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East is no Eden

Jets anxious for NHL to finalize realignment

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A dog chasing his tail -- this is the recurring theme of NHL re-alignment.

What to do now that the Winnipeg Jets have replaced the Atlanta Thrashers on the league's map has caused another round of it that is not yet resolved.

It appeared 13 months ago a solution was at hand, but a new, four-conference format that solved many, but not all, problems of geography was vetoed by the NHL Players' Association last January.

The NHLPA was seen to be politicking ahead of CBA negotiations, but it had legitimate questions and objections about travel and about the fairness of having two conferences with eight teams and two with seven, when only four teams in each would make the playoffs.

And so the Jets play for a second season in the Eastern Conference's Southeast Division, a preposterous reality that commissioner Gary Bettman is on the record saying he'll do everything he can to correct.

As witnessed last January, and at every attempt to realign or reformat since its 1967 expansion, the issue is the NHL's "powder keg," one league official said.

To wit: There's always some team or teams hard done by in the current setup, and always some team or teams burdened by suggestions or proposals.

The Jets are one of these teams now, but there are others with old concerns (Detroit, Columbus, Nashville to name three) and still others (Montreal has been reported) that really don't like what the NHL's board approved in late 2011.

Today, what we know is that mere days after the resolution of their four-month labour disagreement, the NHL and NHLPA are again engaged in meetings to adjust the league's alignment.

The four-conference solution is believed to be the basis for the current engagement, and NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly confirmed to the Free Press this issue is now taking priority.

First, because the Jets-Southeast matter needs a fix and second, the 2013-14 schedule needs to start taking shape.

"It's a priority for the league to get something done in time for next year, and yes, its lack of resolution is holding up the scheduling process," Daly said. "It's currently being worked on."

The implementation of the four-conference format is not a slam-dunk.

The statistical imbalance about making the playoffs in a seven- or eight-team conference is debatable, but one thing's for certain. The travel issue will never, ever be perfect.

That's simply because there are 16 eastern time zone teams, many of them clustered, while the other 14 are spread far and wide over the rest of North America.

The travel matter could be alleviated somewhat by simply adopting a regional approach, installing a division-only or conference-only format, kind of like what exists for this 2013 lockout-shortened schedule.

But that's not what the majority of fans or teams want.

In Calgary or Winnipeg or Colorado, they want to see the Boston Bruins or the Pittsburgh Penguins and Sidney Crosby and the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens.

If you're a Jets fan watching your team play every single road game outside of the central time zone, where this is headed is, in this last week of January, cause for some worry.

Not only is there debate about a new format, there is some question as to whether the NHLPA can actually hold up what the league's owners voted to approve.

"Consent not unreasonably withheld," is the phrase we've heard.

Clearly, though, the NHL has little to gain from picking another fight with its players and alienating fans so soon after an at-times bitter and maddening negotiation for the new labour deal.

Similarly for the players, it's not in their best interest to be seen to be the ones that broke the hard-won peace.

NHLPA bargaining-committee member Ron Hainsey, who's very well-versed in the issues of the day, asked for a little patience.

"All I know is that they're working on it, no final decisions have been made, there are multiple ideas for where we're going but we did not focus on it (during negotiations)," Hainsey said. "It is something we're going to work on and there are ideas that the league is coming up with and we just got done (negotiating) and playing so I'm not sure of the timeline."

If there can be no satisfying the players' concerns over imbalance and travel in the owner-approved four-conference format, or if there is not another magical solution that pops up soon, it's conceivable Bettman may be forced to act.

And rather than jamming the four-conference matter through, it's possible the commissioner could postpone the problem for more study and consultation, and temporarily just swap the Detroit Red Wings or Nashville Predators or Columbus Blue Jackets to the Southeast and the Winnipeg Jets to the Central Division in today's six-division, two-conference setup.

A version of that was actually on the table when the governors chose to move to four conferences 13 months ago.

If you're sitting in Winnipeg, doing nothing is not an option.

"Obviously our situation isn't ideal for long road trips," said Jets captain Andrew Ladd. "There are no close road trips. It doesn't set up well for us.

"I think it (realignment) is something that everyone here is looking forward to. When you're moving on, wherever we're going to end up, you can start building rivalries against teams that are actually close to you instead of the Florida-Winnipeg rivalry, which doesn't exactly roll off the tongue very well."

tim.campbell@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 29, 2013 C3

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