AFTER EXPECTING a dogfight at the NHL's annual Board of Governors gathering in Pebble Beach, Calif., to determine the league's conference alignment for the foreseeable future, the actual meeting lasted 1 hour before adjourning.
By a vote of 26-4, with the two-thirds majority met, the Board of Governors decided last night to split the league into four new super conferences instead of divisions. Next year will feature the NHL's first new alignment structure since 1998-99.
The Flyers will maintain geographical rivalries with the Penguins, Rangers, Islanders and Devils, while welcoming the Capitals and Hurricanes to the temporarily named "Conference D." They will play each of those teams six times per season, split evenly between home and away.
The means the Flyers' remaining 46 games next season will be divided into home-and-home series with the 23 nonconference teams. Every team will be coming to the Wells Fargo Center at least once next season.
The other conference in the former "Eastern Conference" will be made up of Montreal, Toronto, Boston, Ottawa, Buffalo, Florida and Tampa Bay. The thought is that the two teams in Florida, while traveling more than most, will make up for it with strong home attendance against Canadian teams that already draw well in Florida with the help of snowbirds.
Commissioner Gary Bettman said the players association has expressed concerns about the new plan and that he will discuss it with union chief Donald Fehr before implementing it. Bettman said the change doesn't need union approval, a stance the NHLPA contests.
While the biggest winner in the realignment process is undoubtedly the old Western Conference teams - who could see travel budgets cut as much as half for some while resolving crippling time-zone issues - the Flyers also make out just fine. Trips may be a longer duration, but their travel will be largely unchanged.
According to OnTheForecheck.com's travel matrix, the Flyers will have the lowest average distance between conference rivals - just 164 miles among the six opponents - out of any team in the NHL. The Florida Panthers, with an average of 1,087 miles between Sunrise, Fla., and their next conference opponent, will have the most.
So, while the Flyers now will be traveling to each Western opponent at least once every season - instead of twice every three seasons - they also will be heading to places like Montreal, Toronto and Boston only once per season instead of twice. That means the Flyers will face the Canadiens as often as the Coyotes.
That theory is also why teams like Detroit and Columbus - once thought to be the biggest players in the realignment game since they are based in the Eastern time zone and playing in the Western Conference - were able to get behind the new plan. Now, in a true "Central" conference that makes geographic sense, they too have to travel to the West as much as the Flyers.
For the Eastern Conference teams that now will theoretically have to travel more miles per season, the tradeoff is easier access to the playoffs. The "East" conferences feature seven teams apiece, the "West" eight teams apiece. Still, four teams from each conference will make the playoffs.
And that setup of 16 teams in the West and 14 teams in the East leaves plenty of flexibility for the uncertainty surrounding the Phoenix franchise, should they decide to move, and also opens the possibility of expansion.