The NHL's Board of Governors on Monday approved a new realignment plan that will eliminate the current two conference, six division format in favor of four regional "conferences" beginning with the 2012-13 season.
Realignment became necessary after the Atlanta Thrashers franchise of the current Southeast Division was sold and moved to Winnipeg prior to this season. The Board voted in favor of this plan over one that would have maintained the current structure while moving Winnipeg to the Western Conference and moving either the Columbus Blue Jackets, Detroit Red Wings or Nashville Predators to the Eastern Conference.
Two of the four as-yet-unnamed conferences will consist of seven teams while the other two will have eight teams. The Tampa Bay Lightning are assigned to what is currently known as Conference C along with the Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres, Florida Panthers, Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators and Toronto Maple Leafs.
The new alignment will result in a schedule that will have all teams play each other at least twice. Conference champions along with the second, third and fourth place finishers within each conference will advance to the postseason playoffs.
How does all of this directly affect the Tampa Bay Lightning? Read on...
THE LIGHTNING'S NEW CONFERENCE
No more Carolina Hurricanes or Washington Capitals. A quick glance at the map tells us that the terms "regional" and "geographic" refer to east and west and don't really take north and south into consideration. Obviously, this is because of time zones and how that affects television coverage.
WHO'S IN THE OTHER CONFERENCES?
THE BALANCED SCHEDULE
As members of one of the seven-team conferences, the Lightning will play 36 of their 82 games within the conference. That means they'll see each conference opponent six times, three home and three away. The remaining 46 games will be played against the other 23 teams in the league, once at home and once away each.
HOW WILL THE PLAYOFFS WORK?
That has yet to be completely determined, as there is ongoing discussion about how teams will be seeded in the semi-finals round but we know that the top four finishers in each conference will make the playoffs and that the first two rounds will be played within the conferences. #1 will play #4 and #3 will play #2 in the opening round. The winners meet in the second round with a champion from each conference emerging and advancing to the semi-finals. A final decison on how teams are slotted at that point isn't expected until the league meets again in March.
DOES THIS REALIGNMENT ALTER THE LEAGUE'S COMPETITIVE BALANCE?
Well, if this structure were applied to this season as it's played out so far, this is what the standings would look like right now:
The most dramatic disparity would probably be out west. Conference A's leader, the Canucks, are currently a #5 seed while Conference B has the top four seeds, including all three current Western Conference division leaders. As a result, St. Louis (slotted #6 right now) would be out of the running. As far as the Lightning are concerned, they're currently five points out of the playoffs in either scenario.
Let us know what you think about the realignment plan, how it affects the Lightning and the NHL as a whole, in the comments below.