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Expanding realignment talk; Could Tampa Bay work in the Western Conference?

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Expansion necessitates realignment for the NHL. Is a simple shift of the Lightning the way to solve things (temporarily)

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In the past, I've said that the East vs. West conference split in the NHL is not the best of ideas. That opinion and the realignment concept in the article was written in part because of the Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets at-the-time placement in the Western Conference; two teams in the Eastern Time Zone that didn't belong nor want to be in the West. The East vs. West conference split remains a logistically poor idea by way of the fact the bulk of the NHL is in the Eastern and Central time zones.

Not that people agreed with me or liked the idea of breaking up the neighborhood rivalries in the New York-New Jersey-Pennsylvania area to help stock two separate east division teams in separate conferences. That "tradition" of backyard grudges outweighed change and that necessity is part of what likely continues the general league alignment as it stands.

The 2013-14 NHL realignment works in general, though the Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers playing in the Atlantic Division is strange; the two teams skip over the entire Metro Division in order to play against divisional foes. Yes, there is an imbalance in number of teams in each conference with 16 teams in the East and 14 in the West, but there's no very clear out-of-place part of the alignment like in years past. The overly-neighborhood Metro Division franchises got to stay together, the Canadian teams got to stay together, and the East vs. West split was preserved.

Change is coming to the NHL though, through its intention to become a 32 franchise league by way of the addition of clubs in Las Vegas, Nevada and Quebec City, Quebec. I'm not going to judge that move whatsoever, I've already talked about the surprise that only two markets submitted bids for clubs (and the long expected bid by Seattle, Washington didn't happen) and the complication that it created via alignment. That article didn't exactly go into detail about the scheduling process and the complication that would arise in the east with 17 teams and west with 15. To be honest, I don't know all of the issues brought up by way of that odd-team alignment. Regardless, it would seem that the intention through expansion by the league was to stick two teams in the Western Conference, that was made evident by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman suggesting that the Quebec City franchise (if awarded) may find itself stuck in the Western Conference. He also spoke of the decision by the league to expand only going through if all parties are satisfied and the process plays out correctly. Click through that link for broader remarks than the point of alignment.

A Quebec City franchise in the Western Conference... This is where a clip of me doing a headshake and facepalm would be appropriate. I'll spare you and go on.

It was bad enough when the NHL couldn't pull off a minor alignment shift in a timely manner for the Winnipeg Jets to be out of the Southeast Division after they came into being by way of relocation of the Atlanta Thrashers. It also continued the historical trend of the NHL settling for geographical (or logical) misalignment of the league.

While I'd strongly, strongly suggest the NHL consider a broader realignment and kill the East/West conference format and employ two continent-wide conferences, that's a grander shift that needs more planning and discussion and debate than the league would ever likely employ; kicking the can down the road is another habit by the league when an issue must be discussed, remedied or a party satisfied. With that in mind, there is a simple solution regarding alignment that could be employed, adding travel miles to one team but also playing to a standard in-market: Shift the Tampa Bay Lightning out of the Atlantic Division into the Central.

I don't like the idea of the Bolts playing in the Central (or as a Western Conference team) especially with thanks to travel itineraries and the ridiculousness of distance that would be shown clearest in the playoffs, but Tampa Bay is geographically the western-most team in the East after Detroit and Columbus. Oddly, one of Tampa Bay's scheduling habits at home has potentially prepared fans for the shift - the Lightning tends to start games "late" for the Eastern Time Zone. 7:30 is used inconsistent fashion in other markets, but the start time is generally used consistently with evening games at 401 Channelside Drive (and start time complaints tend to come from outside the market, not at home). The annoyance of a 8 PM start time or 8:30 when playing games on the road against the likes of the Predators, Blues, Blackhawks, Wild, Stars and Jets is just that - an annoyance if that at all (it's a prime time start, after all). Yes, the Lightning would also have 9/9:30 starts against the Avalanche but one more 9 PM game a season isn't going to kill anyone.

The drawback is the fact the current scheduling breakdown in the east - 4 (in two cases, 5) games against divisional foes, 3 games against conference foes, 2 games against the other conference teams - would be used and that means a extra Pacific Division trip each season. It's not something to necessarily love, but it's a simple shift that makes more geographic and logistic sense than putting Quebec City in the Division.

The problem is still the marriage by the NHL to East vs. West but this solution (meant as a temporary band-aid should expansion happen without a broader realignment plan) is one of the simplest and makes a degree of sense... This could force some type of compensation by the league (an event like the All Star Game) to Tampa Bay to make up for inconveniences that are created by the shift.

Expansion's not a certainty (though it sure seems like it will take place - expansion fee payments will ultimately be what wins Board of Governors approval), nor is a lack of broader realignment with the inception of the new clubs. Yet with the league's habits of something simple being employed and kicking the can down the road, Tampa Bay moving to the Central is a move for the league to seriously consider.