The late Ashley Gallant was the originator of “Lacing Up,” and its reincarnation is in her honor. Each week, Matt Paul, Zach Boslett, and, at times, guest writers will hold a week-long email discussion, which will be published on FF.

This week, new FF writer Chris Mack will be joining me for a discussion on the NHL’s realignment plan.

Zach Boslett: Chris, welcome to the team and welcome to Lacing Up! Let’s jump right into it… where do you stand on the NHL’s realignment plan? Will the Penguins even make the playoffs if they have to play the Flyers and Capitals 6 times a year and possibly even in the Stanley Cup Final?

How mad are the Red Wings they did not get to come East like they wanted? Tampa Bay and Florida will be spending most of their seasons in the Great White North, is that fair? SO MANY QUESTIONS CHRIS!

Chris Mack: Thanks for the welcome, Zach. It’s been a crazy week to jump on board, and I’m excited to be a part of Faceoff Factor.

I think while there are still a ton of questions to be answered regarding NHL realignment, the ones you bring up are some of the more intersting ones. The competitive imbalance between the “Patrick” Conference, and say, the Pacific Conference, for example, will become clear when at least one of the Pens, Flyers, Rangers, Devils, or Caps misses the playoffs next year while a sub-.500 team in the west makes it. Yes, every franchise is going to go through ups and downs, and certainly not every division is going to be stacked – or awful – every year.

For now, I think it’s best to try and embrace what will be the growing intensity of the Pens-Caps rivalry, and the possiblity of a burgeoning Pens-‘Canes rivalry. Say what you will about where Carolina is this year, but with Jeff Skinner leading the way, I think they’ll be back up amongst the top of the “Patrick” Conference (Until they officially rename it the Lemieux Conference, yes, I will contintue to refer to it as the “Patrick”!) sooner than say, the Isles, who still haven’t figured out that they need a GM who doesn’t hand out 15-year deals to (fragile) goalies, a coach who’s won something above the junior level, and a stable arena situation.

As for the Red Wings, I don’t think anyone is surprised by the reactions of their management and fanbase. Their management has lauded the realignment, and rightfully so. It keeps them in a division with the Blackhawks and cuts in half their 9pm & 10pmET faceoffs. Of course their fans will continue to look at this as some sort of conspiracy and won’t be happy until they’re in an alignment where they’re guaranteed 82 games in the Eastern time zone, a divsion filled with tomato cans, and Gordie Howe is the commissioner.

The Florida teams moving to what is essentially the Northeast Division is interesting, but I don’t see it as any crazier than when the Phoenix Cardinals were in the NFC East for a short time in the NFL. Or when the Cincinnati Reds & Atlanta Braves were in the NL West but the St. Louis Cardinals & Chicago Cubs were in the NL East in MLB. At least all 7 teams are in the same time zone, which again, was the driving force behind this entire realignment in the first place.

What I DO find most interesting is that this realignment wasn’t held off for another year, so as to allow the ownership situation in Phoenix to be sorted out. It’s still very possible the Coyotes could be in Quebec or Hamilton next season, or perhaps even in Kansas City. If they go to the Great White North, this alignment still works, as the Pacific would simply become a 7-team division and the Northeast would simply become an 8-team division. What if they go to K.C., though? Then you’re looking at problems if the point is to keep teams playing most of their games in their home time zone or an hour behind. And again, you may be looking at the Red Wings lobbying for a move east. I would have waited another year to realign to see how the instability in the desert pans out.

Which begs the question, other than the Winnipeg-in the-Southeast Division mess, why was the league so anxious to get to a setup that clearly points toward a 32-team league? Gary Bettman has said expansion isn’t actively being pursued right now, but with three cities ready to make it rain like Pacman Jones in a Vegas club to attract a new team, and just one franchsie on the verge of moving, the writing is on the wall, don’t you think?

Zach: Chris you are right. The league is certainly looking like it is heading in the direction of a 32-team league. But the main question that goes along with that is… why was the league in such a hurry to realign?

I like the greater emphasis on divisional play. I like moving Winnipeg out west where they belong. I like lighting an even bigger fire under the Penguin-Flyers and Penguin-Capitals rivalries.

But my favorite part of every season since the lockout was the playoff hunt and the subsequent playoffs.

I can’t help but feel as if the NHL is trying to fix what’s not broken. In fact, they’re taking one of the few things the league office has done right and messing with it. Why not tinker with the (still broken) disciplinary system? But I digress.

So while seeing the Flyers and Capitals in playoff series even more than normal is certainly exciting (and potentially nerve wracking), I think I will miss the playoff push.

Does it get any better than a playoff spot coming down to the last game of the regular season like the Rangers-Flyers shootout for a playoff spot?

Still don’t understand choosing Olli Jokinen over Marian Gaborik but I once again digress.

A few weeks ago, I ran into a guy from Toronto who said that Hamilton is starved for a team. When Jim Balsillie was trying to move an NHL team to Hamilton, he said that 50,000 people signed up to reserve season tickets. Hamilton is larger than Pittsburgh and they certainly have a rabid hockey fan base. You would have to think a team will be moved or expanded there… but what other possible places could the NHL go?

Chris: You’re right, Zach: The league is fixing what isn’t yet broken, especially if their not settled on where franchises will be located. And the disciplinary system, which initially looked like it was in the midst of a promising revamp under Brendan Shanahan early this season is already looking inadequate. Is Shanny the ONLY guy looking at all of these tapes?? That’s the only thing that would explain why it took a full week to come up with the slap-on-the-wrist $2500 fine of Brad Marchand for his slew foot of Matt Niskanen. Or several other delayed disciplinary actions. While we might never get a total fix of the league’s supplementary discipline process, there still has to be a better way than foisting it on one single person.

Anyway, to get back to the realignment issue, your point about the races coming down to the final weekend is a great one. That may still happen, but it won’t be as often, and we won’t get the constant jockeying for position that made watching the standings the final few weeks so much fun.

Remember the Pens/Flyers game late last March that was the culmination of a Sid-less, Geno-less chase after the 1st seed in the Eastern Conference? The atmosphere at Consol that night was SICK, and the place went nuts when Alex Kovalev scored the first goal. Philly ended up winning big and more-or-less clinching the Atlantic Division, meaning the ‘Guins wouldn’t finish better than 4th. Not only did it have playoff implications, but it affected the team, too. James Neal, in particular, was near tears afterward with his disappointment in the fact that they had come SO close to catching the Flyers but came up short in final 30 minutes. Under the new alignment, it still would’ve been a big game affecting a tight race for the “Patrick” Conference title between the Flyers, Pens, and Caps, and who got to play the Rangers or Hurricanes in the 1st Round. But I don’t know if the same juice would’ve necessarily existed.

If in the end the league does go to 32 teams in four “conferences,” it will be hard to argue with. As we’ve discussed though, why not wait until we get to that point rather than preemptively messing with things. If Hamilton and Quebec are in fact the next two cities awarded franchises, you’ll just have to tinker with it again anyway. Those two, along with Kansas City seem the most likely to get franchises, whether relocated or expansion, next. There’s talk Seattle and Houston may be interested too, but unless you’re using some cockamamie idea like creating a geographic rivalry with a nearby team (Seattle with the Canucks and Houston with the Stars), expansion in the U.S. just doesn’t make much sense outside of Kansas City right now. Get in to those Canadian markets that are dying for a team and will guarantee you a season or two of sellouts rather than going someplace where you’ll have to rely on lukewarm corporate support and compete with the MLS for fans.

Zach: Who knew that Missouri was such a hockey hotbed that it deserves two hockey teams… as you can tell from that I am not a fan of moving to Kansas City. Columbus, Nashville, Atlanta, Florida, Phoenix, and Dallas are all teams that have struggled to draw fans in the United States.

“Let’s add a team smack dab right in the middle of that spread because it’s such a hockey are” – said no one.

I do not get the need for a team there. I liked the NHL (mostly) before all this non-sense. Why continue to tinker with a product that was gaining popularity?

I really hope this realignment thing works. I am not very optimistic about the playoff format but I cannot deny that more series against rivals would not be interesting.

What are your thoughts on NHL realignment? What are some other topics you would like to see addressed in the next edition of Lacing Up? Leave a comment!