The Lightning will soon need good packing skills more than ever.
Monday in Pebble Beach, Calif., NHL officials approved a radical realignment plan, giving the league four conferences instead of six divisions and guaranteeing home-and-home series among all teams.
The Board of Governors authorized commissioner Gary Bettman to implement the proposal pending input with — and approval from — the NHL Players' Association. It could be put in place as early as next season.
What does it mean for Tampa Bay?
Put it this way: After Florida, its next closest geographic rivals in the current Eastern Conference are Washington and Carolina. Neither will be in the same conference under the new alignment — but three Canadian cities, Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto, will be.
"All the Canadian teams, that's a far trip, I don't know," Lightning wing Ryan Malone told the St. Petersburg Times after Monday's loss at Ottawa. "I didn't see that coming. I was going to say something funny about Gary Bettman but I'm going to keep it to myself."
Teammate Steven Stamkos, a native of Unionville, Ontario, outside Toronto, said: "I get another trip in to see family and friends. But that's something we'll deal with next year. We have enough to think about this season."
The league considered two plans to accommodate Atlanta's move to Winnipeg this past summer. The first would have simply moved the Jets to the Central Division and either Detroit or Columbus to the Southeast.
"The simple one wasn't as simple as it looked when you got done with it," Bettman said.
So the board chose the more dramatic switch, creating four geographic conferences — two with eight teams, two with seven. Four teams would make the playoffs from each conference.
The new format will increase overall travel in the regular season, especially for Eastern Conference teams who will now have more trips West. But it cuts down on travel for some Western teams, which was a critical issue for teams like Detroit, Dallas, Columbus and Nashville.
"It's just part of the game now," Malone said. "You just have to find ways to make sure you're sharp and your legs are ready. It's crazy."
The new plan tried to address as many concerns of the teams as possible, from creating more equitable travel, to preserving rivalries, to promoting the game by having the biggest stars play in every city every season.
"I can't say … that this makes me feel great," Tampa Bay coach Guy Boucher said. "But we'll see. Sometimes things that don't look so good end up being the best."
"This is not a subject that everybody is going to get their first choice on," Bettman said. "What you try to do is come up with something that everybody can live with, get comfortable with and understands the value of. Because if you ask 30 clubs, you'd probably get 30 different solutions. That's what makes this a difficult process."
Toronto general manager Brian Burke said he had concerns about the wear and tear the extra travel would have on his team but approved the plan when he was assured by the league that the schedule would be more efficient with every team playing in every city.
"We try to vote with a league hat on when we can," he said.
The new look has two conferences with seven teams all based in the Eastern time zone: Tampa Bay, Florida, Boston, Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa and Buffalo in one and New Jersey, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, New York Rangers, New York Islanders, Washington and Carolina in the other. Those last two are current Southeast Division foes for the Lightning.
The third conference consists of eight teams in the Eastern and Central time zones: Detroit, Columbus, Nashville, St. Louis, Chicago, Minnesota, Dallas and Winnipeg. The fourth conference has eight teams in the Mountain and Pacific time zones: Los Angeles, Anaheim, Phoenix, San Jose, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and Colorado.
The conferences have not been named.
Times staff writer Damian Cristodero contributed to this report.