SPOTLIGHT: NHL REALIGNMENT

Bruce Berlet 7BY: Bruce Berlet

The New York Rangers could be seeing even more of the arch-rival Islanders if a realignment plan approved by the NHL Board of Governors on Monday night is implemented.

At the BOG meetings in Pebble Beach, Calif., the board approved a plan that eliminates the current two-conference, six-division setup in favor of a configuration that features four conferences based primarily on geography. Two conferences will have eight teams, the other two will have seven teams.

The board authorized NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to implement the proposal, pending input and approval from the NHL Players’ Association, which is expected. The vote, which required a two-thirds majority of the league’s 30 governors, passed on the first of two days of meetings, and the new structure will go into effect next season.

The change was done to try to address a geographic imbalance created by the Winnipeg Jets’ presence in the Southeast Division. The Atlanta Thrashers relocated to Winnipeg in the offseason, leaving a team from Manitoba, Canada, in a division with Carolina, Florida, Tampa Bay and Washington. Instead of simply moving Winnipeg out of the Eastern Conference for a Western Conference team, the board chose a more radical shift to four conferences to address travel concerns of other clubs.

The makeup of the unnamed four conferences would be:

— Rangers, Islanders, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Washington and Carolina.

— Boston, Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, Buffalo, Florida and Tampa Bay

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

–Los Angeles, Anaheim, Phoenix, San Jose, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Colorado

Several current Western Conference teams have been unhappy about their extensive travel through one, two and sometimes three time zones. Some of those teams argued the late start of road games in the Pacific time zone was affecting fan interest, especially among younger fans. The biggest winners are Dallas, Minnesota, Detroit and Columbus, as their travel in the regular season and playoffs will be drastically reduced and some won’t be playing division teams that are two time zones away.

The new alignment also enables the NHL to create a balanced schedule in which all teams will play each other at least twice every season, once at home and once on the road, giving fans a chance to see every team and superstar in the league. The remaining games will be played within the conferences.

“I think it’s a real good step, and it’s good for almost everybody in the league,” Nashville general manager David Poile told nhl.com. “I think it’s certainly very good for our fans in terms of almost every market. I know our fans really appreciate to see everybody at least once every year and I think that was a strong move. At the end of the day, my best answer is I think we did the right thing.”

Said Pittsburgh Penguins star center Sidney Crosby: “I think any player will tell you it’s fun to go to some places you don’t always go to, and we’ll get that opportunity. I think it’s a good thing.”

In the seven-team conferences, teams would play six times – three home, three away. In the eight-team conferences, teams would play five or six times in a season on a rotating basis; three teams would play each other six times and four teams would play each other five times. This process would reverse each season: An eight-team conference member that plays an opponent six times in one season would play it five times the following season.

“The biggest part for us was to get the home-and-away with every team,” Columbus general manager Scott Howson told nhl.com. “That really takes away one Western Canadian trip and takes away a California trip. So, we’re only going to visit those teams once, which will reduce the amount of travel on us. Where we settled after that we didn’t have a strong preference, but we’re really pleased with the way it worked out.”

The top four teams in each conference qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The first-place team would play the fourth-place team; the second-place team would play the third-place team. The four respective conference champions would meet in the third round of the playoffs, with the survivors playing for the Stanley Cup.

“I think in the playoffs you don’t really need any extra incentive, but I think, if anything, it might add a little more excitement for the fans,” Crosby said. “They’re more familiar with the teams and the matchups and that kind of thing, but I don’t think as far as rivalries peak, as far as if we’re talking teams we call rivals, I don’t think it can get any bigger than it already is, but I think it’s nice for people to see those matchups.”

Even Bettman admitted this isn’t a perfect solution – there are none – especially with the Rangers playing more games against the likes of Dallas and Minnesota and fewer with the Bruins and Canadiens. There will be unforeseen consequences that will grab attention, as they always do. But the new alignment does enable every fan to see every team and addresses some of the financial concerns of several teams, so it looks like a satisfactory plan. Let’s see how it looks in five years.

WHALE FINALLY GETTING SOME STEADY HOME COOKING

After playing 15 of their first 22 games on the road, the Northeast Division-leading Connecticut Whale started a stretch of playing nine of their final 12 games in 2011 at home with a 4-3 loss to the defending Calder Cup champion Binghamton Senators on Sunday. Hershey visits Friday night in Bourque Brothers Bowl II, as the Whale’s Ryan Bourque plays against older brother Chris for the second time in 11 days.

Ryan started a stretch of four solid games last Tuesday night as the Whale beat the Bears 4-2, despite Chris getting a goal and an assist as the brothers’ parents, including Hockey Hall of Famer Ray Bourque, and a dozen friends from Boxford, Mass., looked on. Ray was thrilled that both of his sons performed well, saying, “I got goose bumps watching the game.”

Chad Johnson had a solid game in goal, and defenseman Pavel Valentenko scored his second goal in as many nights to break a 2-2 tie with 4:04 left, before unselfish plays by Jordan Owens and Kelsey Tessier set up Chris McKelvie’s first goal of the season into an empty net. AHL scoring leader, five-time All-Star and two-time Calder Cup winner Keith Aucoin (six goals, league-high 30 assists) helped set up goals by Bourque and Graham Mink, the second deflecting off Valentenko’s skate and past Johnson.

“It was my first two-goal game in North America,” Valentenko quipped.

Aucoin had two goals as the Bears (12-6-3-2) won 3-2 at Bridgeport on Sunday, to move into a first-place tie in the East Division with Norfolk and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. It capped off a week in which Aucoin had two goals and six assists, as the Bears won three of four, to earn Reebok/AHL Player of the Week honors. Aucoin has 12 points in a five-game scoring streak and has recorded at least three points in a game as many times (four) as he has been held scoreless. A native of Waltham, Mass., Aucoin moved into 19th place on the AHL’s career scoring list with 743 points in 653 games over 11 seasons, making him the highest-scoring U.S.-born player in league history. He also ranks eighth all-time with 525 assists.

Chris Bourque (11 goals, 21 assists) is second in the AHL in scoring, while other leading Bears threats are center Jacob Micflikier (9, 16, tied for fourth in the league), Mink (10, 12) and former Wolf Pack left wing and Bears captain Boyd Kane (8, 4, team-leading plus-12). Kane missed the first game against the Whale because Hershey has too many veterans (260 or more games in the NHL, AHL, IHL and European Elite Leagues) and it was his turn to sit out.

Friday night also will be the second meeting for Whale wing Francois Bouchard and Bears defenseman Tomas Kundratek, who were traded for each other by Washington and the Rangers on Nov. 8. Bouchard, whose best friend on the Bears was Chris Bourque, played three seasons in Hershey and Washington and was a key contributor to Calder Cup titles in 2009 and 2010. Kundratek was in his third season with the Whale and scored his first goal of the year Friday night in a 4-1 victory over the Syracuse Crunch. He and Chris Bourque assisted on Aucoin’s first goal Sunday.

On Saturday night, the Whale begins a home-and-home set with Providence (8-14-1-2), which is on a 0-6-0-2 slide since a 3-2 victory at Worcester on Nov. 13. Rookie right wing Carter Camper (five goals, 12 assists) leads the Bruins in scoring, followed by centers Josh Hennessy (8, 6) and Zach Hamill (7, 7). Rugged left wing Lane MacDermid, son of former Hartford Whalers right wing Paul MacDermid, has two goals, four assists and a team-high 50 penalty minutes. Anton Khudobin (7-11-2, 3.07, .910) had done most of the goaltending.

Whale rookie forward Jonathan Audy-Marchessault had a six-game points streak end Sunday, but he still leads the team in scoring with 22 points (eight goals, 14 assists), all of which have come in the last 18 games after he was scoreless in the first five. Wing Mats Zuccarello is second with 20 points (7, 13), despite missing the first five games while with the Rangers. Rookie wing Carl Hagelin, who is recall to the Rangers, is a team-best plus-12, and Johnson leads the goalies with an 8-3-2 record, 2.49 goals-against average, .914 save percentage and one shutout.

WHALE PLAYERS WATCH RANGERS STREAKS END

Audy-Marchessault, Zuccarello and rookie defenseman Tim Erixon, who started the season with the Rangers but has missed the Whale’s last four games with an injury, were at Madison Square Garden on Monday night as the Blueshirts had a five-game winning streak overall and seven-game winning streak at home ended by a 4-2 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Rangers’ only other regulation loss at MSG this season was their home opener against the Maple Leafs.

“Against any team in this league if you get down 3-0 it’s going to be a hard game to fight back in and win or tie up,” said Rangers captain Ryan Callahan, a former Hartford Wolf Pack right wing. “Obviously I think that had a big part to do in (the Rangers losing). I feel like we had our chances in the third (period), but it was a matter of converting on them and putting them in the back of the net. Tonight we didn’t do that. We shouldn’t have put ourselves in the hole we did, but we were right there at the end.”

Defenseman Michael Del Zotto, who spent the second half of last season with the Whale but missed the final six weeks with a broken finger, escaped serious injury when he was tripped by Maple Leafs center David Steckel chasing the puck on an icing late in the third period and ended up crashing full speed into the back boards. Del Zotto’s left shoulder and back appeared to absorb the brunt of the crash into the boards, though he told the media that he hit the boards with “pretty much everything.”

“It was a scary play,” said Del Zotto, who remained on the ice for a lengthy stretch before skating to the bench on his own. “As a defenseman you don’t like that (touch-up icing) rule, but you have to live with it. Luckily I am OK. Pretty much I hit everything. I just tried to duck my head at the last second to protect my neck, and I thought that was the biggest thing.”

But former Wolf Pack defenseman Michael Sauer didn’t return after a collision with rugged defenseman Dion Phaneuf with 4:42 left.

Former Wolf Pack center Artem Anisimov and Marian Gaborik (5-on-3 power play) scored the Rangers’ goals in the first game that included HBO’s cameras in the locker room, as they recorded footage for “24/7: Road to the Winter Classic.” The Rangers and Flyers meet Jan. 2 at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, and the HBO show will premiere Dec. 14.

BRACELETS TO BENEFIT LOKMOTIV FAMILIES

Whale wives and girlfriends will be selling bracelets to benefit the families of those lost in the tragic plane crash on Sept. 7 involving the Yaroslavl Lokomotiv team in the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia on Friday and Saturday nights.

“Love for Lokomotiv” silicone red bracelets will be available for $10 as part of a united effort to show support for the grieving families for those lost in the Lokomotiv tragedy, hockey wives and girlfriends around the world are raising money for their dear friends. The first 40 people to purchase a bracelet will receive an autographed puck and be entered in a drawing for an autographed stick and jersey.

Show your support next weekend as 100 percent of the proceeds go to the foundation set up in honor of the lost team. You can learn more about “Love for Lokomotiv” and find out how you can help at loveforlokomotiv.com.

ODDS AND ENDBOARDS

On Friday night, the Whale will hand out a set of trading cards to the first 5,000 fans, courtesy of Webster Bank. The first of three releases includes Johnson, veteran defenseman Wade Redden and forwards Zuccarello, Hagelin and Kris Newbury. The other dates for the card sets of players to be announced are Jan. 27 against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and March 16 against Bridgeport. … The first televised Whale game in five seasons will be Saturday night when WCCT-TV airs the meeting with the Bruins. The game also will feature the Whale’s annual Teddy Bear Toss. Fans can bring a teddy bear to toss on the ice after the first Whale goal. If no goal is scored, they will be thrown at the end of the game. People who forget to bring a bear can purchase one at the game, and all the money and bears will be donated to St. Jude Connecticut Network that benefits St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

THOMAS, ST. CROIX – JUNIOR PLAYERS OF THE WEEK

Oshawa Generals right wing Christian Thomas and Edmonton Oil Kings center Michael St. Croix, two of the Rangers’ top young prospects, were named players of the week in their junior leagues.

Thomas was named Ontario Hockey League Player of the Week, after getting three goals and six assists and being plus-6 in only two games. Thomas had his two best offensive games of the season, as he had a natural hat trick in a 3:34 span of the first period and added two assists in 43 seconds in the third period of a come-from-behind, 8-4 romp over Sarnia. Thomas then had a career-high four assists in a 9-1 rout of Peterborough.

Thomas, a 19-year-old from Toronto, Ont., is playing in his fourth OHL season. The Rangers’ second-round pick in 2010 has 11 goals and 13 assists in 20 games and has been invited to Canada’s national junior team selection camp, which opens Saturday in Calgary, Alberta. He missed 10 games because of a suspension.

St. Croix, the Rangers’ fourth-round pick in June, was named Western Hockey League Player of the Week after getting three goals and five assists and being plus-5 in three wins. St. Croix was twice named the No. 1 star, including Sunday, when he had two goals and two assists in an 8-3 victory over Saskatoon.

St. Croix has 16 goals and 25 assists in 29 games, as the Oil Kings have won six straight games and are second in the WHL Central Division and Eastern Conference with 39 points, two back of first-place Kootenay. … Center J.T. Miller, the Rangers’ first-round pick (15th overall) in June, and Yale sophomore left wing Kenny Agostino, a fifth-round pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2010, were among 30 players named to the preliminary camp that will serve as the final tryout for Team USA that will play in the World Junior Championships Dec. 26 to Jan. 5 in Edmonton and Calgary. Miller is the leading scorer (11 goals, 25 assists in 29 games) for Plymouth in the OHL.

FALCONS FANS TAKE 3-0 SERIES LEAD

Springfield Falcons fans swept their Whale counterparts, 14-4 and 8-4, on Saturday and Sunday to take a 3-0 lead in their best-of-seven series. The Falcons fans notched a 10-6 victory on Oct. 23 in the inaugural game of the historic series originated by Seth Dussault of Easthampton, Mass. Matt Marychuk of Glastonbury created a Facebook page to see if there were any interested players, and he and Dussault managed the social media page as interest grew. They used the page to sign up fans to play and communicate between the players and managed to fill rosters for each fan team. The idea caught the attention of the Falcons and then Whale front office, leading to players of all ages and skill levels participating in the series.

Tickets for Game 4 on Jan. 7 in Hartford at 4 p.m. and Jan. 8 in Springfield at 12:30 p.m. went on sale Monday. Tickets for the final two games on Feb. 10 in Springfield at 5 p.m. and March 17 in Hartford at 4 p.m. will be available in the near future. Tickets must be purchased at least 10 days in advance of a game and include admission to the AHL game. A portion of ticket sales benefits Defending the Blue Line, an organization that helps children of military families play hockey. The first three games raised about $600.

Tickets are available for games in Springfield by contacting Damon Markiewicz at dmarkiewicz@falconsahl.com. Advance tickets in Hartford are available by contacting Dussault at whalefalconsfangame@gmail.com. Information on all the games and the series is available at www.facebook.com/WhaleFalconsFanGame.

And mark Jan. 22, 2012 on your calendar as that’s when the Whale’s annual Tip-A-Player Dinner will be held from 4-7 p.m. at the XL Center. More information will be coming soon.

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One response to “SPOTLIGHT: NHL REALIGNMENT

  1. The House Of Volda®

    Hello, Mitch.
    I really enjoyed reading your article. Very well written. Being from Winnipeg, I think it will be great seeing each team playing at the MTS Centre during the course of the season. It will create interest and generate additional revenue. I hope that the other 29 teams feel the same as well.
    Take care, and all the best!
    GO JETS GO!