The issue of realignment takes center stage when the NHL Board of Governors meets Monday and Tuesday in Pebble Beach, California.
It’s no secret that the Dallas Stars would like to move out of the Pacific Division, a place they've called home since 1998 and a place where three of their division rivals are two time zones away.
“It would be huge for us, competitively and in our market place,” said Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk. “No one likes to complain, but the travel does take a toll. You get home from a divisional game at three or four in the morning. Those things are tough and they add up over time. I think most importantly, from a TV standpoint, just getting our games on closer to our time zone or in our time zone preferably would be huge.”
The Stars are among the league leaders in travel miles every season and regardless of the first class accommodations, the heavy travel can put teams at a disadvantage.
“Those trips out west you always struggle with do you come home after the game and get home at early in the morning or come home the next day,” Nieuwendyk said. “Either way, you are just traveling all day. I played in both conferences as a player and there is no comparison.”
The television issue is big as well. The Stars will head out on the road for two big games this week against division rivals San Jose and Los Angeles. Both games with start at 9:30 p.m. and end around midnight, not exactly a prime time slot for viewing. This season, 12 of the Stars’ 41 road games will start at 9:00 p.m. or later. That includes ten Pacific Division road games plus a couple of games in Vancouver as well.
“People here watch television from 7 to 10 and the problem is many of the games are starting at 9 o’clock or later,” said Stars president Jim Lites. “When you start at 9, you are at the backside of the television viewing period and our television numbers suffer from it. And our television numbers have suffered from the day we were shifted from the Central to the Pacific. It’s problematic for us because nothing creates fans like watching it on television and for fans to be interested in it, particularly young fans, and for people to get involved.”
Lites said the Stars love the rivalries they’ve developed with the Sharks, Kings, Ducks and Coyotes, but he’d like to see some time zone friendly divisional rivalries.
“Optimally for us, we’d love to be playing in the Central time zone,” said Lites. “We’d love to play St. Louis, Chicago, Detroit, Minnesota. We’d like to play the old Norris Division.”
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman is aware of Dallas’ concerns. He’s aware of concerns other teams have as well. He talked about them on his weekly radio show last week.
"Dallas, who's in the Pacific, plays a lot of its road games very late at night -- and so younger people in particular have a tough time staying up to watch the games on a regular basis. So that's an issue," Bettman said. "Minnesota is in a place where they're playing a lot of their games in the Northwest. And then you say, well, OK, if we put Winnipeg in the Northwest and we move Minnesota to the Central, isn't that great, and then Colorado says, wait a minute, then I'm the only U.S. club (in a division) with four Canadian ones. Crossing the border these days is rather time-consuming, and that puts us at a disadvantage.
“And you have the old arguments about the teams like Detroit and Columbus that are in the Eastern time zone, and they're saying, we're playing all of our teams or too many of our games west, from a TV standpoint.”
There are apparently two scenarios the league is looking at as far as realignment. One is simple and the other is far more ambitious. The more ambitious plan has been floating around for a while and was outlined again on CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada over the weekend. It would fit Lites’ desire to see the Stars with teams resembling the old Norris Division.
That plan, according to the CBC report, would break the league into four conferences (see table below) and would have the Stars grouped with Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, Minnesota, Nashville, Columbus and Winnipeg.
Under this proposal, there would be two conferences with eight teams and two with seven teams. The top four teams in each would make the playoffs and the first two rounds would be within each conference.
The plan would also include a more balanced schedule, which would have every team playing every other team at least once in a home-and-home series.
The simple plan would reportedly keep the current alignment and move Winnipeg to the Central and send Detroit to the Southeast.
The thought is that the teams in the Eastern Conference, for the most part, like the way things are now. The teams in the West are looking for change.
Whichever way the board goes, it would take a two-thirds vote to get it done. And Bettman said last week that he isn’t sure how it will go and if there would even be a decision this week.
"There's a lot of speculation about what's going to happen on realignment –and the answer is, as I sit here today, I'm not sure," Bettman said. "From the board perspective of making whatever decision they want to make, people are all over the place. If you ask each of the 30 clubs what their preference is, my guess is you'd get 30 different preferences. And as a result, what we really have to do is find the biggest layer of common ground. You're not going to get everybody's first choice. But, as we go through this process, and there are many steps of the realignment process that have to be done, in and outside the boardroom, the fact of the matter is the starting point is to figure out what the will of the board is."
Proposed NHL Conferences
An NHL realignment proposal involving four conferences. (Source: CBC)