The NHL announced dramatic realignment changes for 2012-13 late last night. Pending approval from the NHLPA, there will no longer be six divisions within two conferences. Instead you will have four separate, distinct conferences:
-First, there will be two conferences of seven teams in the east. The other two conferences, located in the midwest and western portion of the continent, will have eight teams.
-In in the eight-team conferences, teams would play either five or six times in a season on a rotating basis; three teams would play each other six times and four teams would play each other five times. This process would reverse each season: An eight-team Conference member that plays an opponent six times in one season would play it five times the following season.
-In terms of the regular season schedule, the eastern teams will face every conference opponent six times, three times at home and three times on the road.
-As far as every other non-conference team in the league, you will play them only twice, home and home. So if you're a Penguins fan, you will see the Sabres and the Canucks each once at home and once on the road.
-The best four teams in each conference will qualify for the playoffs. Once in the playoffs, you will face teams in your conference in the first two rounds.
-As far as the third round or the Stanley Cup Finals are concerned, it's still up in the air. The NHL is kicking around an idea where the four conference playoff winners are seeded 1 through 4 in terms of regular season points regardless of geography. So theoretically, the Penguins could face the Red Wings or the Sharks in the third round, then face the Maple Leafs in the Stanley Cup Final.
We see greater cons than pros. Here's why:
Scheduling - Our biggest issue with this format is the amount of times you can play teams you have some history with. Looking from a Penguins perspective, the idea of only facing the Sabres, Maple Leafs, Canadiens and Bruins only twice a regular season is unacceptable.
When they first came into the NHL as expansion brothers in 1967, the Blues and Penguins were bitter rivals for roughly a decade. They were lumped into a conference with all the other expansion teams so they played one another several times a season. The games were always rough and tumble with the Blues' Plager Brothers going at it with the likes of Glen Sather of the Penguins. Playoff series in 1970 and 1975 only galvanized that rivalry.
Eventually, the Blues and Penguins were moved separated in terms of conferences and they played fewer and fewer games. Today, the teams only play once or twice a season and any mention of a rivalry is only as a historical footnote.
Now, no one is ever going to consider the Penguins and Sabres a true bitter rivalry, but those games have been competitive more often than not the past six years. This new format makes this fairly competitive series no more or less important than Penguins-Coyotes or Penguins-Avalanche.
And while this issue might not impact the Penguins a great deal, a rivalry such as Blackhawks-Canucks is neutered by this format.
Playoff Races - While the addition of the shootout and the bonus point for overtime or shootout losses might the the biggest reason for this, the playoff races the past six seasons have been amazing. Regardless if your team is the No. 1 seed or the No. 11 seed, you have a reason to pay attention to every game in your conference every night. Without even playing, your team can easily slip from No. 4 to No. 10. You can be hosting a first-round series against the Senators one night to starting on the road against the Panthers the next.
This new setup limits that intrigue. It gives you only five or six teams, including your own, to really monitor down the stretch. In the current 1-through-8 playoff seeding format, you need to keep track of the top 11 or 12 teams in the conference.
As of right now, chances are an otherwise meaningless Canadiens-Lightning game can impact your playoff seeding. In the new format, that game will be meaningless to you as a Penguins fan.
Limited Playoffs - Sharks and Red Wings in 1994. Penguins and Devils in 1999. Oilers and Red Wings in 2005. Canadiens and Capitals in 2010. Blackhawks and Canucks in 2011.
Those were all epic 1-8 match-ups which have occurred in the first round since the NHL adopted this format in 1994. Jamie Baker, Jaromir Jagr, Dwayne Roloson, Dominic Moore and Jonathan Toews all became legends to one degree or another due to their heroics in those series. The NHL bases their "History Will Be Made" advertising campaigns on series such as these legendary clashes.
Under this new format, series like these could not happen until the third or even the fourth rounds, if at all. Instead of going tooth and nail with the Lightning in seven games as happened last season, the Penguins could be forced to go in a ho-hum series with the Devils year after year.
There are those who will point out that the Penguins had plenty of legendary playoff series in the old Patrick Division format such as in 1989 with the Flyers and in 1993 with the Islanders. But those series can still happen in the current 1-through-8 format in any of the first three rounds. A repeat of the Penguins and Sabres epic seven-game battle in 2001 would be limited to the final two rounds, at most.
And the idea that a rivalry can only be established through being a divisional rival is a farce. The Penguins and Capitals have faced each other in the postseason eight times in their history. Only two of those series took place before the NHL adopted the 1-through-8 format in 1994. The other six came after the change. From Luc Robitaille converting Francois Leroux's pass in 1995 to Evgeni Malkin blowing by Sergei Fedorov in 2009, the Penguins-Capitals rivalry flourished in the 1 through 8 format. Other rivalries such as Red Wings-Avalanche, Canucks-Blackhawks and Bruins-Flyers have been born or re-established in the current format.
Additionally, this eliminates any potential to see your most bitter rival in the third round for a trip to the Stanley Cup final. If you're a Penguins fan, who would you rather face in the third round? The Flyers or the Senators?
Reduced travel - This is the biggest reason this is occurring. It cuts down on the travel budgets for most teams drastically, especially for teams in the current Western Conference. The Red Wings and Blue Jackets are based in the Eastern Time Zone but play in all three major time zones in North America. Forty percent of their games begin after 9 p.m. on the East Coast. While the Red Wings have overcome that to become one of the top franchise in the NHL on and off the ice, the expansion Blue Jackets have had trouble in terms of competing on the ice and establishing their brand in a new market.
Playing the majority of their games in the Central time will reap financial benefits for both clubs and will help the Blue Jackets establish themselves in Columbus having fewer of their games start when many fans are in bed for work or school.
From a mental and physical standpoint, it reduces the wear and tear on players, coaches and support staff, especially in the west. Instead of flying Columbus twice a year, the Ducks are now only making that trip once a season.
The only exceptions to this area are the Panthers and Lightning who are now being grouped in what is currently the Northeast Division. They will play the majority of their road games a few thousand miles to the north. This was primarly done to preserve the traditional rivalries in the old Patrick Division.
One could argue the trade off for the Panthers and Lightning is the benefit of more games from teams in "snowbird" markets. There's a reason you see a ton of blue jerseys in Florida anytime the Maple Leafs come to town.
Guaranteed appearances - One of the biggest issues coming out of the lockout was the limited amount of times you would see teams from the other conferences. Sidney Crosby and the Penguins would only appear in Phoenix or San Jose once every other season. Traditional rivals between the Red Wings and Maple Leafs would only meet once or twice a season.
Under this new format, fans in Dallas are guaranteed to see Alex Ovechkin or Sidney Crosby at least once a year in person. Flyers fans can see former captain Mike Richards in person once a season.
Television - Don't dismiss the role of television in this move. This offers NBC or NHL Network more chances to stuff Penguins-Capitals or Rangers-Flyers down everyone's throats in this country. North of the border, CBC can give everyone up there more Maple Leafs-Canadiens games, at least in the postseason.
As much as hockey geeks like ourselves would like to see a Penguins-Sabres seven-game series, NBC is paying the bills and the Peacock wants Penguins-Capitals as much as possible.
If we could put percentages to what we like and don't like about this plan, it's 75 percent bad and 25 percent good. There are certainly tangible logistical benefits to this as we outlined above. They can not be overlooked, especially from a financial point of view in a league were teams in cities such as Phoenix and Columbus struggling.
But from an entertainment standpoint, fewer games against a less diverse group of opponents, particularly those with some geographic rivalries, equals a drastically inferior product.
(Photos: Sather-Penguins Hockey Cards; Senators/Penguins-Harry How/Getty Images; Crosby/Ovechkin-Pablo Martinez Monsivais; Rick Nash-Mike Ridewood/Getty Images; Maple Leafs fan-Phillip MacCallum/Getty Images; Rangers/Flyers-Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)