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NHL governors approve realignment; Pens to play in 8-team division

| Thursday, March 14, 2013, 2:24 p.m.
Blue Jackets goalie Sergei Bobrovsky is surrounded by teammates, celebrating after a shootout win against the Red Wings on Sunday, March 10, 2013, in Detroit.
Columbus Blue Jackets center R.J. Umberger (18) tries to get his own rebound after Detroit Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard (35) stopped the shot during overtime in an NHL hockey game in Detroit, Sunday, March 10, 2013. Columbus won 3-2 in a shootout. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

TORONTO — Ray Shero is looking forward to a new-look NHL.

Realignment, approved by the Board of Governors on Thursday, will begin next season and extend through at least 2015-16, commissioner Gary Bettman said.

Shero's Penguins will play in one of two eight-team divisions in the Eastern Conference. Joining the Penguins are current Atlantic Division rivals Philadelphia, New Jersey and the New York Rangers and Islanders, and also Washington, Carolina and Columbus.

“Selfish -wise, I love staying in the East, and from a travel standpoint it works great,” Shero said, adding his management of the Penguins' roster will not change because of the realignment that restores a divisional playoff format for the first time since 1993.

The Penguins' longest in-division trip is around 500 miles (Raleigh, N.C.), or about 90 minutes by charter plane.

Only 14 clubs will make up the Western Conference, though eight teams from each conference will qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs.

The other eight-club Eastern division will feature Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Boston, Buffalo, Tampa Bay, Florida and Detroit, which will join Columbus in moving into the Eastern Conference.

“There are some real good teams presently in this conference, and (our) division is packed,” Shero said. “Even teams that today might not be playoff teams — that changes pretty quickly. Look at Montreal. Last year (the Canadiens) were 15th, and now they are first.”

The NHL Players' Association consented to the realignment plan March 7, though the union and league will re-evaluate it after two seasons.

Realignment became necessary when Atlanta relocated to Winnipeg for last season, Bettman said. Winnipeg is currently playing in the Eastern Conference.

Detroit, an Original Six franchise located in the Eastern time zone, had long lobbied for a move from the Western Conference. Columbus is another Eastern time-zone club that has played in the Western Conference.

Winnipeg will join a division that also includes Chicago, Colorado, Dallas, Minnesota, Nashville and St. Louis. The other Western Conference division is made up of Los Angeles, Anaheim, San Jose, Phoenix, Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton.

The NHL likely will realign again if it expands from 30 to 32 clubs, but Bettman said “we'll deal with possible relocation and expansion if and when we find ourselves in those processes.”

Names for the new divisions are to be determined, and it will be easy for fans to identify club location, Bettman said.

Clubs will play at least four games against division opponents during the 82-game regular season. All clubs will play each other at least once at home and once on the road.

Shero said he favors fans in each Western Conference city getting an annual chance to see the stars such as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin of the Penguins.

“Sometimes they've gone two or three years without seeing those guys,” Shero said. “So, I think that (part of realignment) is great.”

The NHL has not played a full schedule that placed every team in an opposing city at least once since the 1997-98 season.

The top three clubs in each division automatically qualify for the playoffs, and remaining clubs with the two best overall records will earn wild-card slots.

The league will go back to a divisional playoff format. Division winners will play a wild-card club, with the second- and third-place teams facing off in Round 1.

Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rrossi@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.

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