Tampa Bay Lightning
Realignment is imminent, but details remain unclear
SUNRISE - Where, oh, where will the Lightning play next season? Or more directly, who will they play? Realignment has been a hot-button topic around the league since the Atlanta Thrashers became the new Winnipeg Jets and remained in the Southeast Division — just for this season. The Thrashers' move ensures there will be some sort of realignment next season, anywhere from slight to radical. From a straight swap of one team for another into the Southeast to a four-division format, it's all been discussed. And it will be talked about up to the Board of Governors meeting next month in Pebble Beach, Calif. The only thing certain is nobody is certain how it will play out.As recently as last month, the only topic on the table was a straight swap — Detroit to the Southeast Division and Winnipeg to the Central. Detroit, a city in the Eastern time zone, wants to play in the east after years of late start times and long travel out west. Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch has been adamant NHL commissioner Gary Bettman promised a move to the east eventually would happen. Sure, that move doesn't make as much geographical sense as, say, Nashville shifting into the Southeast, but if Ilitch is right about the promise made to his franchise, it's the most likely scenario. But any change in divisional format would require 20 of the 30 owners to approve. It seems unlikely enough Western Conference teams would vote to give up a regular draw such as Detroit. So, that has led to talk of a more radical shuffling of the deck. Elliott Friedman of CBC television's Hot Stove segment on "Hockey Night in Canada" reported last week that the four-division format — two in each conference — is gaining steam among teams. Under the proposal reported by Friedman, Tampa Bay would play in a division with Philadelphia, Washington, the New York Rangers, the New York Islanders, New Jersey Devils, Carolina and Florida. The other division in the east would include seven teams: Ottawa, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Boston, Montreal, Toronto and either Columbus or Detroit. The playoffs would revert back to divisional, which means the top four teams in each division would qualify for the playoffs and competition for the first two rounds would be within the division — similar to the format used in the days of the Patrick and Campbell divisions, et al. This sort of proposal has a "50-50'' chance of being passed by the board next month, Friedman said. You can be sure plenty of back-room discussions will take place between now and the Dec. 5 meeting. Pittsburgh and Philadelphia are already trying to unite in order to keep their in-state rivalry a division rivalry. Owners are going to take a closer look at how the proposed changes will directly affect their teams and look out for their best interests. The impact might not be that drastic for the Lightning, as they will almost certainly keep Carolina, Florida and Washington as division rivals. Should Detroit move in and take Winnipeg's place, well, the Red Wings are probably the biggest road draw in the league. If the more radical plan is adopted, gaining the New York Rangers and Philadelphia as division foes wouldn't be the worst thing in the world, either. No matter what happens, Tampa Bay's division will have a new look. Whether the impact is minimal or radical, we'll just have to wait and see.