NHLPA response to NHL’s realignment plan invites speculation

We apologize for missing this over the weekend, being so caught up in the moment during the final outdoor contest that capped the week of events at Citizens Bank Park, but here’s NHLPA executive director Don Fehr’s statement regarding the rejection of the realignment proposal:

“On the evening of December 5, 2011, the NHL informed the NHLPA that they proposed to put in place a four-conference format beginning with the 2012-13 season. As realignment affects Players’ terms and conditions of employment, the CBA requires the League to obtain the NHLPA’s consent before implementation.

“Over the last month, we have had several discussions with the League and extensive dialogue with Players, most recently on an Executive Board conference call on January 1. Two substantial Player concerns emerged: (1) whether the new structure would result in increased and more onerous travel; and (2) the disparity in chances of making the playoffs between the smaller and larger divisions.

“In order to evaluate the effect on travel of the proposed new structure, we requested a draft or sample 2012-13 schedule, showing travel per team.  We were advised it was not possible for the League to do that. We also suggested reaching an agreement on scheduling conditions to somewhat alleviate Player travel concerns (e.g., the scheduling of more back-to-back games, more difficult and lengthier road trips, number of border crossings, etc.), but the League did not want to enter into such a dialogue.

“The travel estimation data we received from the League indicates that many of the current Pacific and Central teams, that have demanding travel schedules under the current format, could see their travel become even more difficult. On the playoff qualification matter, we suggested discussing ways to eliminate the inherent differences in the proposed realignment, but the League was not willing to do so.

“The League set a deadline of January 6, 2012 for the NHLPA to provide its consent to the NHL’s proposal.   Players’ questions about travel and concerns about the playoff format have not been sufficiently addressed; as such, we are not able to provide our consent to the proposal at this time.  We continue to be ready and willing to have further discussions should the League be willing to do so.”

As far as the initial concern in the first paragraph goes, well, yeah…it’s just too obvious that 28 of 30 teams are exactly where they should be, yet Florida and Tampa Bay are shoehorned into the conference with all the former Northeast Division clubs. That’s a flat-out glaring error and has to be remedied with some more shuffling.

But that’s all there is to it. As far as the complaint about “more onerous” travel, well, what do they expect when there’s a larger grouping of teams? By definition it means a greater geographic area covered even within a division, or “conference” or whatever anyone wants to call it.

And after previous players’ complaints about too many divisional games and not enough out-of-conference match-ups, that reasoning just rings hollow.

With 30 teams and 82 games to schedule, there is no perfect solution that will satisfy both sides. Contraction is off the table. Now reducing the number of groupings from four to six has been challenged. All will not be well in the Kingdom no matter what.

On the second point of contention, just how fair and democratic should it be made so everyone feels like they have a chance? Expanding the number of teams which will make the playoffs seems to have been shouted down on both sides for now, so we’re stuck with 16 making it out of 30.

The only foreseeable issue with the disparity between 7-and-8-team “conferences” is if one particular grouping features a slew of clubs who sport records well over .500 and are clamoring for only four spots. In that case, it’s not the fault of those who agreed to that set-up, it’s the unusual quirk of scheduling that one “conference” is beating up on others and more teams in one “conference” are having better than average years and are doing it than others.

To wit — in 1995-96, out of 13 teams in the Western Conference, just three (Detroit, Colorado and Chicago) sported winning records because the Eastern teams posted a far superior record in out-of-conference action.

At that time, the Central sported six teams and the Pacific totaled seven after the Avalanche moved from Quebec. But in the 1-through-8 playoff seedings, five Central teams (DET, CHI, STL, TOR, WIN) and three Pacific clubs (COL, CAL, VAN) made it.

In the East, six of seven Atlantic clubs finished above .500 and all but one — New Jersey — made the postseason. That left three Northeast Division squads out of six (Pittsburgh, Boston, Montreal) in the race for the Cup.

If the new scenario would have been ratified then, the Lightning, Devils, Sabres, Jets, Oilers and Kings all apparently have the right to complain because the deck would be stacked against them for either existing in strong divisions of those with fewer teams than others.

Now imagine that with four more clubs vying for the postseason. It sounds like the kid who finished fourth in grade-school Olympic Day races complaining that he should get a medal just for being able to cross the finish line.

Are you kidding me with that, NHLPA? There has to be winners and losers. More than half of the league reaches the postseason, and with expansion bloating the field, roughly 2/3 of the NHL has a shot to make it until the final week.

If the NHLPA is so distressed, why can’t it come up with its own plan instead of simply reacting to something that it feels has been foisted upon them? Stop playing the put-upon victim and start coming up with some fuel for alternative ideas.

This is the diabolical, combative mindset that Fehr wears like a royal cloak. He eventually became part of the problem when baseball went missing amidst recriminations from August of 1994 to April of ’95. It’s not a stretch to see the machinery in the works under his aegis for a long and contentious battle with the NHL.

I do agree with one main sticking point in the release, in that the NHL tried to force consent by setting a date roughly halfway through the current season in order to put the plan into effect.

It smacks of disingenuousness on the League’s part to think that, while it could muscle in the sale of the Thrashers to a Winnipeg-based group in time for the franchise transfer, it could do the same thing in a quick turnaround and wave its magic wand at the entire Players’ Association.

But I think Fehr’s cagily planting the seeds of a potential Doomsday scenario with his repeated insistence that the NHL is somehow deceiving or obfuscating what appears to be simple requests for information.

It’s just as much a part of the filthiness of negotiations between Labor and Management that either party will willingly withhold what they feel is vital information if it hurts their respective cause: therefore, no way would the NHL release a potential schedule matrix so that the NHLPA could pick it apart.

It’s the same principle which guides journalists in their quest for a story: no way are they going to give the final draft to the interview subject for approval.

But that calling out of the NHL for being unwilling to accede to requests for information can form a solid basis for Fehr’s possible future grandstanding — it can easily be stretched and extended to indict the League for breach of trust — and therefore may tear any vital connections between the two apart.

I’ll take a step back now and say that anything pertaining to realignment doesn’t have to get done right this second no matter who’s for or against it.

It may be a fait accompli that the original ideas floating around of reconfiguring the 6-division format is the fall-back plan if the current situation isn’t solved in time for next year. The NHL would be foolish not to have a Plan B which invites concessions and input from the PA.

There’s nothing in the rulebook that says alterations to the schedule matrix have to be maintained in three-year windows. It’s just a suggestion, and I’d imagine an exception can be made because of the plight of the Jets.

Again, all that has to be done is moving Nashville into the Southeast, Dallas into the Central, Vancouver into the Pacific and Winnipeg into the Northwest for that part of the issue to be resolved.

If playoff seeding is an issue, why not simply reward teams in each conference based on actual record rather than division standing? That way, nobody cries foul that a 90-point team who wins a weak division makes it and a 95-point team in a strong division doesn’t.