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Proposed NHL realignment is a terrific improvement

Under the plan, which is expected to take effect next season, the teams will be divided into four conferences and will play every club in the league at least twice every season.

December 05, 2011|Helene Elliott
  • Kings center Mike Richards unleashes a shot as the Ducks' Saku Koivu tries to disrupt the play during a game earlier this season at Staples Center.
Kings center Mike Richards unleashes a shot as the Ducks' Saku Koivu… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)

Bravo to the NHL's Board of Governors for approving a major realignment that will divide the 30 teams into four conferences, preserve geographic rivalries and ensure every team will play each other every season.

The plan, brokered by Commissioner Gary Bettman and adopted during meetings Monday at Pebble Beach, is subject to input from the NHL Players' Assn. and is expected to take effect next season. It abolishes the two-conference, six-division format and the ridiculous scheduling that meant teams in each conference went years between visits.

Under the new setup, the top four teams in each of the four still-unnamed conferences will qualify for the playoffs. The first two rounds will be contested within each conference, with No. 1 playing No. 4 and No. 2 playing No. 3 and the winners facing each other. The four conference champions will face each other, with the winners advancing to the Stanley Cup final. Bettman said general managers will decide whether to assign the teams new seedings after the second round.

"This is not a subject that everybody is going to get their first choice," Bettman told reporters. Once teams become familiar with it, "they can live with it and understand the value" of the changes, he said.

The Kings and Ducks voted for the plan.

"We like the fact that every team on the East Coast will come to L.A.," said Luc Robitaille, the Kings' president of business operations and their representative at the meetings. "We think it's a great thing for our fans and a great thing for us."

This will be the NHL's first major change since it went to six divisions in 1998-99. Members of the seven-team conferences will play each other six times, three home and three away, and members of the eight-team conferences will play each other five or six times a season, on a rotating basis. Every team will play those outside their respective conferences once home and once away.

These are the proposed new conferences:

Kings, Ducks, San Jose, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Colorado and Phoenix.

Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, Minnesota, Nashville, Columbus, Winnipeg and Dallas.

Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Boston, Buffalo, Florida and Tampa Bay.

Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, New York Rangers, New York Islanders, New Jersey, Washington and Carolina.

The change became necessary when the Atlanta Thrashers were sold and moved to Winnipeg before this season. In addition, Detroit and Columbus had complained, with good reason, about being in the West and starting road games so late for fans at home. Dallas, now in the Pacific Division, also complained about late road starts.

If the Coyotes leave Phoenix and move east, they could easily move to one of the seven-team conferences. But this plan does provide slots for teams in case of — ugh — expansion. Bettman acknowledged "there is flexibility" to move or add teams, but said the league isn't planning that.

The key change is having every team play each other at least once, which helps promote teams and players league-wide. Bettman previously caved in to powerful East teams and their insistence on keeping travel mileage lower at the expense of the league's greater good. Finally, sense prevailed.

Musical chairs continues for coaches

Washington Capitals General Manager George McPhee, explaining why he fired Bruce Boudreau on Nov. 28 and hired Dale Hunter, said he thought Boudreau had "emptied the tank."

Jim Rutherford, general manager of the Carolina Hurricanes, concluded his team no longer had "character guys that wanted to win at all costs," so he fired Coach Paul Maurice on Nov. 28 and brought in Kirk Muller, like Hunter an NHL coaching rookie.

Ducks General Manager Bob Murray said he thought his team needed "a new voice," ignoring the urgent need for depth up front and on defense. He dismissed Randy Carlyle on Wednesday and hired Boudreau, who apparently refilled his tank between Washington and Anaheim. After watching the Ducks squander leads and lose his first two games, Boudreau might consider using that tank to drive back east as fast as he can.

The season's coaching carnage count is four, starting with Davis Payne's firing in St. Louis on Nov. 6 in favor of Ken Hitchcock. The number is sure to increase: Columbus' Scott Arniel has survived a swirl of rumors, and Montreal's Jacques Martin faces intense criticism daily. Terry Murray did a fine job installing a strong defensive system when the Kings needed a foundation, but they lack creativity and struggle to score. He might have taken this team as far as he can go — but not as far as it should go.

Teams tend to boomerang from a disciplinarian to a players' coach and back again. No matter who's coaching, players inevitably tune him out after a few seasons and he is fired, often taking the fall for the general manager's faulty decisions.

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