Realignment raises more questions
PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- Just for fun, we took a look at the NHL standings as of Tuesday morning and overlaid them on the new four-conference system that will become reality next fall to see if the playoff situation would be dramatically different.
Now, we understand that this is a little bit of comparing apples to oranges given that the new conference format features a balanced schedule outside the conference so teams will play each other in a different pattern.
Still, it's interesting to look at where teams are now and how that might translate to the new system, in which the top four teams in each conference qualify for the playoffs.
Of the eight Eastern Conference teams that would be in the playoffs as of Tuesday morning, Ottawa is the only current playoff team that would find itself on the outside looking in under the new setup, because it would be fifth in its conference behind Boston, Florida, Toronto and Buffalo. The Senators currently sit in eighth in the East.
The team that would benefit: Washington. The slumping Capitals, currently in ninth place in the East, would sneak into the fourth spot in their conference behind Pittsburgh, the New York Rangers and Philadelphia.
The interesting shakedown is with the two new conferences featuring the 15 current Western Conference teams plus the Winnipeg Jets. The St. Louis Blues are currently sixth in the Western Conference but would be out of the playoffs altogether under the new format since they would be in the same conference as the top four teams in the West: Minnesota, Chicago, Dallas and Detroit. Bad news for the Blues.
Meanwhile, last season's Stanley Cup finalists, the Vancouver Canucks, would be the weakest of the conference leaders in the new system as they are currently fifth in the Western Conference.
A New Look
Here is the four-conference format approved by the NHL Board of Governors Monday night. Under the realigned format, which still needs to be officially implemented by commissioner Gary Bettman, every team would play every other club in a home-and-home matchup:
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 New York Islanders New York Rangers Philadelphia Pittsburgh Washington
While the Blues would suffer in this comparison, the San Jose Sharks would jump into fourth place in the Vancouver conference behind Phoenix and Los Angeles.
Nashville general manager David Poile suggested that these inequities might be something the GMs will want to discuss when they next meet in March. Is there a possibility, for instance, to slide a team with more points -- like a St. Louis -- into a playoff spot in another conference occupied by a team with fewer points -- like a Washington or San Jose?
Sounds kind of messy but it's something the GMs will kick around.
"When Gary discusses that with us [at the next GMs meetings] do we have the ability to tweak those kinds of situations," Poile wondered aloud.
"I think there's probably some tweaking that we want to do with this. I'm very optimistic. I'm very pleased with where we're at."
Playoff seeding questions
Another issue the GMs will discuss in March is what to do with the four teams that emerge as conference winners. The logical process would be to seed them based on regular-season points: No. 1 versus No. 4 and No. 2 versus No. 3.
But there has been some suggestion that the league might want to preserve a traditional East-West final series, which would mean automatically pitting the two conference winners from the Western-based conferences and the two winners from the East.
Toronto GM Brian Burke said he would be against predetermining which two conference winners were going to face each other.
"I think teams should be reseeded after every playoff round," he said.
To do otherwise, "that just cheapens the regular season for me."
"That's something I'd certainly have to think about," St. Louis Blues president John Davidson said. "Do you want an East-West final or do you want the better two teams to play in your final which is your centerpiece?"
"I think there are lots of possibilities," added Poile. "It could create actually more interest early playing in your division and then you could have some finals at this point [that] have never been possible before."
Just for fun, using today's standings and the new template, the first round of the playoffs would feature Pittsburgh and Washington, the Rangers and Philadelphia, Boston and Buffalo, Florida and Toronto, Minnesota and Detroit, Chicago and Dallas, Vancouver and San Jose, and Phoenix and Los Angeles.
Could be fun.
We'll never know, but logic suggests yes. Of course there's a reason the vote is carried out openly during the meeting as teams are more likely to vote for a league proposal when they have to do so in full view of the rest of the league as opposed to in secret.
The name game
So, what shall we call these new conferences?
That hasn't come up yet, but it might be something for the general managers to discuss at their next meeting in March. Our suggestion?
How about honoring some of the greats of the game. There has been discussion about renaming NHL awards to recognize the contributions of players like Bobby Orr or Gordie Howe. This might be an opportunity to do so. It would be hard to narrow it down to four hockey figures deserving of such an honor, but why not something like: the Howe, Orr, Gretzky and Beliveau conferences?
Boogaard and fighting
Among the topics discussed Tuesday as the governors ended their two-day session was the issue of fighting. The New York Times recently published a series of in-depth stories about Derek Boogaard, the former NHL tough guy who passed away last summer. The series suggested, among other things, that Boogaard was suffering from a kind of dementia that was likely brought on by his long history as a fighter.
Bettman said it was too early to draw any conclusions about fighting and its link to brain disease or other medical issues.
"We're not physicians, we're not a hospital, we're not a research facility," Bettman said. "I know there are people out there doing [that research], and we're monitoring very closely what's going on.
"This is all fairly much in its infancy."
As for a suggestion the Rangers tipped Boogaard off to a drug test several days in advance of the test, Bettman said that was unlikely.
"It's not anything I'm aware of, and I doubt it," Bettman said. "None of our teams know four days in advance when they're being tested.
"There is entirely too much speculation ... on something that is simply a tragedy."
With the NHL's collective bargaining agreement set to expire Sept. 15, 2012, deputy commissioner Bill Daly updated the governors on the preparations for the upcoming labor negotiations with the NHLPA.
The first opportunity for the two sides to begin meeting won't be until late January, at the earliest. That's in part because new NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr has been spending a great deal of time traveling to talk to players about which issues are priorities for them and to make sure the players understand his position on how to conduct negotiations.
"At the earliest, after the All-Star Game," Bettman said. "Don has suggested it will take at least 'til the All-Star Game when he's ready."
During the 2003-04 season, there was a feeling of gloom that the league's insistence on introducing cost certainty (a salary cap of some form) would lead to a work stoppage, which of course it did.
One of the big issues facing the two sides as negotiations continue this season will be the percentage of hockey revenues the players will receive. They currently get 57 percent, but it's pretty much a given the league will be looking to bring that number down significantly. The NBA, for instance, recently ratified a new agreement that will see players earn between 49 and 51 percent of revenues.
Daly said you shouldn't draw parallels between the NHL and the collective bargaining agreements in other sports.
"Each sports league is different," he said.
He added that the relationship between the NHL and its players is "unique."
"At the appropriate time, we'll have those discussions with the players' association," Daly said.
Edmonton president Kevin Lowe said he thought there was a different feel at the outset of these negotiations compared with the ones that led to the 2004-05 lockout.
"It's a better feeling than the last time around, but until we know what the other side is asking or expecting, it's kind of an odd feeling, quite frankly," Lowe said.
"There doesn't appear to be any doom and gloom on the horizon, but I guess we'll know in a few months. From our perspective, we really knew where we stood the last time around as far as needing to fix things significantly. As I said, though there appears there needs to be some change, it's not as significant as last time around. That's the optimism."
Although the NHLPA said it believes realignment cannot be passed into league law without its consent, Daly disputed that assertion. Regardless, the two sides have discussed realignment and will continue to in the wake of the board's decision to go with the four-conference setup.
"I know what we talked about this week," Daly said. "I'm not at liberty to share that with you. I wouldn't necessarily put them in the category of concerns as opposed to relevant issues. Some of which were taken into consideration by the board yesterday; all of which were taken into consideration by the board.
"I don't anticipate a problem."
In case you were wondering how a vote like the one that settled the realignment issue gets carried out, it is done by an alphabetical roll call.
If you were a team planning on voting against the changes but the proposal already had the needed 20 votes in favor by the time of your vote, would you vote your conscience or vote the party line?
The final vote in favor of the realignment proposal was believed to be 26-4, but if the vote had been carried out in a secret ballot, would it have been closer?
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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