While the approval of NHL realignment was never really in doubt after the NHLPA agreed to a new four-division structure last week, the Dallas Stars front office was probably quite excited Thursday morning as the final step of the process was completed.
The NHL announced its Board of Governors had approved the realignment plan with it scheduled take hold next season. Dallas will be in a Central time zone heavy conference that includes the Chicago Blackhawks, St. Louis Blues, Minnesota Wild, Nashville Predators, Winnipeg Jets and the lone Mountain time zone outlier Colorado Avalanche. There's a handy map included on the NHL's release.
At the NHLPA's request, the plan will be reevaluated following the 2015-16 season. Division names were not yet announced (Midwest was the rumored name for the Stars division floating around last week, but for now it's Division B), and the official scheduling structure was also not announced. However, the NHL did confirm that each team will visit every other city in the league at least once a season.
The most recent rumor was that there will be two games against the other conference and three games against the other division with the remainder of the teams to be played within the division. The math there seems to make sense.
The details of the division splits were already known, and the benefits for the Stars well covered. What intrigued me most about Thursday's official announcement is the details of the playoff structure, which have a few quirks.
The seeding of the wild-card teams within each divisional playoff will be determined on the basis of regular-season points. The division winner with the most points in the conference will be matched against the wild-card team with the lowest number of points; the division winner with the second-most points in the conference will play the wild-card team with the second fewest points.
The teams finishing second and third in each division will play in the first round of the playoffs. The winners of each series will play for the divisional championship.
The NHL is calling this an "added wrinkle," but it's really pretty similar to the system they have now. Except instead of three division winners and five wildcards, you get six teams chosen because of their divisional placement and only two wildcards.
The biggest change, if I'm reading this right, is that there appears to be a divisional mini-tournament before you get to the conference finals, replacing the current playoff structure of first seed versus eighth, second seed versus seventh and so forth, with re-seeding after each round.
Instead, there will essentially be a two-round "divisional" tournament for what are not the conference quarterfinal and semifinal rounds, with the top seed in the division facing the wildcard and the second and third seeds playing each other. The winners of those series will advance to play each other in the second (now divisional championship) round, and the winner of that series moves on to the conference championships.
The amusing twist to that is there could conceivably be a divisional champion from the other division. Say there are three teams from Division A (the Kings, Ducks and Canucks) that get in and five from Division B (Stars, Blackhawks, Red Wings, Blues and Wild). The lowest seed from Division B, and let's just say it's the Stars, goes into the Division A tournament.
If the Stars win their first two rounds against the Ducks and Kings, then they are the Division A champions despite not actually being in that division. That's such a typically NHL thing to happen that you know it's coming the first few years.
Also, there's an outside chance you could have a wildcard from each division but those teams end up in the other's four-team tournament because of point totals, as the top team in the conference gets to play the lowest point total of the wild cards. In that scenario, conceivably both division champions could actually come from the other division.
I assume the kinks in the system will be worked out over time, and the four-division alignment is certainly less problematic in terms of time zones and travel for most of the teams in the league. But you know the Conference D champion Boston Bruins is coming at some point in the near future.
Here's the reaction from some very pleased members of the Stars organization, via Mark Stepneski.
“The Dallas Stars enthusiastically support the decision by the NHL Board of Governors for realignment commencing in 2013-14,” said Dallas Stars President and CEO Jim Lites. “Once enacted, the Realignment Plan will put the Stars back in a geographically friendly division and will reignite historical rivalries with teams like Chicago and St. Louis. Virtually all of our divisional games, which make up a significant portion of our schedule, will now start in the Central Time Zone, making our start times more convenient for our broadcast partners, sponsors, and most importantly our fans. We’re also thrilled that our fans will get the opportunity to watch all NHL clubs at American Airlines Center at least once every year. This is a significant change that will greatly benefit all aspects of our franchise for years to come.”
The players and the coaching staff were on board as well.
“Travel-wise it is going to reduce our miles and reduce the West travel, which is tough, and it puts us in a little more friendly time zone,” said Stars coach Glen Gulutzan. “(With the West travel) you lose practice days, you lose sleep. We’ve all traveled and you feel it. I think having a few more of those days, I think, will translate into some tangible results.”
Added defenseman Stephane Robidas: “It’s much better for us. It’s less travel. Fewer trips out west, he time zones, the amount of time you spend on the plane after games. You don’t have to wait in L.A. , you can come back after games. It’s all little things in the long run I think will help our team.”