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5 Reasons This Is the Year to Watch the NHL

Realignment

Four divisions, two conferences. It'll mean more rivalry games, every team playing in every arena every season and, aside from the Florida teams, geographically contiguous divisions.

This is where the die-hards scowl and start longing for the days of the old Patrick and Norris divisions, but where just about every hockey fan not in the Chicagoland or Detroit areas breathes a sigh of relief. Here's the short version: The NHL had six divisions and two conferences, it's now down to four divisions and two conferences.

Why? Mostly because you had a handful of teams doing a disproportionate amount of traveling between time zones. The Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets were the only two teams in the Eastern time zone playing in the league's Western Conference. This meant fans were routinely subject to obnoxiously late start times for away games as their teams logged a whole lot of travel miles.

The Winnipeg Jets, meanwhile, were still stuck playing teams based predominantly in the East after the franchise moved from Atlanta in 2011. The Dallas Stars didn't have it much easier, as their division foes were well to the West. That's all changed under the current alignment shifting the Blue Jackets into the Metropolitan Division with the nearby Pittsburgh Penguins and the Red Wings into the Atlantic with its old rivals the Toronto Maple Leafs and closer competitors in Ottawa and Buffalo. Dallas and Winnipeg now share space in the Central with Chicago, St. Louis, Minnesota, Nashville and Colorado. Meanwhile, shifting the Vancouver Canucks and San Jose Sharks into the same division in the Pacific should create some friction between the playoff rivals.

Some facets of this change still don't smell quite right. Blackhawks and Red Wings fans aren't thrilled about their rivalry being minimized, while the Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers are still wondering why they have to leapfrog the entire Metropolitan Division to get to their rivals in the Atlantic. With Quebec City already starting work on an NHL arena, it would be hard to blame cynical fans for wondering whether the league foresees one of the Florida clubs heading north in the near future. Also, with each division in the Western Conference one team lighter than their counterparts in the East, there are still unanswered questions about possible expansion into NHL-ready towns including Kansas City, Portland, Ore., and Seattle.

What we do know, however, is that this whole alignment is going to make the playoffs a lot more interesting. The top three teams from each division make it in, the last four teams consist of the two teams with the most points in each conference. Basically, a weak division can send just three teams while its stronger counterpart sends five. The league's adding a wildcard system that should benefit division champs a bit, but all of it could be moot in two years when the NHL re-evaluates the whole thing.

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