“Hockey Heaven” and “Hockeytown” will compete head-to-head every year as the Buffalo Sabres are set to get three new division rivals.
The NHL board of governors approved the latest realignment plan Thursday, and the league’s new look will debut next season. Detroit and Columbus will move to a 16-team Eastern Conference, while Winnipeg will switch to a 14-team Western Conference.
“It wasn’t unanimous, but it was well in excess of the three-quarters needed to pass it,” Commissioner Gary Bettman said on a conference call.
The Sabres voted yes to the plan that will feature two eight-team divisions in the East and a pair of seven-team divisions out West. Buffalo’s division will contain holdovers Boston, Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto along with newcomers Detroit, Florida and Tampa Bay.
The Red Wings have long desired a move to the Eastern Conference so their fans in “Hockeytown” can see more games in their time zone. The Panthers and Lightning will have to travel more than they did in the Southeast Division, but their attendance should benefit from the northern families who flock to Florida during winter.
“From a business standpoint, I think this is probably really good for both Florida teams,” Bettman said. “Competitively they may have their own issues, travel-wise they may have issues, but based on where Florida is from a geographic standpoint whatever we did wasn’t going to be perfect.”
The other Eastern Conference division will consist of Carolina, Columbus, New Jersey, the New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Washington.
The Western Conference divisions will have Anaheim, Calgary, Edmonton, Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Jose and Vancouver; and Chicago, Colorado, Dallas, Minnesota, Nashville, St. Louis and Winnipeg.
The divisions have yet to be named.
“We’re looking at what we think will be the most sensible geographic designations,” Bettman said. “When you’re making this kind of change, people need to adjust in their thinking of where things are. We’re hoping to use the names that make it easiest to conjure up where teams are.”
The Sabres’ 82-game schedule breakdown will be:
• 30 games within the division – five games versus two teams (three home, two away against one, and two home, three away against the other), plus four games versus the other five teams (two home, two away). Teams will be rotated on a yearly basis.
• 24 games against the other division in the East – three games against each team (two home, one away against four teams, and one home, two away against other four). Teams will be rotated on a yearly basis.
• 28 non-conference games – one home and one road game against every team.
“One of the things that was really important to us was a matrix that had a home-and-home with every team in the other conference,” Detroit General Manager Ken Holland said. “Even though we’re heading East, we’re still thrilled that we’re going to play all the teams in the Western Conference home-and-home.”
The playoffs will also change to put more importance on division rivalries.
Eight teams in each conference will make the playoffs. The top three teams in each division will earn postseason spots, and the final two “wild card” spots will go to teams with the most points regardless of division.
The division winner with the most points will be matched against the wild-card team with the lowest number of points, while the other division winner will play the wild card with the second-fewest points. The second- and third-place teams in each division will meet in the opening round.
The winners will meet in a division championship, with the survivors advancing to the conference final. The only way Buffalo could meet a division opponent in the conference final is if one team earned a wild-card berth.
The conference champions will play for the Stanley Cup.
The NHL Players’ Association approved the plan last week. Barring relocation or expansion (neither of which has been discussed, according to Bettman), the realignment plan will be in place for a minimum of three seasons. It will be re-evaluated following 2014-15.
“With the relocation, the moves, the matrix, the playoff format,” said Holland, “it’s an exciting time for the National Hockey League.”