The NHL board of governors approved a radical realignment plan on Monday to give the league four conferences rather than the current six divisions in two conferences.
The plan was approved on the opening day of the board’s meeting, but it will not be implemented until NHL commissioner Gary Bettman discusses it with the NHL Players’ Association (NHLPA).
Realignment became an issue after Atlanta moved to Winnipeg earlier this year. The NHL could have switched one team from the Western Conference, but it decided to make a bigger change.
The NHL said the four conferences are designed to alleviate geographic concerns among several current Western Conference teams that had been unhappy about their extensive travel through one, two and sometimes three time zones.
Some of those teams argued that the late start of road games in the Pacific time zone were affecting fan interest, especially among younger fans.
“This is not a subject that everybody is going to get their first choice on,” Bettman said. “What you try to do is come up with something that everybody can live with, get comfortable with and understands the value of. Because if you ask 30 clubs, you’d probably get 30 different solutions. That’s what makes this a difficult process.”
Under the new plan, two conferences will have eight teams and two will have seven, rather than having six divisions with five teams each.
Teams will play five or six intra-conference games and series with non-conference teams.
Under the plan, all teams will play each other at least twice every season, once at home and once on the road, so fans will have chance to see every team and star in the league.
“I think at the end of the day, everybody voted in terms of doing what the right thing was for the majority of teams, and our fans and our competitiveness, and what was fair,” said Nashville general manager David Poile, whose club advocated changing the current setup. “I think everybody probably feels good about that today. I know I do.”
Two of the conferences have teams all based in the Eastern time zone: New Jersey, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, New York Rangers, New York Islanders, Washington and Carolina in one conference and Boston, Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, Buffalo, Florida and Tampa Bay in the other.
The third conference includes eight teams in the Eastern and Central time zones: Detroit, Columbus, Nashville, St Louis, Chicago, Minnesota, Dallas and Winnipeg.
The fourth conference has eight teams in the Mountain and Pacific time zones: Los Angeles, Anaheim, Phoenix, San Jose, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and Colorado.
The league kept Pennsylvania rivals Pittsburgh and Philadelphia in the same conference by grouping the two Florida teams with three Canadian teams, Boston and Buffalo.
Bettman said the NHLPA has expressed concerns about the new plan and that he would discuss it with union chief Donald Fehr before implementing it.
The union believes the change requires union approval.
“Realignment requires an agreement between the league and the NHLPA,” union spokesman Jonathan Weatherdon said.
“We look forward to continuing our discussions with the league regarding this matter,” Weatherdon said.