By Darren Eliot -
Well, it is official: NHL realignment is set for the 2013-14 season. For the Detroit Red Wings and all you fans, this has been a long time coming – 20 years, to be exact, since the Wings were part of the Norris Division in the Clarence Campbell Conference.
Yes, it was the 1993-94 campaign that saw conferences change to East and West, replacing Campbell and Prince of Wales. Divisions went from Norris and Smythe to Central and Pacific in the newly named and configured Western Conference. The East replaced the Patrick and Adams with the Northeast and Atlantic. And for anyone wondering about next year’s unbalanced look with 16 teams in the east and 14 out west, this isn’t new to the NHL. Back in that 1993-94 season the league had 14 teams in the East and 12 franchises in the West.
Two of the franchises were Original Six teams from the Eastern Time Zone – your Red Wings and the Toronto Maple Leafs. As the NHL continued to expand and juggle with geography, the Leafs landed back in the Eastern Conference as part of the Northeast Division in 1998-99. The entry of the Nashville Predators made the move possible and saw the league move to three division in each Conference, with the East adding the Southeast and the West adding the Northwest Division.
Talk about unbalanced. The two new divisions only had four teams, as well as your Red Wings, along with the Blues, Blackhawks and Predators making up the Central. Not until the Columbus Blue Jackets entered the league in 2000-01 did the NHL get to a full 30-team roster with five teams per division. But change was imminent when the Atlanta Thrashers (1999-2011) became the Winnipeg Jets – who for the second season in a row still skate in the Southeast Division. That doesn’t make sense even by NHL logic.
So, with that backdrop, the Jets head west and the Red Wings and Blue Jackets head east. Of course, nobody is really going anywhere. The cities aren’t physically moving. It’s the league getting closer to a geographical set-up based on, well, geography. The time-zone relevance is a critical factor for travel and television – two components that take the players and fans into consideration. It reunites the Red Wings and Maple Leafs for the first time since that fateful split 15 years ago.
Other Original Six members of the new eight-team division in the east include the Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins. The Buffalo Sabres and Ottawa Senators complete what would be a terrific six-team set-up, but the Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers are part of the package, with the notion that snowbird traffic will help attendance in those locales when their northern home teams are visiting either building. Interesting concept and it certainly can’t hurt interest or attendance in either city.
What else is interesting is that once again, the NHL is unbalanced, with 16 teams in the East and 14 in the West. To address that disparity – kind of – and keep fan interest piqued for as long as possible, the league will have a wild card component. The top three teams from each Division makes the playoffs, with the final two spots awarded to the next two teams with the highest point totals in the Conference. Play downs continue to be conference-based through to the Final, meaning the Stanley Cup will remain an East-versus-West affair.
Yes, with your Detroit Red Wings vying to come out of the Eastern bracket. It has a nice ring to it.