Clamor on Causeway: Realignment the Best Option for the NHL

Jonathan Daniel

The inevitable finally happened Friday afternoon. The National Hockey League finally revealed its schedule for the 2013-14 season, along with its plans for the Olympic break.

The announcements confirmed much of what we already knew. NHL players will be going to Sochi, Russia, next February, and there's a whole mess of change coming to scheduling, playoff formats and the league's divisions. Perhaps the lone surprise of the day were the names of the four divisions. As you've read, the Western Conference contains 14 teams divided into the Pacific and Central divisions. Meanwhile, the Eastern Conference still has an Atlantic division, but none of the teams from the old Atlantic division remain.

What came to be known at the "Flortheast" is now the Atlantic, that's where your Boston Bruins will play until the next lockout. The unofficially (but brilliantly) named "Patrick-Plus" division will be called the Metropolitan division for whatever reason.

Invariably, these changes led to a whole lot of hubbub throughout the day with fans complaining about everything the NHL did, regardless of its actual effect on the league or practicality. Fans wanted a return to the old days with Wales and Campbell Conferences, along with Adams, Patrick, Smythe and Norris divisions. Additionally, the whole Detroit moving to the Eastern Conference thing and the existences of the Columbus Blue Jackets, Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning don't seem to sit well with anyone.

Ultimately, many of these moves make perfect sense. The only one that really came from nowhere (the Metropolitan division) is irrelevant. Giving divisions wholly benign, vaguely geographic names is the only way the NHL can proceed. The league's decades-long effort to attract the mythical "casual fan" isn't helped by a return to its symbolic history as attractive as it may be for the rest of us.

There was, of course, something cool about having divisions named after the league's Founding Fathers. Moreover, recalling history seems to make hockey fans happier than those of almost any other sport. But all of these moves, this whole stupid process, was inspired by a desire to make the league more marketable and easier to consume to people who don't already.

Moving Detroit to the Eastern Conference absolutely costs us a few more games between some of the club's historic rivals. At most, though, it means three fewer meetings with the Blackhawks and Blues. For Detroit, which is in the Eastern Time Zone, every divisional or conference game they played meant making it difficult for at least one fan base to actually watch the game. Even if Florida and Tampa Bay aren't the most attractive draws for Wings fans, the league can't just forget they exist entirely -- as much as most hockey fans seem to want that to happen.

Short of those teams actually winning consistently, filling their schedule with the Bruins, the Canadiens, the Red Wings and even the Maple Leafs is exactly the type of move the league had to make. It probably won't work unless these teams start to build winners, but it's the only option the league had.

As far as Columbus coming to the east, again, it just made sense to get a club in the Eastern Time Zone in a division that suited them better geographically. Ditto for Winnipeg.

Like any other widespread adjustment to a league or organization, there are drawbacks. Anyone can find a hole in the plan depending on their preference or agenda. But the NHL had to make these changes. The new playoff format, additionally, seems irksome to most. The drama and excitement of those series aren't changing, though. In this case, the means doesn't really matter as long as the ends remains the same.

For the Bruins, few things really change. They still play the Habs, Maple Leafs, Senators and Sabres a lot. A few more trips to Detroit, Tampa Bay and Miami are in the cards, along with annual stretches on the west coast. Other teams, of course, are charged with much greater adjustments. Whether it's the Red Wings, the Blue Jackets or Jets, the 2013-14 season will be different than those before it. Each of those organizations welcomed the moves, though.

In the last decade, the NHL has struggled to establish itself in many of the markets it expanded to under Gary Bettman's watch. The forced expansion to non-traditional regions of the United States and the unprecedented labor strife are legitimate strikes against Bettman and the league's power structure. The changes coming next season, though, represent the best possible response to many of those issues. The NHL makes the wrong decision nine times out of 10. For once, though, Bettman, his flunkies and the Board of Governors got something right.

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