Commissioner Gary Bettman believes the NHL will adopt a more balanced schedule when the relocated Winnipeg franchise likely moves to the Western Conference in 2012.
In his annual state-of-the-league address before the Stanley Cup finals opener Wednesday, Bettman also said he hopes the NHL will begin issuing harsher suspensions for rough play.
Bettman is grateful his league doesn't have the specter of labor talks hanging over an otherwise successful season. He plans to let the labour impasses in the NFL and the NBA play out before hammering out hockey's next collective bargaining agreement with union head Donald Fehr, who attended the commissioner's address.
"The good news, at least from my standpoint, is that it's way too early to focus on collective bargaining," Bettman said at Rogers Arena.
Bettman confirmed the relocated Atlanta Thrashers will be the northwesternmost team in the Southeast Division next season in Winnipeg, but likely will move to the West a year later.
That shift will set off several dominoes of realignment: Columbus, Nashville and Detroit are among the candidates to move to the Eastern Conference, while other teams will attempt to make sure they don't get a competitive disadvantage through the move, perhaps with the powerful Red Wings moving into their division.
"All those clubs need an opportunity to be heard," Bettman said. "That's a process we'll go through the first half of next season, looking at the issues that clubs want to raise, looking at various possibilities, and trying to figure out what will make the most sense moving forward."
Bettman believes those discussions will result in a more balanced schedule, perhaps closer to the NBA model in which every team plays at least once in every arena almost every season. The NHL went to an unbalanced schedule several years ago in an attempt to bolster geographical rivalries, but Bettman has heard from teams eager to see the entire NHL in their arenas.
While touting the league's roughly $3 billion US in revenue through record-setting sponsorship deals and television contracts, Bettman also praised NHL discipline chief Colin Campbell, who is handing over that thankless job to Brendan Shanahan as the league looks at additional ways to crack down on rough play and dangerous hits.
That crackdown could include harsher penalties at Shanahan's disposal for supplemental discipline.
"That is my hope and expectation," Bettman said. "That is something that we want to discuss more fully with the players' association, but from my standpoint ... if there's certain conduct that we want to see out of the game, then we've got to make sure we do what's necessary."
Bettman hopes the players' union will see harsher supplemental discipline as an attempt to keep players healthy. Shanahan will head a new department of player safety dedicated to creating new rules and disciplinary concepts to keep players safe.
Fehr was more circumspect about the possibility of tougher suspensions and additional penalties for his players.
"Hopefully as a result of examinations we've been doing … we'll be able to come out of this with a set of understandings that gives you a process that everybody believes in," Fehr said. "Somebody is always going to say it's not perfect. That gets [into] judgment calls, but that's the way it is. The question is, do you have a process that everybody believes is fair and has been implemented fairly?"
While "mourning" the loss of the populous Atlanta market, Bettman again praised the enthusiasm of Winnipeg, which will become the NHL's smallest market. Although he recognizes Canada's excitement about regaining a seventh NHL franchise, he avoided comment on the possibility of putting an eighth Canadian team in Quebec City, where media tycoon Pierre Karl Peladeau is eager to add a franchise.
Quebec City, which lost the Nordiques to Colorado in 1995, recently agreed to a deal with Peladeau to pay for the construction of a $400-million arena fit for hosting an NHL team by 2015.
"I am not going to raise expectations," Bettman said. "I'm well aware of Mr. Peladeau's interest, and that is gratifying. I am well aware there are plans to build an arena, although we have made no promise of what will happen after that. At the present time, since I don't have a franchise we're looking to relocate and we're not planning on expanding, I don't want to get people's expectations in Quebec City raised."
Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said the NHL's salary cap for next season is likely to be between $60 million and $63 million, bolstered by the new television contract.