NHL realignment could heat up rivalries, up for a board of governors vote soon
Canucks general manager Mike Gillis says travel schedule will improve, while fans may benefit seeing stronger squads play here
VANCOUVER — Canucks fans suffering from a case of Northwest Division-itis can take heart. National Hockey League realignment appears to be back on track.
The league and the NHL Players’ Association have been discussing realignment in recent weeks and there’s a chance a proposal could be voted on by the board of governors as early as later this month.
“Discussions on realignment are ongoing and we hope to be in a position to present something to our board soon,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said Wednesday in an email to The Vancouver Sun. “We are working with the Players’ Association in terms of constructing something that we think will work well for our league and for the game going forward.”
Such a proposal is expected to be similar to one approved by the board of governors in December 2011. That proposal consisted of four conferences, two with eight teams and two with seven. The Canucks were grouped with Edmonton, Calgary, San Jose, Los Angeles, Anaheim, Phoenix and Colorado.
Vancouver general manager Mike Gillis is all for realignment, largely because he thinks it would slightly ease the team’s travel burden.
“We like it because we would play more games in our time zone,” Gillis said. “We wouldn’t have to travel to places like Columbus and Nashville as much. It would keep us more in the West.”
Canucks’ defenceman Keith Ballard isn’t convinced realignment would make all that much difference to the team’s travel.
“Geographically, it probably makes sense,” Ballard said. “But unless they are going to put some more teams in Alberta and B.C., we still won’t have that easy of a travel schedule.
“For us, I don’t know how much difference it makes. I guess maybe you eliminate some of those long trips to places like Nashville and Columbus.”
The biggest benefit could be for fans. There has been considerable discussion in Vancouver of late about the quality of the Northwest Division. Tuesday’s 2-1 win over the Minnesota Wild ran the Canucks’ division record this season to 6-0-1. In the last four seasons and the early part of this one, the Canucks have gone 72-22-9 against the Northwest Division. Vancouver was the lone Northwest team to make the playoffs the past two seasons and some have suggested so much time spent playing weak division opponents does not make for great playoff preparation.
“That’s people not from Vancouver that tend to want to attribute our success to the failure of other teams,” Gillis said. “Well, they are still hard games, they are still good teams.”
But Gillis does acknowledge that realignment would have an added benefit for fans and that existing rivalries with teams such as the Sharks, Kings and Ducks would intensify if the Canucks were playing in the same conference as the three California teams.
“It would be different for a period of time, something new,” Gillis said. “I think there’s a benefit to fans.”
Of course, the Canucks’ new conference, as it was proposed just over a year ago, would include all the Northwest Division teams save the Wild, who would join a conference that would include Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Detroit, Nashville, St. Louis and Winnipeg.
Ballard doesn’t think the current weakness of the Northwest Division should be used as a rallying cry for realignment.
“You can’t realign divisions and conferences every time teams go through down years,” Ballard said. “Every couple of years it’s going to be a different group of teams. You look at Edmonton, they are going to get better every year ... You are never going to find perfect parity in all of the divisions.”
Daniel Sedin said realignment is not currently a big issue inside the Vancouver dressing room.
“I don’t think we care too much about that,” he said. “It’s fun to see some different teams and play them more. But if you look at the teams now in the Western Conference, it’s pretty tight. I don’t think it matters too much what division you are in or who you play against. It’s going to be tough either way.”
Daniel’s right. The fans probably care more about realignment than the players. Under the most recent proposal, those in eight-team conferences would play one another five or six times each season. In the seven-team conferences, teams would play one another six times.
But what fans will most like is the fact every team would play every other team outside its conference in a home-and-away series.
The top four teams in each of the four conferences would make the playoffs and that has created questions about teams playing in the two seven-team conferences having a competitive advantage. That is believed to be one of the concerns the NHLPA had when the board passed its realignment proposal 26-4 just over a year ago.
“Regardless of what we come up with, it’s not going to be perfect,” Daly said Wednesday. “That’s just the nature of the beast we’re dealing with. And, I think the union and the players understand that.”
One longer-term solution would be expansion. The addition of two teams would give the NHL a total of 32 and allow for four eight-team conferences.
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