By Kevin Allen - USA Today
The latest proposal in the ongoing realignment discussions between the NHL and the NHL Players Association includes a two-conference, four-division format that opens the door to the possibility of five teams from one division and three from another qualifying for the playoffs.
Neither the NHLPA nor the league's board of governors has approved the proposal, but a memo was sent to all NHL teams detailing a plan that would be highlighted by the Columbus Blue Jackets and Detroit Red Wings moving to the Eastern Conference and the Winnipeg Jets moving to the Western Conference. Winnipeg has been playing in the East's Southeast Division for two seasons because the franchise used to be located in Atlanta.
Under the tentative proposal for the Eastern Conference, Detroit would join the Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres, Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Lightning and Ottawa Senators in the Central Division.
Columbus would join the Carolina Hurricanes, Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins, New Jersey Devils, Philadelphia Flyers, New York Rangers and New York Islanders in the Atlantic.
Winnipeg would join the Chicago Blackhawks, Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars, Minnesota Wild, Nashville Predators and St. Louis Blues in the Midwest. That leaves the Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles Kings, Phoenix Coyotes, San Jose Sharks, Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers and Vancouver Canucks in the Pacific.
If the proposal is approved by the NHLPA and board of governors, the top three finishers in each division would make the playoffs, along with the next best two records in the conference. What that means, for example, is that if the fifth-place team in the Central Division has a better record than the fourth place team in the Atlantic, then the fifth-place Central team qualifies. The wild-card team with the lowest point total would play the division winner with the most points, and the wild card with the most points would play the other division winner. There would then be the standard No. 2 vs. No. 3 crossover for the other first-round games.
The plan presented to teams also offers a schedule matrix that allows for every team to play every other team in the other conference in a home-and-home series.
The plus of this plan is that it places Winnipeg in the West where it belongs and allows Detroit and Columbus to join other Eastern Time Zone team.
The minus is that the Eastern Conference has eight-team divisions and the Western Conference has seven-team divisions, and the idea that players wouldn't have an equal mathematical chance of making the playoffs is troublesome to the NHLPA.
The NHLPA raised that issue, plus concerns over travel, in December 2011, when the board of governors voted to go a four-conference format that was different from this latest proposal.
A divisional based playoff with an unequal number of teams is not unprecedented in NHL history. From 1981-82 to 1992-93, the NHL had four playoff qualifiers coming out of both five- and six-team divisions.
One reason why the NHLPA might be open to allowing the uneven numbers between the two conferences is that this might be the only way to get Columbus and Detroit in the East. The NHLPA is aware that players from both teams would like to move to the East to reduce their travel burden. Plus, the unbalanced conference could be fixed if the NHL expands to 32 teams, though there is no formal expansion plan.