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NHL Realignment could mean big changes for Carolina Hurricanes

With all the challenges we've witnessed thus far in the Carolina Hurricanes 2011-12 season, you may have missed another important story brewing with the proposed NHL realignment. The possible benefits and/or consequences for the Canes playoff expectations are significant.

The details and a reader poll - after the jump.

Why is this happening?

The conversation started last June when Southeast Division rival Atlanta Thrashers were transplanted to the far north and west, becoming what is commonly referred to as the Winnipeg Jets2.0. The obvious need to realign the Eastern and Western Conferences opened the door to addressing other problems in the current six division schedule. Most of the concerns come from the West.

Not to over-simplify, but the big problem is that Detroit, Columbus and Dallas are eager to get away from all those expensive/exhausting flights to play games in the Pacific Time Zone.

The concept of a change from four to six divisions was first floated in June and has been gaining momentum - though it's hard to tell if the momentum is rooted only among the media or is actually gaining traction with the League's decision makers.

The NHL's Board of Governors is gathering this week for their Winter Meetings in Pebble Beach, California. Most consider realignment the biggest and most controversial item on the agenda. The latest proposal for a four-division League was revealed on CBC's Hotstove program last night, which included this graphic, the basis of the map at the top.

For those of us who have spent the last ten years as part of the Southeast Division, be prepared for a whole new set of criteria - with some challenging and exciting opponents - to advance past an early April exit, and beyond that, if we want to see the Canes make a deep run for the Cup.

Further details

Regular Season Schedule

The regular season schedule would emphasize the divisional rivalries with six games each. For the Canes, in a 7-team division, that would be 36 games.

The remaining 46 games of the 82 game schedule would be a home-and-home with the other 23 teams in the League. Every NHL team makes an appearance in the RBC Center annually.

Sidenote: You've likely noticed that 30 ÷ 4 ≠ an even integer, so the divisions will either have 7 or 8 teams each. Is that fair? As shown there are 16 teams in the West and 14 in the East. Some suggest this allows for the League to consider an expansion to 32 teams. One also might think a contraction to 28 could happen - though that would likely never fly with anyone on the BoG, and even less likely with the NHL Players Association.

Postseason Format

The playoffs would include the first two rounds strictly inside the Division. Four teams from each division would advance to the postseason, only one would emerge to the Conference Finals. That could make things very intense within each division, with (welcome) echos of the old Adams, Patrick, Smythe and Norris Divisions of the 70s and 80s, no?

What it means

The Canes will see a whole lot of the two Pennsylvania and three New York teams, and a very little of the Florida pair.

In order to make the postseason, the Canes will have to finish the season with a better record than at least three of the following: Penguins, Flyers, Rangers, Capitals, Devils and Islanders. And only one of those will make it to the third round and a crack at the Stanley Cup final. How do you like the Canes chances?

The Penguins, Devils and especially the Capitals have got a headstart on a rivalry with Carolina. The Flyers, Rangers and Islanders are not bad teams to add to the party. (And will this Division be known unofficially as the "Staal Division" ?)

Would RBC ticket sales get a boost with all the Yankee transplants in our midst? Would TV revenues - and hopefully related profits - improve enough lift Jim Rutherford up and out of the bargain basement attitude toward free-agent options?

Will you miss seeing Steven Stamkos and Vinny Lecavalier three times a year? And the same question for whomever is playing for the Panthers this season - and currently dominating in the Southeast, I might add?

The Florida Panthers fans like it - despite the way the Florida teams are moved to become part of the far-away Northeastern clique division (think of the Snowbird revenues). The Dallas Stars bloggers are enthused - which I totally get.

After considering the good and bad, what say you Carolina hockey fans?