Change is coming in the National Hockey League whether you agree or disagree. The league has approved a new four conference format that is expected to be implemented next season. The plan calls for the league to eliminate the current two conference system with six divisions in favor of four conferences based on geography. Two of the conferences will have seven teams and two of the conferences will have eight teams. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman will speak to the NHLPA before the league implements any changes.
Realignment became necessary when the Atlanta Thrashers became the Winnipeg Jets over the summer. The plan was finalized late Monday night on the first of two days of Board of Governors meetings in Pebble Beach, California. In order for realignment to pass it required two thirds of the Board of Governor approval and passed on the first ballot.
The makeup of the soon to be named conferences is as follows:
- New Jersey, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, New York Rangers, New York Islanders, Carolina, and Washington.
- Boston, Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, Buffalo, Tampa Bay, Florida
- Detroit, Columbus, Chicago, Nashville, St. Louis, Minnesota, Dallas, and Winnipeg
- Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, San Jose, Los Angeles, Anaheim, and Colorado
The idea behind the new conference format would be to allow teams to renew and continue rivalries from the past. With the conferences being radically realignment there will also be change to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The NHL is going back to the old division format of the playoffs. The top four teams from each conference will make the playoffs. The first two rounds of the playoffs will be contested inside the conference. The format will be as follows as the first place team will face off against the fourth place team. And the second place team will play the third place team.
After the first two rounds of the playoffs the conference champions will be reseeded in third round. There is the potential of an all Eastern Stanley Cup final or all Western Conference Stanley Cup Final. Reseeding after the first two rounds of the playoffs has yet to be finalized. The NHL General Managers will determine the playoff structure after the first two rounds of the playoffs.
However, one of the big challenges coming out of realignment is the schedule. The new schedule presents challenges to all 30 teams in the league. Teams that play in the seven team conference will play teams inside their conference six teams. In the eight team conferences there is a bit more of adjusting. Teams in these conferences would play five or six times per season based on a rotating schedule. Three teams would play each other six teams and four teams will play each other five times. That process will be reverse each season.
The new realignment will allow the NHL to create a more balanced schedule allowing all the teams to play each other at least twice a year, once on the road and once at home. This will give fans a chance to see every team and superstar in the league. Travel will be the biggest concern for the players in the league. Another issue for the players will be the bonuses they make if their team goes to the playoffs. With only the top four from each conference making it, a fifth seeded team in a good conference will miss the playoffs. However, a fourth seeded team in a weak conference will make the playoffs.
This is just the first step in the realignment process as the fate of the Phoenix Coyotes is still in the air. With the two eight team conferences, NHL can move the Coyotes to a seven team conference if they are relocated in the future.
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