|ESPN.com: NHL Preview 2013||[Print without images]|
|New unis and new division foes are making the Stars smile brightly these days.|
It is far from perfect, but it was a long time coming.
The NHL realigned, finally, for the 2013-14 season (following a one-year delay caused by the NHLPA): Four divisions instead of six; the return of divisional playoffs; travel schedules that for most clubs make more sense; and the promise of every single club playing in every single rink in the league at least once every season.
The big winners were the Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets, who moved to the Eastern Conference and will now play most of their games in their own time zone; the Winnipeg Jets, leaving a ridiculous situation in the Southeast Division and now finding a proper home in the Central Division; and the Dallas Stars and Minnesota Wild, who are thrilled to be in the new Central Division, where travel and TV times make more sense.
"There's a few big winners, but certainly two of those have to be Dallas and us," Wild GM Chuck Fletcher told ESPN.com, "because we were Central time zone teams playing the majority of our road games in the Pacific and Mountain time zones. It's going to vary from year to year, but this season, for example, we have six fewer games in the Pacific/Mountain time zones, and those six games will now be in the Eastern and the Central. That makes a big difference.
"I use this example a lot for people: Philadelphia and Calgary are both basically two and a half hours away from Minnesota [by air]. But we can play in Philly and be home by 1 a.m., whereas if we play in Calgary, we're not home until 4 a.m. Which means you usually stay the night instead. If you can get guys in bed that same night, you don't lose the next day. The savings we'll have in terms of wear and tear will be significant for our franchise. Plus, the majority of our games now will be aired on TV in the Eastern or Central time zones. There're a lot of benefits with this."
Dallas Stars president Jim Lites sees a lot of winners besides his team.
"Two birds got killed with one stone," Lites -- a big proponent behind the scenes of realignment -- told ESPN.com. "First, we got rid, at least to a significant degree, of some of the travel-time issues that were due to the geographic nuances of our league. And secondly, and very importantly, every fan gets to see every team every year. That's just so important."
Each of the 29 other rinks in the league now are guaranteed at least one visit by the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, the star-studded Pittsburgh Penguins and other big draws.
"We have fans that live here now in Dallas that have come from the likes of Boston, Pittsburgh, Calgary, and now they know they'll get to see their team every year. That really helps," said Lites.
Toughest division in the new alignment? My money's on the Pacific, where you can count only the Calgary Flames as a team that will almost surely miss the playoffs. Otherwise, you've got the 2012 Cup champion Los Angeles Kings, 2013 Pacific Division winners the Anaheim Ducks, perennial contenders in the San Jose Sharks, 2011 Cup finalists the Vancouver Canucks, 2012 Western Conference finalist the Phoenix Coyotes and an up-and-coming Edmonton Oilers squad bursting with young star talent.
"It doesn't get much easier for us this year with the new alignment,'' Sharks center Logan Couture told ESPN.com. "But we're looking forward to it. It's always a battle when we play Anaheim or L.A., the rivalry is so heated. To add Vancouver to that list is exciting."
On the flip side, there are now 14 teams in the West and 16 in the East, meaning it's mathematically easier to make the postseason in the West. That imbalance rankled some players as well as some NHLPA staff. In the end, though, after much internal deliberation, the players' union finally signed off on the proposal in March. The NHLPA gave its consent to play in the new alignment for three seasons -- through 2015-16 -- but the union will begin to re-evaluate the system after two seasons. Therefore, no changes would be made to the system before the 2016-17 season.
One positive -- at least from my perspective -- is the return to divisional playoffs. Many a great rivalry was born in the 1980s during those Adams, Patrick, Smythe and Norris division playoff series. Or maybe I'm just showing my age.
Under the new format, the top three teams in each division are guaranteed playoff spots, and then the next two top records in each conference, regardless of divisions, get the wild-card spots. So, in theory, you could have five teams from one division make the postseason and only three from the other. Already, you see the possibility of that happening with five Pacific Division teams and three from the Central. After Chicago and the St. Louis Blues in the new Central, there are certainly no sure bets to make the playoffs among Dallas, Minnesota, Winnipeg, the Nashville Predators and the Colorado Avalanche Ah, but that's why you play the games, right?
Of particular intrigue will be Detroit's move into the new Atlantic Division with Original Six buds the Toronto Maple Leafs, Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins, along with the Buffalo Sabres, Ottawa Senators, Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning. First, after years in the West, the Red Wings have to educate themselves about their new surroundings.
"I think so," Wings goalie Jimmy Howard told ESPN.com. "The West was so much about systems, everyone plays their systems to a T, the East is a bit more free-flowing. We know everyone's stars, but it's going to be about learning about role players and learning their tendencies. That will be a big part of the transition."
What better way to get that East intel than having new teammates Daniel Alfredsson (formerly of Ottawa) and Stephen Weiss (formerly of Florida) provide it? Both have played exclusively in the East their entire careers.
"It's great that we got those two guys in the dressing room with us, we'll be able to lean on them at the start," said Howard.
Of course, as we said before, it's not perfect for everybody. The two Florida teams, in particular, seem to get the raw end of the deal from a competitive and travel perspective. Having to fly more regularly into Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa and deal with customs certainly adds more hours in the airport, not to mention more competition in terms of playoff spots than in the old, weaker Southeast Division.
"It's hard to make the playoffs in any scenario. It's a tough league. There's a lot of parity now," Florida Panthers GM Dale Tallon told ESPN.com, downplaying any negative impact from realignment for his team. "It's good for us, really, long-term business-wise.
"We have four Original Six teams in our division. And overall for hockey, it had to be done," added Tallon. "Obviously for Tampa and ourselves, it's more travel. But business-wise, it's easier to sell those new teams in our divisions on weekdays than other teams."
Well, there is that. Snow birds from Montreal, Toronto, Boston and Detroit -- Original Six clubs with huge followings -- will invade both Florida rinks as they always do, but now there are more opportunities because they are divisional rivals.
And here's a warning to be careful what you wish for. The Jets were clamoring for realignment to get out of the travel nightmare that was their former Southeast affiliation, where the franchise originally sat as the Atlanta Thrashers before moving to Manitoba. But then again, Winnipeg now has to compete with the likes of the Blackhawks and Blues in the new Central Division. Certainly a higher standard than the old Southeast.
"You're obviously going right into the lion's den of the Stanley Cup champions; we're also in with other strong teams like St. Louis and Minnesota," Winnipeg Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff told ESPN.com. "But if you sit back and look at the other divisions, they're strong in their own right, too.
"We have a home now in a division that makes sense from a geographic location. And with the schedule, you play every team in the league now. From a fan's perspective and a team's perspective, it's nice to have a place where you can hang your hat on and build rivalries."
In the end, perhaps as big a factor as anything is the ability for most teams to play more games in their own time zones. For years, Dallas had to play road games in the Pacific time zone and that absolutely killed the Stars' local TV ratings. Realignment fixed that.
"No one is a bigger beneficiary of that than us," said Lites. "You can trace our television ratings fiasco to the day we moved from the Central Division, where we were the first few years we were here in Dallas, to the Pacific. You could see the numbers just plummet. When we would leave Dallas for seven days and go to Los Angeles, Anaheim and San Jose or Phoenix, our team would literally slip off the radar screen. There would be no local television coverage and only a third of people that might watch you on a normal night would still tune in."
About those division names, though. Metropolitan? Really?
Like we said, it's not perfect. But it's still an upgrade.