HAVING SETTLED, for now, the issue of expansion, the NHL moguls came away from their winter metings in Florida with a whole new problem.
In a word: realignment.
It's a hot issue, one that couldn't be resolved in sunny Florida and may not be resolved until the winter meetings of 1991. At issue is who plays whom, where and how many times.
Sources maintain that one plan -- not put forward by Toronto interests -- had the Leafs moving out of the Norris Division and into the Smythe. The plan called for an all-Canadian Smythe Division having Toronto and the new Ottawa team join Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver at the start of the 1992-93 season.
Los Angeles and newly admitted San Jose would move into the Norris Division with Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit and Minnesota.
The Patrick, with the two New York teams, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Washington, would remain the same.
The Adams would be Boston, Buffalo, Montreal, Quebec, Hartford and, surprisingly, Tampa Bay.
Another plan had a Norris Division of Chicago, Los Angeles, San Jose, St. Louis, Minnesota and Detroit. In the Patrick, the two New York teams, Hartford, Tampa, Philadelphia, New Jersey. The Smythe had Montreal, Ottawa, Quebec, Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver. The Adams had Pittsburgh, Washington, Boston, Buffalo, Toronto and Winnipeg. The Adams would then join the Smythe in one conference. The Patrick and the Norris would form the other.
Either breakdown would probably do away with an emphasis on divisional rivalries and move to an unbalanced schedule that would see each team play divisional opponents six times (three home and three away) and the rest of the games against non-divisional opponents. The league would also go to conference play in the playoffs in a format that would likely produce a No. 1-vs.-No. 8, etc., schedule against conference opponents en route to a conference final.
Both plans (and there is likely to be many more) make some attempt at preserving regional and divisional rivalries while building new ones through conference play. There are teams in both Canada and the U.S. that like the idea of an all-Canadian division.
For Los Angeles, it would cut down on the number of Canadian teams coming into its building (L.A.'s entire divisional rivalry is with Canadian-based teams) and, by extension, make U.S.-based teams a more recognizable lot. The Canadian teams could cut down on travel expenses by taking many more flights within Canadian borders (where there are many more direct flights then there are from say Winnipeg to St. Louis).
Canadian teams could also cut travel expenses by paying the bulk of their travel costs (air fare and hotels) in Canadian dollars instead of having to convert Canadian to American each time they cross the border. Teams on both sides of the border could also cut down on the number of times they must clear customs and immigration.
Few people would consider Hartford a loss to the Adams Division as the Connecticut city has as much a following for New York-based teams as it does for Boston and Buffalo. Toronto could do well in a natural rivalry with Montreal and Buffalo should it move to the Adams Division or get comfortable in an all-Canadian Smythe. Tampa in the Adams doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but the city has no natural rivals anyway. Tampa would likely benefit just as much from name teams like Boston, Toronto and Montreal as it would from appearances by New York and Philadelphia.
An all-Canadian plan has been endorsed by some. Los Angeles owner Bruce McNall definitely wants out of the Smythe and the all-Canadian opposition that appears in his building. Chicago president Bob Pulford backs him.
"To play Los Angeles in a division with all-Canadian clubs is unfair," Pulford told the Chicago Tribune this week. "Bruce McNall doesn't want to be there either. They want to be with us in the Norris or at least in the Patrick."
Pulford also said there should never again be an all-Canadian Stanley Cup final.
"If we are ever to go anywhere with this league and make inroads into the U.S. market, we have to align all of the Canadian teams in one conference. I think there's a strong possibility that will happen.
Pulford's statements are important because they usually reflect the thinking of team owner William Wirtz. Wirtz is an extremely powerful man (president of the Board of Governors and a major backer of NHL President John Ziegler). If both he and the newly powerful McNall (savior of hockey in the west and current controller of Wayne Gretzky) come in as a block, the league will be hard pressed to resist.
There are problems, however. Insiders say the Leafs were strongly opposed to a move to the Smythe, which would probably cut into its Hockey Night in Canada appearances (thereby cutting revenue) and would leave it with no other team in its own time zone (thereby adding to travel costs and delayed TV starting times).
Pulford said the issue is likely to come up at the NHL Congress in Buffalo in June, but Sabres President Seymour H. Knox III said the June agenda is so crowded a realignment plan might not come about until the next winter meeting in December 1991.
Either way, it will make for an interesting time.
Sabres goaltender Clint Malarchuk is a bit like that guy in the Hair Club for Men ad that dominates late night television, only his involvement with a company called Sensorware Corporation goes beyond vanity.
Malarchuk, who suffered a serious neck injury when cut by a skate blade two seasons ago, has taken to wearing and endorsing a protective collar called NekMaster. Malarchuk, however is more than a client.
The NekMaster is a protective throat device he helped develop after his accident in a game against St. Louis. Malarchuk contributed to the design (a turtleneck type) that includes a bib to help keep the collar from riding up or sagging.
The item is made of a slash-resistant material, yet is extremely light weight.
The collar is not just for goaltenders. Dave Andreychuk wore one in practice Thursday at Sabreland and said it was a comfortable fit and also acted as a device to help keep his neck warm. The device, about to be approved by the Canadian Standards Association, is being marketed across North America and, eventually, throughout the world.
Former Sabres center Adam Creighton is struggling with the Chicago Blackhawks. His stats indicated nine goals and 13 assists at midweek, but Chicago insiders say he has looked pretty awful in recent weeks and had managed just 46 shots on goal, low for a second-line center.
Still Chicago coach and General Manager Mike Keenan remains in Creighton's corner, saying: "He has to work first and think later. He gets so tied up thinking about everything that can go wrong that it will go wrong. He has to go with his instincts, play hard and everything else will follow."
Bowman's name in hopper
Former Sabres coach Scott Bowman and former Detroit coach Jacques Demers have had their names linked to job openings in the NHL.
Bowman is said to be a confidant of new Ottawa owner Bruce Firestone and may be under consideration for the GM job there.
Demers, a radio commentator in Quebec, has had his name surface in connection with coaching or management jobs in both Ottawa and Tampa.
League sources say Pittsburgh would not stand in Bowman's way should an owner come calling. Bowman is currently the Penguins' director of player development and recruitment.
Demers said last week he might be interested in a new job, but that he was "going to be selective." ~ Sator to the rescue
Former Sabres coach Ted Sator came to the aid of Bruins forward Dave Christian prior to the game here last Sunday against Buffalo. Christian was about to be scratched because of an infected tooth, but Sator, now a Bruins assistant coach, called on a local dentist he knew here and the dentist took Christian to his office, numbed the pain and drove him back to the Aud just in time for the start of the game. Christian missed the pregame warm-up but made it in time for the start of the game and set up a goal on his second shift.