PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- The NHL is about to embrace change. Will it be wholesale, "holy cow," seismic change? Or will it be the "Did you do something different to your hair?" kind of change?
We're about to find out.
The NHL's foray into realignment will be front and center when the league's board of governors meet here Monday and Tuesday; and what is unusual is that no one seems to know which way the league will go with this and what it will look like moving forward.
The league's governors will debate two distinctly different options.
One is to maintain the status quo with six divisions and five terms per division, swapping one current Western Conference team for the Winnipeg Jets, who are currently in the Southeast Division after replacing the now-defunct Atlanta Thrashers before the start of this season.
The other, more dramatic realignment option will be to divide the 30 teams into four conferences with a balanced schedule of play outside the division.
A number of NHL governors spoken to by ESPN.com in recent days believe if the simple option of maintaining the six-division format is the way the NHL goes, the Detroit Red Wings will slide into the Eastern Conference as per their longstanding wish to have fewer road games on late at night and reduce an onerous travel schedule. Columbus, another Eastern time zone team, would also like to move east.
If this is a decision about the greater good, Columbus would be the better team to move under this scenario. The franchise is in dire straits, mostly self-inflicted thanks to management decisions over the years. Would it not be better to prop up this woeful franchise by putting it in the Eastern Conference as opposed to the Red Wings, whose absence from the West would present a significant hardship for many teams in the conference, given that Detroit is a popular draw?
If Detroit gets its wish and moves to the East under the six-division format, the Red Wings would likely slide into the Southeast Division. The question then would be which team would take Detroit's coveted spot: Winnipeg or Minnesota? The Jets would fit nicely in the Central, but that doesn't address the concerns of Minnesota, whose owner Craig Leipold is a powerful voice in the owners' group, or Dallas, now with new ownership, as it would like out of the Pacific Division given how many of its road games start at 9 or 9:30 p.m.
On it goes. Every team has a preference, every team has a vested interest. Would Nashville like to move to the Southeast given its geographic location? Of course. And would it be unhappy to see Detroit leave? Sure.
But at the heart of all these issues is the central theme of what is good for the greater number of teams. What method of realignment serves the greater good of the league, as opposed to lessening the burden on one or two teams? More to the point, can 20 of the 30 teams agree on what that greater good might be and vote in a new alignment?
Several sources remain unconvinced it will be finalized at these meetings, which will put even more pressure on NHL schedule-makers, who would ideally be working on the 2012-13 schedule now.
While keeping the current six-division, two-conference setup may be the simplest option and one favored by many in the Eastern Conference because of less onerous travel, there are many who believe the league is committed to a dramatically different scenario that would feature four conferences. "I think it's a done deal," one governor told ESPN.com this week.
Those conferences, two with eight teams and two with seven, would provide a format that would be able to accommodate more concerns from more teams. This four-pod setup would provide for heavy play within the conference (five games against each conference foe), and at least a home-and-home set with all the remaining teams in the league. That would help ease the burden of the Red Wings, for instance, even if they stayed in a grouping that included current Central Division teams and likely Minnesota and Dallas.
The four-conference alignment would then see a return to a playoff setup that would have the first two rounds played within each conference and then the four conference winners presumably seeded based on regular-season point totals. But this system, call it the "share the pain" model, has a number of team leaders unhappy, especially in the East, where travel is traditionally much easier and less expensive.
Sources have told ESPN.com the cost of travel for a balanced schedule could add an extra $400,000-850,000 annually to Eastern Conference team budgets. Of course, West teams will say, "Boo-hoo, we've been paying more for years." But is making other teams more miserable a reason to change?
Some team officials have also expressed a concern about the on-ice product with the balanced schedule.
The potential for teams to make several long cross-continental trips has been discussed as a way of keeping travel costs under control. But several executives have said that seven- or eight-game road trips may cut costs, but would make staying competitive difficult. It's more likely that teams will have to make three or four trips west, and vice versa. Beyond that, longer road trips mean greater clumping together of home games, always an issue for smaller markets.
There is also the issue of selling tickets with a balanced schedule. A number of NHL executives have raised concerns about giving up dates with familiar opponents for those for which there would be little appetite among fans. This is especially germane for markets like Florida and Tampa, where there is concern that fans with a strong northeast interest will be less likely to buy tickets for games against Anaheim and Dallas than they would for the New York Rangers or Pittsburgh.
Adding the final wrinkle to the many and varied issues confronting the NHL's governors is what happens with the Phoenix Coyotes. The NHL continues to own and operate the team, but sources long ago confirmed that this will be the final season of this arrangement. If no viable owner can be found, the league will move to relocate the Coyotes. That decision could come any time from the end of this month onward.
If the governors keep the six-division format, the potential for another realignment issue becomes greater if the Coyotes have to move. The four-conference format would provide greater flexibility to accommodate a Phoenix relocation if that's how it plays out.
The league's public position is that it will simply provide these options for the governors and it doesn't have a dog in the fight (and it's worth noting that commissioner Gary Bettman constructed the current divisional setup, so it's not as though he is looking at discarding something that wasn't of his own making). But multiple sources have said there has been significant discussion (i.e., lobbying) on the part of the league for governors to embrace the four-conference setup. And as might be the case on the floor of Congress, consideration has to be given to what favors might be called in down the road.
Change? Oh yeah, it's coming.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.