By John Wawrow
---- — The NHL map is finally in order with Detroit and Columbus heading east, and Winnipeg moving west.
“We’re thrilled, absolutely thrilled,” Blue Jackets executive John Davidson said on a telephone conference call Thursday, shortly after the realignment plan was approved in a vote by the league’s board of governors. “We tend to use the (term) common sense around here. This seems to make a lot of common sense.”
The new format goes into effect next season, and will feature two eight-team divisions in the Eastern Conference, including the Red Wings and Blue Jackets. The Jets will now be part of a Western Conference that’s made up of two seven-team divisions.
It’s a plan that Commissioner Gary Bettman called “fan-friendly,” because it aligns teams by divisions that are mostly in the same time zones. And Bettman noted it will re-establish numerous rivalries by geography and tradition.
Detroit returns to the East in a yet-to-be named division that will feature three other Original Six franchises, Toronto, Boston and Montreal. And Winnipeg is now part of a central-based division after having spent the past two years playing in the Southeast.
“We think this is a common sense practical realignment,” Bettman said.
Without providing details, Bettman said the vote conducted by email was not unanimous, but “well in excess” of the two-thirds majority required.
The new format also creates changes in determining the 16-team playoff field. The top three teams in each division will qualify for the postseason. The next two teams with the best records in each conference will then earn wild-card berths.
That will make it more difficult for teams to qualify in the East, because it will have two more clubs than the West competing for eight berths.
The NHL Players’ Association had already signed off on the realignment format, which will be in place for at least three seasons.
The Atlanta Thrashers’ relocation to Winnipeg two years ago helped precipitate the need for realignment.
All three teams making the switch will benefit, because they will no longer have to make extended road trips outside of their time zones.
“As much as we enjoyed those trips down south, I think our team and our coaches are very pleased to know we’re going to be playing in a Central time zone,” Jets chairman Mark Chipman said. “I think it’s very exciting for us as an organization and our fans to be geographically located where we ought to be.”
The Dallas Stars, Colorado Avalanche and Minnesota Wild should also benefit from the change. They will now be in a division mostly made up of teams that play in the same Central time zone.
Stars CEO Jim Lites said the switch from the Pacific Division will benefit his players and fans.
Lites said TV ratings dropped by as much as 60 percent because of the later start times when the Stars played against their division rivals on the West Coast. He also noted that the team lost between seven and 10 practice days a season because of travel.
“No one is a bigger beneficiary in this than the Dallas Stars,” Lites said.
It’s no different for Columbus.
“I’ve done a lot of town hall conferences with our fans here, and 99.999 (percent) of our fans really wanted to desperately be in the East,” Davidson said. “So when you get out the ledger sheet and you go pros and cons, I don’t think there is anything on the negative side. This is all positive.”
All teams will play each other both home and away at least once each season. And teams will play division rivals at least four times a season.
With Detroit and Toronto set to be in the same division, it revived questions of whether the two will meet in the league’s annual Winter Classic next season. The two were supposed to play at Michigan Stadium on Jan. 1 this season, before that game was wiped out as a result of the NHL lockout.
Bettman hinted of that being a possibility.
“We think the notion of having Toronto play Detroit at the ‘Big House’ is a good thing to do,” Bettman said. “Beyond that, you’ll just have to wait and see.”
On other issues, Bettman said talks are ongoing with Olympic officials regarding whether the NHL will participate in next year’s Winter Games at Sochi, Russia. Bettman said he had talks this week, and that league executives Bill Daly and John Collins have traveled to Sochi.
Regarding the Phoenix Coyotes ownership search, Bettman said the league’s working with a number of groups who have expressed interest in purchasing the franchise since Greg Jamison’s bid fell through two months ago.
“We are hoping to — in the not too distant future — get one of them to the place where we can move the transaction forward,” Bettman said.