The Changing Look of the NHL
PEBBLE BEACH, Calif.--Maybe the NHL Players Association will shoot down the entire new realignment scheme, making the four conference discussion moot.
It could happen. Once you get this close to another round of collective bargaining, anything is possible between employer and employee.
But let's assume the proposed realignment will be in place for next season, which of course also pre-supposes there will be a next season and not a lockout or strike.
And let's assume the league comes up with some good names for the new conferences. The Orr Conference? The Howe? The Pat Burns Conference? The Mario Lemieux?
All kinds of possiblities there, and the league hasn't even started to think of possible names, or how they'll be decided.
One thing for sure. It will make some happy, and some not so happy. If you super-impose the new alignment on the current NHL standings - less than meaningful because you're dealing with very different schedules - you'd have two teams (Washington, San Jose) that as of today would be in the playoffs but out under the new scheme, and two teams (Ottawa, St. Louis) that are in under the current alignment but would miss under the four-conference plan.
That's starting an argument right there. As is the fact its a little easier to make the playoffs in a seven-team division than an eight-team group. As is the possibility that a team might be in the top four in one conference while a team with a better record wouldn't be in the top four of another.
All kinds of squabbles, then, lie in the offing.
And of course there's also the debate about what should happen after the first two rounds when the conference winners are left standing. Re-seed? Bracket?
What's clear, meanwhile, is that realignment will alter how you think about your favourite team, and probably how that team thinks as well.
Look at the Leafs. They'd be in third place in their new seven-team conference as of today, with Boston in first, Florida in second, Buffalo in fourth and Ottawa, Montreal and Tampa Bay on the outside looking in.
But really, their mindset, and that of five other teams in that conference, would become finding a way to beat Boston, and they'd start designing their team and making moves with the aim of beating Boston. No longer would they have to worry about Pittdsburgh, the Rangers, the Devils, the Capitals, the Islanders, the Flyers or the Hurricanes, at least not as rivals for a playoff berth or a division title.
Instead of worrying about 15 teams, you're now worried about six, or seven, depending on the conference.
That should heat up rivalries significantly. Theoretically, the Leafs would look to muscle up for the Bruins, and much less about matching Pittsburgh's skill.
It'll be a subtle new way of thinking. Assuming it happens. . . .