Flyers, Penguins might remain together in realignment

Commissioner Gary Bettman is said to favor a major overhaul of the league's alignment.
Commissioner Gary Bettman is said to favor a major overhaul of the league's alignment. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Posted: December 05, 2011

GLENDALE, Ariz. - Starting bright and early this morning at a cliff-side resort in Pebble Beach, Calif., the NHL's largest collection of brains, power and money will begin formally arguing to hash out the long-awaited realignment plan.

At times, it will get ugly. In some organizations, even the general manager and owner do not see eye to eye.

A little more than a month ago, many believed the Flyers and Penguins would be at the center of the action. Initial proposals floated throughout the league had the two Keystone State rivals skating in separate "conferences."

(Under the new four-division setup that commissioner Gary Bettman is championing, they no longer will be called "divisions.")

Now, I'm not so sure it is the case that the Flyers and Penguins will be split up.

The most recent proposal leaked through CBC's Elliotte Friedman on "Hockey Night in Canada" on Saturday has the Flyers and Penguins sticking together after the backlash from Ed Snider and Mario Lemieux.

Their conference also would include the Rangers, Islanders, Devils, Capitals and Hurricanes.

In early November, that conference also featured Florida and Tampa Bay, who seemingly have moved to a conference with Boston, Buffalo, Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa. While it's strange geographically, the belief is that the Canadian snowbirds would aid attendance in the Sunshine State in the winter months, as those teams generally draw well on the road.

The Flyers have been very public in their stance about continuing their rivalry with Pittsburgh in a schedule that would feature six games against conference opponents and a home-and-home series with the league's remaining teams.

Flyers president Peter Luukko has said it would be "unacceptable" to play without the Penguins. But if I'm reading the tea leaves correctly, the Flyers' public stance isn't the same as their private thought. Knowing that Sidney Crosby and the Penguins have a solid foundation to continue on-ice success for years to come, the Flyers aren't exactly jumping up and down to face Pittsburgh four extra times a season.

Should a serious proposal gain traction in Pebble in which the Flyers and Penguins aren't skating in the same conference, would either team have enough clout to stop it? That seems unlikely. Any change to the alignment requires a two-thirds majority - or 20 out of 30 teams - to pass. Teams from Pennsylvania make up just two votes.

One scenario that hasn't gained much steam is one that included the Flyers playing in the skeleton of the old Northeast Division with Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Boston and Buffalo - but also keeping Pittsburgh. The Flyers would lose the Rangers, Devils, Islanders and Capitals in that case, making it unlikely.

Either way, the Flyers will be well represented - with Luukko, Snider, Paul Holmgren and alternate governor/general counsel Phil Weinberg - at board of governors meetings today and tomorrow.

Under the proposed four-conference setup, the biggest sales job needs to be done on Eastern Conference franchises. Those teams like the current, six-division alignment just fine. Teams in the East, with low travel budgets and many nights spent in their own beds, are comfortable with the current setup.

So, the question is, do the governors make one quick swap of Winnipeg and either Detroit or Columbus? Or is a complete overhaul necessary?

An overhaul is being pushed by Bettman. The general consensus is that he wouldn't introduce a proposal unless he had the votes to get it passed. The politicking has been going on for weeks.

"Something obviously needs to be done with Atlanta moving to Winnipeg," Holmgren said last week. "There's so many scenarios now that they're talking about, it's going to be interesting to see where the strongest sentiment is."

One Eastern Conference GM told CBC's Eric Francis that a new home-and-home travel setup would cost some teams another 5,000 miles on the road and up to $1 million in additional travel costs. That seems a little over-the-top. The benefit for fans, though, is that they get to see every team come through town at least once.

The teams in the West love the new scenario. For them, it cuts down on travel and solves the time-zone problem that has been plaguing teams like Detroit, Columbus, St. Louis, Nashville and Dallas for years. Far too often, the key moments of those teams' road games happen after 11:30 p.m. or midnight. It's tough to sell a fan base that way.

And teams like Detroit and Columbus would only go to the West Coast as often as the Flyers and Rangers, leveling the playing field.

So, what's in it for the East? The selling point would be an unbalanced alignment with 14 teams in the East and 16 in the West. Theoretically, that would make it easier for teams in the East to make the playoffs. Each East conference would have four out of seven teams qualify for the postseason, where most of the season's revenue is made.

Plus, with the instability surrounding the Phoenix franchise, it would allow for a simple 15 vs. 15 fix if the Coyotes were ever to move to, say, Quebec City.

Two things are clear: There will be a lot of heated debate and the 16 teams in the West don't need many more votes to push this new proposal through. The only question is whether it will all be able to be settled before the governors disperse tomorrow night. If not, voting would have to wait until just before the Jan. 27 All-Star Game in Ottawa.

Either way, don't expect the Flyers to have much of a problem with whatever is chosen.

"Who knows what's going to happen?" Holmgren asked. "I've seen matrixes with [Pittsburgh] out, I've seen matrixes with them in. Once it goes to vote, who the hell knows?"

ON-ICE

STAT WATCH

723: Days since the Flyers lost a regular-season road game in regulation (Dec. 12, 2009) in which Claude Giroux scores at least one goal.

13: Years it has been since a Flyer led the league in points after 25 or more games in a season. Giroux and Toronto's Phil Kessel are knotted with 32 points. Eric Lindros last did it for the Flyers in 1998-99 when he had 43 points through 33 games.

41.7 percent: Flyers' power-play conversion rate on the two-game West Coast swing (5-for-12).

3: Points for Matt Read in the first period on Saturday night against the Coyotes. It was actually the second time Read has netted three points in a period in his first 22 NHL games. He posted a goal and two assists in the first period at Ottawa on Oct. 18.

INJURY REPORT

-- James van Riemsdyk: Day-to-day with slight muscular tear in midsection, skated with Flyers in California but did not participate in drills with teammates.

-- Chris Pronger: Expected to return in approximately 3 weeks from last Tuesday's procedure, which cleared out debris in his left knee.

-- Andreas Lilja: Out for next 5 weeks with severe high ankle sprain.

-- Erik Gustafsson: About 3 to 4 weeks from returning to the ice,

according to Paul Holmgren, after Nov. 17 wrist surgery.

-- Andrej Meszaros: Hobbled off the ice after being hit with 12 seconds left on Saturday in Phoenix, but Paul Holmgren said Meszaros is "doing good'' and "will play'' Wednesday in Buffalo.

PHANTOMS PHILE

Skating without nearly all of their top players - like Marc-Andre Bourdon, Kevin Marshall, Erik Gustafsson, Matt Walker (all with the Flyers), Oskars Bartulis (injured) - the Phantoms (13-7-0) gutted out a strong weekend against the AHL's top offensive team in Norfolk. They won convincingly, 5-1, on Friday night, and fell, 2-1, on Saturday night at the Scope in Hampton Roads. How inexperienced are the Phantoms? They have three rookies and two ECHL call-ups in the lineup.

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