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NHL realignment won't help Tampa Bay Lightning

Did NHL commissioner Gary Bettman really need the drastic realignment that puts the Lightning in a conference with three teams from Canada?

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Did NHL commissioner Gary Bettman really need the drastic realignment that puts the Lightning in a conference with three teams from Canada?

Knowing that you are wise, and knowing that you are fair, and knowing that you love hockey, I am reasonably certain that your first reaction to the new alignment of the NHL was much the same as mine.

Huh?

Unless Tampa Bay has been sold to Canada, and I suppose anything is possible, this realignment roulette makes no sense. Tell me: Who was the genius who came up with this? Barry Melrose? Mike Milbury? Or was it just Gary Bettman, letting his eight-sided dice run away with him?

Tampa Bay vs. Buffalo?

Tampa Bay vs. Ottawa?

Tampa Bay vs. the team from Mystery, Alaska? (Okay, I'm kidding about that one, but do you think Bettman is aware that the Mystery team was, well, fiction?)

This is silly, and this is sad, and above all, this is evidence the big offices of the NHL consider the Lightning only as an afterthought. Tampa Bay is like that leftover piece of a model airplane that you just helped your kid assemble. No one can quite figure out where it is supposed to go.

Let's re-examine this. All Bettman had to do was swap a chair and a table, just that, and the next thing you know, he is tearing down the house in order to rebuild it. Swap Winnipeg with Detroit (or Columbus or Nashville), and his job was done. Simple as that. Skate on.

The next thing you know, the players in his league are going to need bigger luggage. What? Is Samsonite suddenly a new league sponsor?

It should be pointed out that in other places, and with other teams, the new shape of the NHL sounds just fine. If you live in Detroit, and if you're tired of staying up late to watch the Red Wings play on the West Coast, this move is good for you. If you are in Columbus or Dallas or Minnesota, it's good for you. If you are in New York, and you can now take a cab to your division road games, it's good for you. If you run a TV network — and isn't this surprising — it's good for you.

If you are a member of the Lightning, however, this is worse than a stick between the eyes.

(And, to be fair, it's worse news for the Florida Panthers.)

Think about this: Half of your new, ahem, rivals are from a different country. Except for the Florida teams, the southernmost city in the new conference is, of all places, Buffalo. Last year, your average distance to a division opponent was 540 miles; after realignment, it will be 1,058 miles, which is a long way to shoot a puck. Oh, and there is this: To get to your new conference, you have to fly over another conference.

Welcome to the "What the Heck Were They Thinking'' conference.

"Maybe we should built a practice facility in Vermont,'' Lightning forward Marty St. Louis said to Times beat writer Damian Cristodero on Tuesday, "and live in Vermont and take little flights here and there, live in the hotel when we come for home stretches.''

Actually, the bigger question seems to be this. How long did it take before the league was thinking about its Florida franchises? And how long did that last?

Just guessing here, but I would bet the NHL started with a list of priorities. I'm also guessing that the Florida teams weren't very high on it.

New York? Check. The only way the NHL could have taken better care of New York was to move the Carolina franchise to Queens and the Capitals to Brooklyn.

The Canadian teams? Check. Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa are all bunched together, as they have been. Only now they get to bring their golf clubs to Florida.

The time-zone afflicted teams? Check. Detroit and Columbus no longer have to worry about being in the West.

The Florida teams? They were just part of a division the NHL was willing to blow up. Even swapping Tampa Bay with Carolina would have made more sense for the Lightning.

Of course, the Tampa Bay area knows a little about silly alignment. Once, the Rays were headed for the AL West, remember? Once, the Bucs spent a year in the AFC West. Soon, USF will be in a league with San Diego State. Around here, our GPSes are full of it.

Is the new neighborhood going to be tougher for the Lightning? Maybe, maybe not. The Lightning currently trails every one of its new rivals in the standings. Still, all the Lightning has to do is finish ahead of three teams to make the playoffs. That isn't too much to ask.

Here's what I don't get, however. Why adopt a system that requires a team to spend the first two rounds of the postseason trying to get out of its own division? For goodness sakes, it seems as if the Lightning plays the Panthers 37 times a year as it is. And now, in the playoffs, more Panthers? Really? Don't most leagues try to avoid divisional play in the playoffs?

Ah, I don't want to sound like a grump, at least no more than usual. The Lightning's new division is certainly more interesting than the old one. There is more tradition, more passion. With Boston, Toronto and Montreal, you have half of the Original Six. That's going to spark some interest, and the snowbirds are going to buy some seats.

But if the point here is to build rivalries, this is silly.

If the point is to cut down on travel costs, this is ridiculous.

If the point is to save wear and tear on the players, this is absurd.

Except for that, the Lightning ought to be grateful. After all, the league could have realigned it to Russia.

After all, when Tampa Bay plays SKA St. Petersburg, you can throw all of the records out.

NHL realignment won't help Tampa Bay Lightning 12/06/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 6, 2011 9:39pm]

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