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Creating new rivalries

With realignment, time will tell who Jets' enemies will be

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For a club currently situated slightly north of no man's land, it's no surprise the Winnipeg Jets are on board with the NHL's new realignment layout.

 

Under the four-conference proposal that was rubber-stamped by the board of governors Monday evening, the Jets would be in a new eight-team 'B' grouping, joining Detroit, Chicago, Columbus, Minnesota, Nashville, St. Louis, and Dallas. The Jets would play those clubs five or six times a year.

On the surface, it's a not a bad deal for Winnipeg: Two Original Six teams (Detroit and Chicago), the natural geographical rival in Minnesota and a comfortable travel itinerary should make many around the organization quite happy. But real satisfaction won't come until three or five years from now, when the team settles into this second existence in Manitoba with some legitimate enemies on the schedule.

This first year back in the NHL has the Jets misplaced in the Southeast Division, a solution that was framed as the only option available for the league following the purchase of the Atlanta franchise in the summer. While matching up against Carolina and Florida is fine for now, they are hardly considered rivals in any sense of the term.

Having a new set of regional playing partners for next year -- which is when the realignment could come into effect -- should bring a lot more meaning to the regular-season workload.

"That's something that will happen over time," Jets defenceman Mark Stuart said. "You can build new rivalries against some teams that would have never had the chance to be rivals."

"If you're going to see the same teams in the playoffs year after year, you're going to develop some kind of rivalry," forward Chris Thorburn added. "Learning to hate players on the ice just creates more for the game."

One tick in the negative column involving the Jets and conference realignment: The lack of another Canadian club.

The Jets are the only team in Canada without a national partner in the conference; a departure from the standard line of thinking which suggests Canadian teams prefer to see other Canadian teams.

Jets governor Mark Chipman said it didn't bother him and dismissed the criticism with the fact the Jets will see the six other Canadian clubs twice over the course of the season (teams face all non-conference teams twice -- one at home, one on the road).

Another point of contention with the new alignment: The playoff format.

Right now, the top four clubs in each of the four conferences make the post-season. That builds up rivalries down the road, but it also opens up the possibility of a team with a lower point total qualifying for the playoffs over a team with more points in a different conference.

Chipman says no realignment plan was perfect and believes scenarios like that even themselves out over time.

"At the end of the day, you got to win games. If you expect to advance, you got to win games," he said. "If you expect to win a Stanley Cup, you got to win games. The best team wins, that's how it works."

From a logistical standpoint, the move makes a lot sense for the Jets.

Winnipeg is one of six 'B' members situated in the Central time zone (Columbus and Detroit are in the Eastern time zone) and the team will make multiple visits to four of the seven nearest NHL markets -- Minneapolis (the closest at 630 km), Chicago (1,160), St. Louis (1,360) and Detroit (1,365).

Travel, in terms of distance and time zones, won't be a huge drain, the players say.

"It looks a little better," offered Kyle Wellwood. "There were some teams that have had it rough for a number of years with a lot of coast-to-coast travel and that should help them a lot.

"It's a totally different lifestyle. I remember playing in the East and it seems like you're home every night. You can have a quick road game during the week and you hardly notice it. Out West you get the long road trips and it's a little more difficult.

"The travel arrangements and time zones matter to players and that's what they corrected the most."

For those wondering, Edmonton, Calgary, and Colorado -- each roughly 1,250 km away and in the Mountain time zone -- are the three other markets closest to Winnipeg.

adam.wazny@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @wazoowazny

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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 7, 2011 C3

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