Bettman's drastic realignment is a gamble

By Dan Di Sciullo
NHL Editor

Dan Di Sciullo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The 20th century English novelist Arnold Bennett once said, "Any change, even a change for the better, is always accompanied by drawbacks and discomforts."

Keep those wise words in mind while contemplating the NHL's radical realignment plan. Even if you're a fan who loved the new proposition at first sight, your patience will likely be tried by the pitfalls and snags that inevitably come with big changes.

Rather than using a scalpel to carefully fix the problem, commissioner Gary Bettman's proposal instead takes a hatchet to the league's old model of two conferences and six divisions. That's not to say that the new plan, which was approved by the NHL Board of Governors on Monday, is a bad idea, but it will certainly take a while to get used to.

While the Board of Governors had to sign off on it, the idea to realign the league into four conferences for next season is said to be the brainchild of Bettman. That's good because even if the plan didn't originate with Bettman, at some point he would either be praised or vilified for the realignment anyway. That comes with the job; a commissioner wields a great deal of power and should be held accountable for the changes that happen under his watch.

In this case, Bettman is not trying to hide the fact that the realignment plan that won over the Board of Governors was his idea. The bold outline for the league's future still has to be approved by the National Hockey League Players' Association, but that is not expected to be a serious road block in getting this ratified.

As a refresher, here are the new proposed conferences:

- Anaheim, Calgary, Colorado, Edmonton, Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Jose and Vancouver.

- Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Detroit, Minnesota, Nashville, St. Louis and Winnipeg.

- Boston, Buffalo, Florida, Montreal, Ottawa, Tampa Bay and Toronto.

- Carolina, New Jersey, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Washington.

Those obviously make much more sense geographically than the current divisions. The only real problem arises when trying to find a place for the Florida teams, giving detractors of the NHL's expansion to the Sunshine State another reason to complain about the Panthers and Lightning's existence.

For those of us who someday hoped to see Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby battle each other for the right to play in the Cup Finals, we will now never get that chance.
The teams happiest about the changes are those that currently play in the Western Conference, as the new groups are expected to cut down the travel for many of those clubs. The alignment also enables all teams to play each other at least twice every season, once at home and once on the road.

The hardest thing to get used to in this new plan concerns the changes to the postseason.

The top four teams in each conference will make the playoffs. The first two rounds will be played within the conference to determine four conference champions that will clash in the third round. The fourth round, of course, will still be known as the Stanley Cup Finals.

The good news is that geographic rivals will meet more regularly in the opening two rounds of the playoffs. However, this also means that in many cases natural rivals will never meet past the second round. For those of us who someday hoped to see Alex Ovechkin's Capitals and Sidney Crosby's Penguins battle each other for the right to play in the Cup Finals, we will now never get that chance.

Once the Atlanta Thrashers moved to Winnipeg over the summer, realignment became a must for Bettman and the NHL. Many folks thought it could be done simply by moving the Jets to the Central Division and shipping Nashville off to the Southeast, but the commissioner obviously had a grander plan in mind.

The proposal is still in the honeymoon phase, when people can convince themselves that they like bold, new things. The reality is that human beings are rarely as receptive to change as they think they are and that adjusting to drastic modifications is usually a long and difficult process.

Bettman should not get used to all the positive things said about his plan, because when it comes to NHL realignment, chances are people have not even considered the "drawbacks and discomforts" that Bennett eloquently spoke about.

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