The NHL Board of Governors today approved a proposal that will see the NHL realign into four conferences, with two of the conferences housing eight teams while the other two have seven a piece.
The new league format will begin with the 2013-14 season and will be in place for a minimum of three seasons, barring any franchise relocations or expansion. After the initial three season test run, the players and the league will reevaluate the new format and decide whether to continue.
Initially, the biggest winners of the new realignment format will be the Detroit Red Wings, Columbus Blue Jackets and Winnipeg Jets. Both Detroit and Columbus will join the Eastern Conference divisions, cutting down on the number of late-night start times and stressful travel schedule for both teams. Meanwhile, the Jets, who relocated from Atlanta prior to the beginning of last season, will finally be back in a Western Conference division. The team has been playing in the Southeast Division, which includes Carolina, Tampa Bay, Washington and Florida, in place of the Thrashers since the relocation.
“It’s a win-win for our fans and our team,” Detroit Red Wings general manager Ken Holland said. “There (are) more road games in prime time. We still have a home-and-home with the teams in the West. It’s an hour-and-a-half max to go everywhere in the East other than Florida and Tampa Bay, so there’s less time in the air, more opportunities to come home after road games at an earlier hour.”
For the time being, the four new divisions will be referred to as Divisions A, B, C and D, with divisions A and B making up the Western Conference while C and D will be the Eastern Conference. Permanent names for the divisions will come at a later date.
Division A will be comprised of West coast teams including Anaheim, Calgary, Edmonton, Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Jose and Vancouver.
Division B will include Chicago, Colorado, Dallas, Minnesota, Nashville, St. Louis and Winnipeg.
The two eight-team divisions will both be made up of Eastern Conference teams, with the Red Wings and Blue Jackets joining the fray. Division C, which has four original six teams, will be made up of Boston, Buffalo, Detroit, Florida, Montreal, Ottawa, Tampa Bay and Toronto.
Division D will house Carolina, Columbus, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Washington, and both the New York Rangers and New York Islanders.
Under the new format, each team will play a home and home against every team in the league, meaning that fans everywhere will have the opportunity to see their favorite stars at least once every year in their home arena.
The playoff format will vary as well. Although the playoffs will still include 16 teams, under the new structure the top three teams from each division will make up the first 12 teams included in the playoffs. The remaining four spots will be filled by the next two highest placed finishers, or wild cards, in each conference based on regular season points and regardless of division. Under this system, it could be possible for one division to have five playoff contenders while the other only has three. But each division is guaranteed at least three.
The division winner with the most points will play the wild-card team with the fewest points. The division winner with the second-most points will be matched against the wild-card team with the second fewest points.
The second-and-third place teams in each division will play in the first round of the playoffs. The winner of each series will play for the opportunity to advance to the conference championship series, with the winner of the conference championship advancing to the Stanley Cup Finals.