NHL insider: Union scores key win in realignment plan
By Rob Rossi
Published: Sunday, March 10, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
TORONTO — Two years will be enough.
Upon consenting to the NHL's realignment plan on Thursday, the Players' Association gained an important victory: The new-look NHL will get a closer look after the 2014-15 season.
That was no small victory for the union.
The realignment plan is not perfect, and perfection is not possible unless the NHL expands and does so into two western markets.
That cannot happen soon enough, but it is unlikely to happen soon.
This realignment plan is mostly flawed because 16 of 30 NHL clubs will play in the Eastern Conference. The playoff format calls for two wild-card participants to join the top three finishers from each division.
Do the math.
There are 10 teams that will battle for those wild-card slots in the East. There are only eight going after those spots in the West.
That is not competitive balance, something the NHL has prided itself on during the salary-cap era that dates to the 2005-06 season.
Dig deeper, though, and there is potential deepening rot to this realignment plan, which is why the NHLPA was dutiful to insist on re-evaluation after two years of the format.
There likely will be less incentive for some Eastern Conference clubs to spend to the salary cap.
Consider the new eight-team Atlantic Division, which will feature five franchises that generally spend to the cap: the Penguins, Flyers, Rangers, Devils and Capitals. Of those, only the Capitals have missed the playoffs more than once over the past seven seasons.
Joining these postseason regulars that routinely spend to the cap are the Blue Jackets, Hurricanes and Islanders — two clubs in nontraditional markets (Columbus, Ohio, and Raleigh, N.C.), and one in a lame-duck situation (the Islanders will move to Brooklyn for 2015-16).
What, exactly, should compel these owners to spend to the cap?
Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, two former MVPs, will play for the Penguins the next two seasons. Henrik Lundqvist and Rick Nash will lead the Rangers over that span. Ilya Kovalchuk will be with the Devils, as will Alex Ovechkin with the Capitals and Claude Giroux with the Flyers.
Keeping stars and building around them is expensive, even for clubs with billionaire and corporate ownership.
Perhaps the first or second part of that equation will prove too expensive for the Columbuses and Carolinas of the hockey world, especially considering the payoff — a couple of home playoff games at a total revenue of about $4 million to each franchise — would not offset the cost of going to the cap.
Any club that needs to make a deep playoff run to break even is a franchise in big trouble. Those are clubs that will always spend only what is required.
The 119-day lockout proved, without question, there are owners who want to curtail spending so as to maximize revenue.
Well, why would owners in Columbus or Carolina spend more if the odds are already against them finishing in the top three of their new division?
The NHLPA had all of that in mind when negotiating the two-year term on the realignment plan.
This term limit benefits the players — and hockey fans.
Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.
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