Pens' rivalries won't halt this train Print
Written by Frank Seravalli   
Wednesday, 02 November 2011 01:17

Despite protests from some teams, a more balanced alignment could be seen in the NHL next season. The question is who will be the winners and who will be the losers of this plan?

Frank SeravelliThe Philadelphia Flyers are defecting to Russia's Kontinental Hockey League.

The Washington Ovechkins will be playing next season on the moon.

Oh, wait. They're not. Oh, wait – as much as Ilya Bryzgalov would enjoy that – the Flyers are definitely not going to Russia, at least not while Ed Snider is living.

Still, based on the obnoxious whining and wailing out of Pittsburgh over the last few days since CBC's Elliotte Friedman broke the news about a progressive NHL realignment plan to finally settle the Winnipeg Jets in a geographically competitive scenario, you'd think that the Penguins were having both their left and right arms cut off by the Board of Governors in December.

That's because the proposal Friedman made public, which is said to have backing from nearly 50 percent of the league's all-important Governors and Commissioner Gary Bettman, currently has the Penguins moving into a new division in the Eastern Conference.

This new realignment proposal has the Penguins moving away from traditional rivals like Philadelphia and Washington, two big draws in a Steel City market that was floundering before Sidney Crosby arrived, and instead has them playing in a look-alike Northeast Division with teams like Montreal, Toronto, Buffalo and Boston.

The Penguins are upset. We'll get them a box of tissues.

Navigating the politics of a realignment process is like doling out Christmas presents to five teenage girls: not everyone can leave happy. In the NHL, any change in league structure must be approved by a two-thirds majority (20 votes out of 30). Suddenly, each team is much more interested in rooting for its own self interest.

But there's no way one or two rivalries will get in the way of this entire realignment process, if it were to receive backing from the remainder of the league's owners – even if the Penguins do receive verbal backing from the Flyers.

On their own, the Penguins and Flyers together don't have the numbers to wreak any sort of havoc on the voting process. They are only two teams out of 30. Their strongest allies, other teams in the Northeast corridor, would rather remain quiet than cause a stink. There isn't too much jostling that can be done with the teams on the Eastern seaboard; the current setup just makes too much sense geographically.

There are much bigger fish to fry in the realignment debate – Detroit, Columbus and Dallas, who all play most of their road games outside of their home time zone.

There are much bigger fish to fry in the realignment debate.

And besides, it's not as if the Capitals and Flyers are being wiped from the map. The Penguins, under this proposal, would face Washington and Philadelphia in a home-and-home series (with much more added emphasis) rather than six times per season. None of those three teams have a problem selling tickets.

The bigger fish are the three teams – Detroit, Columbus and Dallas – who play most of their road games outside of their home time zone.

Under Friedman's proposed plan, all three of those teams would find a scenario that meets their needs. Columbus, most likely, would move to the East and play against Toronto, Montreal and Boston. Dallas would be moved to a makeshift Central division to face teams like Nashville, Chicago and St. Louis more often.

Dallas, Detroit and Columbus have all realized how hard it is to grow a fan base, especially with young kids learning the game and watching from home, when the most essential parts of 75 percent of your road games occur after 11:30 p.m. in your home time zone.

Despite a gentleman's promise issued by Bettman to Red Wings owner Mike Illitch back in the 1990's (that the Red Wings were guaranteed to have the next opportunity to move East) it looks like the Wings may not be going anywhere. That's good news for Western Conference owners, who need Detroit to help sell home dates. It appears that the Red Wings are on board with the plan, so much as they don't need to travel to Western Canada and California more than once per season. This way, they could knock out both of their trips with a home-and-home series for intra-conference opponents, instead of the current two home and two away, quickly satisfying their needs.

But what about the conference structure?

With 30 teams and four divisions, Friedman's well-publicized proposal has two divisions of eight teams and two divisions of seven teams, leaving two balanced conferences. What's the point? We don't hear baseball franchises groveling every October, with 14 teams in the American League and 16 teams in the National League.

Why can't it be done in hockey?

For my money, I'm going with 16 teams in the East and 14 teams in the West. Move both Detroit and Columbus to the East, to quell any clamoring of favoritism. The initial reaction from owners, according to Friedman, is that teams in the East don't want to see less teams in the West miss the playoffs.

I think it's a fair trade-off. On average, teams in the Western Conference travel 10,245 more air miles per season than teams in the Eastern Conference. A more grueling schedule is worth having six teams miss the playoffs instead of eight.

Penguins owner Mario Lemieux has a lot of friends throughout the league. But even with the Flyers on board (at least publicly), he's going to need a solid eight more friends to try and table this plan.

It's just that the Penguins' rivalry with both the Flyers and Capitals doesn't hold a candle to the rest of the league's worries. Someone has to lose.

Frank Seravalli covers the Flyers for the Philadelphia Daily News. On Twitter: @DNFlyers

Last Updated on Wednesday, 02 November 2011 12:34