Change is coming to the NHL.
The NHL announced Thursday that the Board of Governors approved a realignment and divisional playoff format plan which will be implemented beginning next season. The plan calls for two seven-team Western Conference divisions and two eight-team Eastern Conference divisions. It also calls for all 30 teams to play in every market at least once a year.
The voting was done by email.
“We know this realignment was extraordinarily important to some of our clubs,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in a mid-afternoon conference call.
The franchise realignment has created four divisions:
Division One: Carolina, Columbus, Devils, Islanders, Rangers, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Washington.
Division Two: Boston, Buffalo, Detroit, Florida, Montreal, Ottawa, Tampa Bay and Toronto.
Division Three: Chicago, Colorado, Dallas, Minnesota, Nashville, St. Louis and Winnipeg.
Division Four: Anaheim, Calgary, Edmonton, Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Jose and Vancouver.
During his introductory statement, Bettman said the plan was passed by a “majority” of votes. When pressed, Bettman said there were “more than enough to pass it. It wasn’t unanimous. [It] was well in excess than the three-quarters [required].”
Bettman was joined on the call by Winnipeg chairman and governor Mark Chipman, Dallas president, CEO and alternate governor Jim Lites, Columbus president of hockey operations and alternate governor John Davidson and Detroit executive vice president and general manager Ken Holland.
“This seems to make a lot of common sense,” Davidson said. “This is all positive.”
“It’s an exciting time for the National Hockey League,” Holland said.
Most likely the selection of team executives on the call was not coincidental. Columbus and Detroit have long wanted to move to the Eastern Conference, while Dallas and Winnipeg will join Colorado and Minnesota in the same division. The Jets have been in the Southeast Division the last two seasons despite relocating to Winnipeg prior to 2011-12.
“On balance if you look at the rivalries and geographic groupings, this appeared to make the most sense,” Bettman said. “Winnipeg needed to come out of the Southeast Division.”
Added Chipman: “We’re very relieved. [The] travel burden ought not to be so onerous.”
The top three teams in each division will qualify for the playoffs and there will be two wild-card spots for the final two slots in each conference. The top four seeds in each division will meet in the first two rounds of the playoffs. Two teams from each conference will meet in the conference final and the advancing team will meet in the Stanley Cup final.
The main criticism of the plan is the unbalanced conferences. There are 16 teams in the East and just 14 in the West.
“Seventh or eighth team[s in the playoffs] doesn’t make a whole lot of difference. [We] introduced [the] wild card to balance that off a little bit better [and it] begins to address what might be a concern,” Bettman said. “[It] won’t be borne out to be a concern.”
Names for the new divisions have not been decided upon but according to Bettman it will be announced in the “next few weeks” and will be “most sensible geographic, fan-friendly.”
According to the league’s statement, the National Hockey League Players’ Association gave its consent to the plan for three years. However when the NHLPA announced its consent to the realignment plan last week the statement noted it will be “re-evaluated following the 2014-15 season.”
Bettman professed no concern about a misunderstanding with the NHLPA.
“Subtlety of language,” Bettman said. “Just phrased a little differently.”
What was made clear was that the league does not have expansion or franchise relocations plans despite long-term rumors that the NHL is looking to expand to Markham, Ontario and Quebec City, and the uncertainty surrounding the Coyotes and Glendale, Ariz.
Holland dismissed any trepidation that potential expansion and franchise relocation would force the league to redesign the realignment plan while Bettman reported the league is in talks with potential ownership groups to take control of the Coyotes. The NHL has operated the Coyotes since 2009.
“They don’t foresee relocation,” Holland said. “[The league] doesn’t foresee expansion. Don’t foresee change.”
“There are a number of groups in process with us,” Bettman said of the state of the Coyotes’ sale. “Other people have indicated their interest.”
Follow NHL beat writer Denis Gorman on Twitter @DenisGorman.