger for the talented Sharks. He will now see his profile jump considerably in goal-starved Minnesota, where his 26 goals would have led the team in the past few seasons.

Heatley is now on his fourth NHL team in less than 10 years of NHL play. Along with former Sharks teammate Devin Setoguchi (he was sent to Minnesota in a separate deal), Heatley will be expected to invigorate a moribund power play and re-energize a fan base that has grown weary of mediocrity.

Setoguchi and Heatley donned their Wild jerseys for the first time this week, and GM Chuck Fletcher said he has no concerns about Heatley's declining production or about his past issues in asking to be traded from Atlanta and later from the Senators. We said this three summers ago when Heatley forced his way out of Ottawa to San Jose, but maybe this is where the talented winger finally gets it right (the Wild are certainly banking big time that it is).

What about McCabe?

Let's be fair, the free-agent pickings left on the table are, well, pretty slim. But the one name that jumps out at us is defenseman Bryan McCabe.

He may never approach his high-water mark as a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2005-06 when he was a late add to the Canadian Olympic team; but he is a big body with a big shot and we still can't quite figure out why he hasn't been signed by someone like, say, the New York Islanders.

No team has as far to go to get to the salary cap floor of $48.3 million as the Islanders ($10.45 million according to CapGeek.com as of Tuesday).

The Islanders are an interesting group given their emerging young talent that includes rookie of the year nominee Michael Grabner and former No. 1 overall pick John Tavares. With Mark Streit returning from a season-ending injury, McCabe might be an interesting complement on a back end that needs to improve if the Isles are going to jump back into the playoffs for just the second time since the lockout.

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