The NHL’s new realignment plan for next season could become reality within two to three weeks.
The league in conjunction with the NHL Players’ Association has worked diligently over the past two weeks on realignment, including a meeting in Toronto Tuesday morning between the two sides.
"The last two weeks we’ve been in constant communication with the NHLPA on realignment issues," deputy commissioner Bill Daly told ESPN.com Tuesday. "We’ve been exchanging information and we’re trying to get to a resolution as soon as possible." The NHLPA, through a spokesman, confirmed that there has been communication between the sides over the last two weeks, adding that it is committed to continuing to work with the league in an effort to reach an agreement.
Time is of the essence because the league’s schedule-maker needs to get going on next season’s matrix.
If all goes well between the NHLPA and NHL -- the two sides are slated to meet again next week -- the NHL could have a realignment framework for the 30 owners to vote on the week of Feb. 25. Similarly, the NHLPA would run the realignment plan past its executive board (30 player reps) for approval.
Several team executives and governors contacted by ESPN.com Tuesday were in the dark about what the league was determining for realignment. And just what exactly the league and union have been working on the past two weeks, neither NHL nor NHLPA officials would divulge Tuesday. But it’s believed the framework is a slight variation from the December 2011 realignment format. And when I say variation, I believe there are a couple of teams that have been switched around from the original December 2011 format.
Here’s how the board of governors realigned the league in December 2011:
New York Islanders
New York Rangers
The realignment plan in December 2011 was quashed by the NHLPA, which is why the league this time is working alongside the union before bringing it to a board vote.
Realignment, the union argued, affects the players’ terms and conditions of employment, and the CBA requires the league to obtain the NHLPA’s consent before implementation.
The two key bones of contention for the NHLPA at the time: (1) whether the new format would result in increased and more onerous travel; and (2) the disparity in chances of making the playoffs between the smaller and larger divisions.
My guess is the NHL has altered the playoff format or criteria in some form or other to help ease the NHLPA’s concern over the inequity of having seven teams each in two conferences and eight teams apiece in the other two conferences.
The timing of realignment talks between the NHL and NHLPA is no coincidence, with Olympic meetings scheduled for Thursday and Friday in New York with the IOC and IIHF. The NHLPA and NHL need to figure out realignment and how the Olympics fit within that schedule next season, if indeed all parties involved can agree on terms for NHL players to participate in Sochi.
So the whole thing is kind of tied together, beginning with realignment.
No NHL club, meanwhile, needs realignment to happen more than the Winnipeg Jets.
Traveling more than any other Eastern Conference club this season, playing in the Southeast Division as the former Atlanta Thrashers for a second straight season, the Jets need to find new friends to hang out with.
"It’s our hope obviously that we get out of the Southeast Division and we end up in something along the lines that we agreed to [in December 2011]," Jets chairman and governor Mark Chipman told ESPN.com Tuesday. "But I’m not aware of what, if any changes, are being contemplated."
Detroit, Columbus, Nashville and Dallas were among the clubs that had the most to say in the last go-around when realignment was a hot topic, the Red Wings and Blue Jackets being a pair of Western Conference clubs in the Eastern time zone with obvious travel complaints under the existing format. The Red Wings have longed for a return to the East, which the Jackets would also like.
"I know our fans have spoken loudly about wanting to be in the East," Blue Jackets president John Davidson told ESPN.com Tuesday. "Whether that’s feasible or not, the league will tell us. We’re waiting to find out what they have to say. We’re an organization that wants to do what’s best for us and our fans, but we also realize we have to do what’s best for the league."
Dallas has long wanted out of the Pacific Division, annoyed by its massive travel plus late starting times for TV in its divisional road games.
So the December 2011 model certainly works for the Stars, who would play more clubs in the Central time zone.
"We’re fully on board with it," Stars president and CEO Jim Lites told ESPN.com Tuesday. "It needs to happen. You have to take care of Winnipeg, the Jets can’t run around in Carolina every night. That’s got to be fixed.
"Listen, there will always be issues no matter what," Lites added. "But what you can’t do is put your head in the sand about the Dallas Stars playing in a division that is two time zones away and the Detroit Red Wings playing playoff series every year against teams three time zones away. You have to address those issues, they’re anti-competitive."
In the end, the majority of clubs were appeased by the December 2011 model because of the schedule matrix, which called for all 30 teams to play each other at least twice in a home-and-home series.
"You have to play every team every year, you just have to," said Lites.
Not every club was thrilled. It’s believed the Tampa Bay Lightning rejected that realignment plan in December 2011, unhappy with the increased travel in their new grouping with Northeast clubs.
And then there’s the Phoenix situation to deal with. It’s doubtful the league will know for sure where the Coyotes are playing next season before it wraps up realignment plans. So the new format will most likely have to go ahead without knowing what lies ahead for the Coyotes. If the Coyotes have to relocate after this season, whatever new locale the franchise moves to, it will have to live in its new conference for at least a season before the NHL can accommodate it. No different from the Jets franchise playing in the Southeast the past two years after moving to Winnipeg from Atlanta.
The four-conference model from December 2011 isn’t perfect, with two seven-team groups and two eight-team groups. But it also invites future expansion to 32 teams -- thus four eight-team conferences -- which I would guess will happen within the next five years or so, whether that’s to Seattle, Quebec City or a second team in Toronto.
In the end, it’s impossible to satisfy all 30 teams in realignment. But the current format must change, that much is certain. And it will.