In December of 2011, the NHL proposed a realignment plan largely as a result of the Winnipeg Jets being geographically located far away from their Southeast Division rivals due to moving from Atlanta.
With the new proposed NHL realignment plan likely to be ratified soon for the 2013-2014 season, it's time to take a look and decide just what type and how much of an effect the plan would have on the Tampa Bay Lightning.
At first glance? It's all bad.
The Tampa Bay Lightning have had the luxury of playing in one of the weakest divisions in the NHL for the past few seasons, which has improved their playoff chances tremendously.
11 teams in the NHL last season — almost half the league — had more points in the standings than the Southeast Division champion Florida Panthers in 2011-2012.
The proposed new "Central Division" would feature the current Northeast Division teams (Boston Bruins, Ottawa Senators, Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, Buffalo Sabres) plus the Detroit Red Wings and the two Sunshine State hockey clubs, the Lightning and the Florida Panthers.
If the Lightning were playing in a division with those teams right now, they'd be 6th in the division ahead of only Florida and Buffalo, instead of tied for the Southeast Division lead with a legitimate shot at 3rd in the conference.
Playing in a weak division would no longer help the Lightning with playoff seeding in the new plan, either.
In the new scenario, the top three teams from each of the four divisions would earn automatic postseason berths, with the remaining four playoff clubs as wild cards — the two teams from each conference with the best record that didn't already secure a berth.
A similar realignment plan was blocked by the NHLPA in December 2011. The union stated concerns over player travel as justification for blocking the plan, and as a result this revised proposal is now on the table.
Concessions have been made for some teams — Detroit gets their long awaited (and promised) move to the Eastern Conference, and Columbus heads East as well. Colorado and Dallas get out of tough divisional games against opponents several time zones away by moving to a new Mid-West division. Carolina and Washington, former Southeast Division teams, get the boon of an all United States-based Atlantic division, meaning no international travel for any clubs in the Atlantic and very little mileage for division road games at all.
So if everyone is getting what they want, someone must be getting the shaft, right? The short end of the realignment stick?
Of course – and it's those worthless, destined for re-location hockey clubs in Florida – the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Florida Panthers.
Currently, the average distance traveled for the Tampa Bay Lightning for a divisional road game is about 518 miles, as calculated using straight-line distances using this distances calculator if you don't count Winnipeg. The Jets clearly need to be moved out of the Southeast Division, one thing all parties can agree on when discussing realignment.
The average distance traveled for the Lightning in the new proposed "Central Division"?
About 1,017 miles. Almost double the distance.
So all the travel alleviated from weary Western clubs like Detroit, Dallas, and Colorado just gets dumped on Tampa Bay and Florida?
What's fair in that?
Understandably, many Western Conference teams had to deal with changing one or more time zones, whereas the Lightning will merely be traveling north and south. Supporters of this plan will argue that the Florida clubs need the Original Six franchises in their barns to sell tickets. That might be true of the Florida Panthers, who have struggled to fill seats their entire existence, but Tampa Bay often gets unfairly lumped into category of "Sun Belt team that shouldn't exist and never sells tickets".
Since the Jeffrey Vinik/Steve Yzerman/Guy Boucher era began after the 2009-2010 season, attendance at the revamped Tampa Bay Times forum has steadily climbed. Tampa Bay is currently 7th in the league in raw average attendance, ahead of two Original Six clubs: Boston and New York. That's up from 13th last year and 18th the year before.
So what's the reasoning for putting the two Florida teams, particularly the Lightning, in a division with teams 1,000 miles away?
Not to mention the additional travel concerns of international travel, which can add hours to your trips between games when going through customs late at night as the team criss crosses the border to play home and homes with Montreal, Toronto, and Ottawa.
Ultimately, no realignment plan is perfect. But if the plan as it stands right now is adopted, it seems only the two Florida clubs are having to make any real concessions.Tags: Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres, Detroit Red Wings, Florida Panthers, Hockey, Montreal Canadiens, NHL, NHL Realignment, Ottawa Senators, Realignment, Tampa Bay, Tampa Bay Lightning, Toronto Maple Leafs