- Craig Custance
The NHL realignment plan still has unbalanced conferences. It still presents a playoff advantage in one conference because there are fewer teams. And yet this time, after careful deliberation through a series of conference calls, the NHLPA has signed off on the drastic realignment that sends the Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets to the East and the Winnipeg Jets into a division that makes geographical sense.
So what was the difference this time around that earned the NHLPA's approval? The league worked much more closely with the players and was better prepared to answer questions about concerns than it was after the last attempt at realignment.
According to Red Wings player rep Niklas Kronwall, the league worked up four mock schedules so players could get a sense of what travel would look like in the new plan. That helped.
"Compared to last year, they didn't have anything really mocked up; that was our concern," Kronwall said when we chatted following Detroit's win over Edmonton on Thursday night. "If [travel] is not going to get much worse, how much worse is it going to be? It was hard to make a call without seeing any numbers whatsoever. This time around we did get to see some numbers. It felt like the league wanted to work with the PA on a completely different level. It wasn't just, Here it is, take it or leave it."
And in very deliberate Donald Fehr-type fashion, the players took it, reviewed it and gave every player an opportunity to have his say through conference calls with player reps. Along the way, they found a counterargument to the notion that the West has a playoff advantage.
"People were saying that Well maybe in the East, maybe you'll have a little bit easier schedule," Kronwall said. "That would make up for the advantage."
It's a fair point when you consider some of the grueling travel for a team like the Vancouver Canucks over the course of the season, compared to teams in the East. And come playoff time, there are Eastern Conference teams that can make it to the Stanley Cup finals without getting on a plane. That's an advantage, and that was considered.
It's not perfect, but it's going to get done and the league can move on. The board of governors must still approve the plan, but that isn't expected to be a hurdle. The biggest hurdle has been cleared. Now the league and the PA can focus on the next issue: getting NHL players in the Olympics. Even though some owners are against it, Kronwall is confident the two sides can successfully work together again to have NHL players in Sochi.
"I think it's going to happen," he said. "I don't see how it's not going to happen, to be honest with you. It's a great opportunity to widen the hockey market even more."
Now on to the Friday mailbag:
The Sharks are DESPERATE for a goal-scoring winger for the second line where [Martin] Havlat has just three and Ryane Clowe has zero goals. Do you see Doug Wilson making a play for someone or hoping their guys wake up and realize the season started?
CD, Bay Area
Well I can tell you what Doug Wilson would tell me if I asked him that question. He's always looking to improve his team and this year is no different. Does that sound about right? That said, Wilson's reputation is to be in on the big names, and let's not forget he was in the mix for Rick Nash last year at the trade deadline. He (rightly) just wasn't willing to move Logan Couture. This may be one of the last good cracks the Thornton-Marleau duo has at winning big and I wouldn't be surprised to see Wilson get them some help. In some ways, adding scoring on the wing might be one of the easier assignments since it's harder to find help on defense and at center. That's a positive for San Jose.
Any word on if Buffalo will keep their interim head coach Ron Rolston past this season yet? Or what they'll be doing come the offseason?
Still too early to make a call on Rolston. He'll get the season to be evaluated, then owner Terry Pegula has to make a decision on which direction he wants to go with his team. As of writing this, the Sabres are still only four points outside a playoff spot in the East, so a trip to the playoffs should be enough to secure the job of GM Darcy Regier and Rolston. But if they miss the playoffs again, all bets are off. If you're bringing in a new GM, you're going to want to allow him the opportunity to choose his own coach. It's going to be an interesting offseason for the Sabres, no doubt.
Seeing that Jack Johnson may be available, can the Stars take advantage of their cap space? How about a change of scenery for [Alex] Goligoski for Johnson with lots of other moving parts... There has to be a way for both teams to help each other out.
The rumors around the 'burgh all center around Simon Despres since the young defensemen depth behind him is so good. Would you move him in a Jack Johnson deal as has been rumored? I'm torn since he reminds me so much of [Kris] Letang a few years ago. Thanks!
Ryan W., State College, Pa.
I'd be surprised if Columbus moved Jack Johnson at this point. For one, new GM Jarmo Kekalainen is still in evaluation mode and that's a pretty big piece to ship out this early in his tenure, unless he already had a strong opinion of Johnson's fit in Columbus before he took the job. And if the Blue Jackets are going to trade one of their defensemen, my guess is that they would try to add scoring in return, something this organization lacks, rather than another young defenseman. Columbus actually has a pretty good crop of young defensemen in its organization. The Blue Jackets have three first-round picks in June, so it would make more sense for them to see what happens with those picks, then deal from organizational strength before doing anything major right now.
Do you think the Blue Jackets might actually be a good team? Yes, I am a fan. I was looking at the schedule and realized that 10 of their 15 losses have been by one goal.
Good timing on that question since the Blue Jackets earned an impressive one-goal win over the Canucks last night. Yes they're playing teams close, but I'm still not ready to conclude that they're a good team. A good team wins those close games consistently, something Columbus is still learning to do. Look at what the Blackhawks are doing. They're not blowing out opponents during this ridiculous run; they're finding ways to win close games. Now all that being said, I think it reflects well on Todd Richards. The reality is, he just doesn't have the horses to compete with most of the teams in the Western Conference. But his group plays hard and isn't an easy team to get points against. I really like the way they compete for Richards and you have to respect the job he's doing there under challenging circumstances.
I went to a recent Detroit Red Wings game in Detroit and ended up meeting Chris Chelios at his local sports bar. I think it is very likely that Chelios will be in the NHL Hall of Fame but I wanted to know what you think of his chances of that happening. For the record, I asked Chelios about it and he was rather humbled by the suggestion that he would be in the HOF. What do you think?
Mike Cassidy, Lorain, Ohio
I'm writing this mailbag from the Joe Louis Arena press box and Chelios literally just walked right behind me. So just in case he's reading over my shoulder, yes he's an absolute lock. Actually, regardless of where this is being written, Chelios is a lock. Probably the best American defenseman ever to play the game and one of the all-time greats regardless of nationality. He's in. I hope he bought you a beer.
Sorry, was late to the chat today. On what ifs... What if a team had actually drafted [Anze] Kopitar when he was supposed to be drafted instead of letting him fall (for a life-changing, Los Angeles hockey, thank-you moment) drop to No. 11? I'm not sure we would be even close to what we are as the team has been built around him.
Eric, La La Land
No worries on missing the chat (1 p.m. ET Tuesdays everybody!), I was late a couple weeks ago for my own chat because of some breaking realignment news. But for those who don't know what Eric is referring to, a game of what-if broke out in my chat this week. The draft edition of what-if is just as fun. I checked in with Grant Sonier, our extremely insightful NHL draft analyst who was scouting for the Kings when they drafted Kopitar (not bad to have on your resume by the way). I asked him who the Kings would have taken in that spot if Kopitar had been gone and he quickly answered Marc Staal. Staal was chosen next by the Rangers. See, this is how decisions start impacting other franchises. Let's say Columbus takes Kopitar instead of Gilbert Brule and then the Kings take Staal, the next group of players the Rangers might have been looking at included Marek Zagrapan, Sasha Pokulok, Ryan O'Marra and Alex Bourret. So the Rangers benefited from Kopitar slipping as much as the Kings did. I love what-ifs.
Craig Custance explains why the NHLPA approved realignment this time around, and he answers mailbag questions on the future in Columbus and who might be in the trade market.