It was only a matter of time before the NHL would undergo a realignment when the Atlanta Thrashers moved to Winnipeg, but the lockout put those talks on hold. Now that the season is a little more than 1/3 of the way through, the NHL has proposed a new four-conference format to be implemented for the 2013-14 season.
There were numerous proposals to consider when it came to helping out teams with travel distance for intra-divisional, or in this case, intra-conference games. Two teams that seem to have been left out in the cold under this new alignment, are the Florida Panthers and the Tampa Bay Lightning. While most other teams make sense geographically with the rest of their conference foes, the two sunshine-state teams are matched up with 6 northeastern franchises.
The new conferences will be as follows:
Eastern Conference #2: The current Atlantic Division (NY Rangers, NY Islanders, New Jersey Devils, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins) plus Carolina, Columbus and Washington.
Central Conference: Nashville, Chicago, St. Louis, Dallas, Winnipeg, Colorado, and Minnesota.
Western Conference: Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, San Jose, Anaheim, Los Angeles and Phoenix.
The biggest shift is that the Red Wings and Blue Jackets have moved to the east, while only Winnipeg moved west. This leaves 16 teams in the eastern conferences and 14 in the two ‘western’ conferences. What this also means is that 4 of the league’s ‘Original Six’ are now in the same new conference.
How will this impact the Predators?
If this happened several years ago, there would be concerns amongst Predator ownership over losing the rivalry with the Red Wings. When Detroit came to town, it was virtually the only guaranteed times Nashville would pack the arena of 17,113, partially due to the influx of Detroit-area natives in Music City. Times have changed and the Predators are on the verge of their 23rd consecutive sellout. With the decline of the Titans and sense of apathy from a good portion of Titans fans, the Predators are the new hot ticket in town and should not see a decline at the box office with the new structure.
So who replaces the Red Wings as the primary rival of the Predators?
Chicago. Nashville has a healthy rivalry with the tenants on Madison Avenue that stems from a bitter playoff loss to the Blackhawks in the spring of 2010. The Blackhawks recent success over the last 5 years has also brought a healthy dose of Chicago fans to the Bridgestone Arena, only amplifying the hatred.
Minnesota. Yes, the Blues remain in the same grouping as the Predators, and it was against the Blues where Nashville fans began the now famous TV-timeout standing ovation, but few can argue the impact of Ryan Suter leaving Nashville for what he feels were greener pastures with the Wild. It has been well-documented that there are harsh feelings among the fans towards Suter for what seemed to be a ‘toying’ with the organization that they weren’t committed to winning. Oddly enough, Suter decided to go with Minnesota, a franchise that has failed to make the playoffs each of the past 4 years. Suter stated he left for family purposes (his wife is a Minnesota native), though that never seemed to come into the equation when contract talks with GM David Poile had stalled.
The new proposal institutes a new playoff format in which the top 4 teams from each of the new conferences make the playoffs. For what it’s worth, only Chicago and St. Louis from the new conference alignment made the playoffs last year besides Nashville. Dallas finished a distant 10th, 6 points out of the last playoff spot. Under this new format, the top 4 teams from each conference will play each other for the first two rounds to determine a ‘conference’ champion. At that point, the two eastern conference champions will face each other with the central and western conference champs doing the same to determine who makes it to the Stanley Cup Final.
Ultimately, the NHL didn’t decide to move Nashville into a southeast division where travel may have been less, but in the long run, the realignment will have very little negative impact on the Predators organization. Whether the NHL realizes this or not, it’s less likely there will be as wild a push for the last couple playoff spots as we are used to seeing. Look for more playoff appearances from Nashville under the new format