30 Thoughts: NHL realignment still needs work | Hockey | CBC Sports

Hockey Night in Canada30 Thoughts: NHL realignment still needs work

Posted: Monday, February 25, 2013 | 11:16 AM

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The Red Wings stand to benefit from the NHL's pending realignment proposal, which would reduce Detroit's travel burden. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images) The Red Wings stand to benefit from the NHL's pending realignment proposal, which would reduce Detroit's travel burden. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

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With co-operation this time between the league and the players, the NHL's latest realignment proposal appears to be on more solid footing. But some outstanding issues must still be worked out.
The biggest difference between the realignment proposal that failed last year and the new package being worked on this year is the co-operation of the NHL and the NHLPA. The players blocked the previous attempt because they weren't consulted, and the league realized if it truly wanted to go down this road, things would need to be done together.

Until the teams were notified last week of the proposed changes, there was a very small number of people on both sides who knew what was going on. In this silence, some of the clubs were concerned the "four conference" setup would fall apart, especially those who benefit by moving closer to opponents in similar time zones.

(One note: the league apparently asked NHLPA leadership if it could show the Governors the new plan before it was given to the players. Permission was granted, since the union executive knew if the owners couldn't be convinced, it wouldn't get as far as the players, anyway. They will be briefed shortly.)

Under the new proposal, the Detroit Red Wings get their long-promised move back east. The Columbus Blue Jackets, who knew that being left as the only "East" team on the "West" side of the NHL was a recipe for an epic fail, were taken care of too.

Local television rights holders will love the idea of more 7:00 or 7:30 p.m. (local time) games. An how much more are the Canadian TV rights -- up after next season -- worth with Detroit playing the seven Canadian-based teams between 23-26 times per year?

The NHLPA had two major concerns: travel and the two uneven conferences. Some teams will travel more under the new setup. But, like the NHL, the players want each team to visit every other city at least once. So there will be compromise on that issue.

For example, does that give Anaheim a better chance at keeping Corey Perry, knowing he's guaranteed to play several games within a short drive or plane trip of his parents?

Of course, nothing is done until it is done.

One outstanding issue is the unbalanced lineup, with two "conferences" made up of eight teams and two of seven. The playoffs are still to be held within those groupings -- the No. 1 seed plays No. 4 in the first round, and No. 2 goes against No. 3 -- but that slight advantage of it being easier to make the playoffs in the smaller conferences remains a problem for the players.

It comes down to this: you want to compete for the Cup and, let's face it, a hot playoff run leads to a big payoff. Two years ago, Joel Ward had seven post-season goals for Nashville. He parlayed that into a $12-million US contract with Washington. Players want those opportunities.

Some kind of "wild-card" is being considered, but it's not settled yet. A "crossover" was discussed, maybe if a fifth-place team in one of the bigger groups has more points than a fourth-place team in a smaller setup, the fifth-place team moves on. But that could create a Vancouver vs. Florida type of cross-continent matchup in the first round, which is what everyone is trying to avoid.

I've written it before, but I'd love to see the chance of a one-game winner-moves-on matchup between the fourth- and fifth-place teams in those two larger conferences. Make it that the fifth-place finisher must be within two points of post-season qualification. It could make meaningless games at the end of the regular season worth something.

It adds another exciting game (or two, or four, if you wanted to open it up to everyone) on a night that would otherwise be dark. After watching baseball's one-game thrillers from last October, I don't understand why the NHL and the NHLPA are so reluctant to copy.

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30 Thoughts

1. A few of you pointed out a Phoenix move, or expansion to Quebec City or Toronto is ignored by this setup. I assume the league has contingency plans, but, if there is expansion, it isn't happening in the next year or two. As for Phoenix, you have to suspect commissioner Gary Bettman has a pretty good idea of the scenarios for next season, at least.

2. Something for fans to ponder: if you go back to last year and see where every team stood after 48 games, the playoff cutoff in each conference was 55 points (East) and 53 points (West).

3. GM Darcy Regier stood up and said he made the coaching change in Buffalo, but you won't find too many people who believe it. Consider: early Wednesday, hours after an uninspired loss to Winnipeg, Lindy Ruff was working on film. Then there was a team meeting. Then a conversation with the Sabres' leadership group. Then practice. Then a media session. It wasn't until after all of those things that the change was made. That's not normal, especially when you're at home and don't leave the organization for a replacement. Regier's respect for his coach was well-documented. Was he trying to change the minds of those above him?

4. Garry Galley had an interesting theory: if you look back at Ruff's quotes during the final few days, he stayed away from criticizing any of his players. "It is on me," he told reporters last week. Galley wondered if Ruff sensed the end might be coming and wanted to be classy about it.

5. Ruff's going to have some options, but his biggest decision might be whether to hop right back in (a la Bruce Boudreau) or wait to see what's open in the summer.

6. After speaking to Chuck Fletcher (coming up), one suggestion came that Minnesota might target Ruff, because he and Fletcher were together in Florida. I didn't call him back but, based on the conversation, I'd be surprised for a few reasons: the Wild have started to play better (4-1-1 before a setback in Calgary); changing your coach three times in three years isn't exactly the route to success, and Mike Yeo had good success with their prospects in the 2011 AHL playoffs.

7. Mentioned last week that Matt Cullen looked like a perfect fit for Pittsburgh. Fletcher is not too keen on trading veterans so quickly. "We don't need any more young players or prospects," he said. It's true, the Wild are loaded with talented youth. He added that it was important to have guys like Mikko Koivu, Cullen and Kyle Brodziak. It allows you to ease in younger players, not expose them in spots they are not ready for.

8. One of those great young players is Jason Zucker, who scored a beautiful first NHL goal last Sunday in Detroit. Fletcher said the team's new Hockey Operations advisor, Andrew Brunette, joked it was like a "peewee goal," because "he pushed it ahead to himself twice."

9. The Wild felt Ryan Suter played his best game for them last Thursday in a 3-1 win over Edmonton -- 31 minutes and one assist. You can see, though, how Suter is pressing. He's trying to justify his salary every shift. Two big adjustments: partnering with someone other than Shea Weber, and Minnesota doesn't play as much man coverage in its own zone as Nashville did.

10. Back to Buffalo: Tough start for Ron Rolston. Two losses, outscored 7-1. If ever a team needed to go on the road to build confidence, this is the one. Six of the next seven away from Buffalo, where fans are out of patience. According to opponents, the Sabres need to up their commitment to defensive-zone coverage. And, if they don't score off the rush, they really have trouble creating scoring chances.

11. If there are any further moves to be made in Buffalo, the biggest impact would surround Regier and goalie Ryan Miller, who sounds incredibly unhappy. He's got a limited no-trade clause and maybe it is time. Regier just received an extension. If -- and I stress this is an if -- he is in any trouble, the team's president (Ted Black) and senior advisor (Ken Sawyer) have connections to Pittsburgh. Would Buffalo look at Tom Fitzgerald or Jason Botterill?

12. What a weekend for Detroit, where the Red Wings totaled Nashville and Vancouver to the tune of 12-3. A couple of opponents are eying UFA-to-be Valtteri Filppula, but Ken Holland says they should be prepared to wait. "I'm still trying to find out what we are," the GM said this weekend. "Look at our record in one-goal games (.333 winning percentage, 26th in the NHL.) When we get healthy, will we turn those losses into wins?"

13. For that reason, Holland says he'll wait until very close to the trade deadline to make any decisions on the team's direction. That includes Filppula, one of several important choices the Red Wings will have to make. With few scoring centres available in free agency, Filppula has some leverage to ask for a lot. All Holland would say: "There is a gap in negotiations." The one thing I'm always told about these things is that it's a process. But if Filppula wants to stay, as it's believed he does, he's going to have to find a number the Red Wings are comfortable with.

14. On an otherwise bad night for the Canucks, what an unbelievable goal by the Sedins to tie the game 2-2. It just shows how smart they are. Joe Louis Arena is known for the lively boards, but usually it's the home team that takes advantage. Said Henrik: "It's easier here. We've done it at home a few times... but it's easier here." It's so rare to see visiting players know a rink like that. (Thanks to Ben Brown for facilitating that.)

15. The Fourth Period reported this weekend about the possibility of more than one outdoor game next year. Back when Dave Checketts owned the St. Louis Blues, he proposed something like six of them a year. Everybody wants a piece of them, but not everybody is "sexy" enough for them. Multiple games ease that problem and they are a huge revenue generator.

16. There are several issues, however: while the business people love these games, the hockey people don't like any more than we've already got. They are great events, but they are not on-ice artistic success. After Sidney Crosby was injured in a rainstorm, they don't want to take any extra chances. Next year being an Olympic year also complicates things. Plus, are the players on board with the idea?

17. A couple of years ago, Florida GM Dale Tallon brought up the idea of one coach's challenge per game and was voted down 28-2. The needle has moved. The question is, how far? One of his compatriots said the lockout allowed him to watch more football, which gave him greater insight into how it could be done.

18. That GM had similar thoughts to several others. First, there must be some kind of penalty for a "wrong" challenge: loss of timeout, or, if you've already used it, a delay of game penalty. Second, will it be for goals only? Or, for example, could a team use it to challenge a high-sticking major/double-minor if the team believes a player's teammate caused the injury, not an opponent? What about goaltender interference? The NFL does not allow penalties to be reviewed.

19. Here's another one: Let's say you can challenge an offside. If the other team goes right in and scores, no problem. But, let's say after the missed offside, the offensive team cycles the puck for 25 seconds and then puts it in. Should that still be reviewable? Some guys say no. It's hard to get all the GMs to agree.

20. Sounds like goalie equipment might also come up at the March GMs meeting. I did ask a couple of these guys if they're getting to the point where they might want to see larger nets, but there's some serious opposition. Some guys would only accept wider nets, not taller ones, because they don't want guys shooting any higher. As part of all this, the union needs to add four new members to the Competition Committee. David Backes is the only active representative playing in the NHL.

21. Another team that had a great weekend: Calgary, which stopped Minnesota and followed up with a stunning comeback win over usually airtight Phoenix. Two wins for Joey MacDonald. MacDonald needed an opportunity to stay on a one-way contract next year and Detroit put him on waivers to see if he could get it. He's been a pretty popular teammate wherever he's gone.

22. Two maligned blue-liners, Jay Bouwmeester and Dion Phaneuf, are taking on huge roles for their teams. Phaneuf's been on the ice for offensive-zone faceoffs just 36 per cent of the time, the lowest among defencemen who've played at least 10 games. Bouwmeester is at 41 per cent, which is 13th-lowest. Only Zdeno Chara and Johnny Boychuk face tougher competition than Phaneuf. Bouwmeester is 11th in that category (with partner Mark Giordano ninth).

23. It's a weird time for Bouwmeester, who on Tuesday night will play his 735th game and still does not have a post-season appearance. He will pass Guy Charron, who played 734 without ever appearing in the playoffs.

24. For years, the Sharks were among the most successful draft selectors in the NHL. They traded up to get Logan Couture in 2007. They have some great late-round finds: Ryane Clowe (sixth round), Joe Pavelski (seventh), Douglas Murray (eighth). One of the reasons they are struggling now is this pipeline has slowed: only one player -- Charlie Coyle -- they chose from the 2009-12 drafts has reached the NHL. He's in Minnesota. Every other team has at least one man from those drafts on their roster.

25. Back in AHL training camp, Ottawa coach Paul MacLean and Binghamton counterpart Luke Richardson discussed philosophy. Richardson wanted to play the same way as the big club for consistency. MacLean wanted Richardson to have some flexibility. They decided to co-ordinate terminology and drills. One of the reasons the Senators are holding on amid all their injuries is, when players get called up, the familiarity creates comfort.

26. For example, one of the ideas MacLean likes to preach is "fast defence." Basically, he wants his forwards to create three lanes of support for defencemen trying to move or pass the puck out of their own zone. When the AHLers are called up, they understand what that means, no explanation necessary. "You can never move the puck fast enough for Paul," Richardson said.

27. Other advice Richardson gives to call-ups: "Be respectful but not too respectful. If you're battling Sidney Crosby, you must battle to win, or else you'll be back down here... I always tell them, 'I hope I never see you again,'" he laughed.

28. Craig Anderson's ankle injury could (slightly) change the goalie market. Ottawa needed to play Ben Bishop at least 30 minutes seven times this season to move him from an unrestricted free agent to a restricted one. He's going to get that done now. Not as much pressure now to trade Bishop instead of losing him for nothing.

29. Put a note in last week about the possibility of an Anderson trade, if Bryan Murray wanted to do it. Got a great counter-argument from one executive: when Erik Karlsson comes back, Ottawa is in the Stanley Cup conversation next year with Anderson. Do the Senators believe they can win it next year with Bishop or Robin Lehner?

30. Some confusion about the fact Brian Burke has permission from Toronto and the NHL to work for Anaheim. It's not unusual for fired coaches/executives to scout for other teams. The Maple Leafs made it very clear they don't want Burke around, but they still must pay him what he's owed. This, at least, allows him to keep his head in the game in an "official" capacity.

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