NHL realignment cleared its last hurdle late Thursday, March 14 when it was passed by the board of governors. The San Jose Sharks are in the division currently called Division A that is comprised of the Vancouver Canucks, Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames and everyone but the Dallas Stars from the current Pacific Division.
Every team on the list but Edmonton includes the history to make developing a rivalry easy.
The Sharks will play four games against one rotating division opponent and five against the other five each season. They then play one on the road and one at home against all Eastern Conference teams and three games against the other Western Conference division.
Travel is also not reduced appreciably because the lost trip to both Columbus and Detroit along with one or two per year to Dallas, St. Louis, Chicago, Nashville and Minnesota—all still two time zones away—are offset. There are more trips to other Eastern Conference teams, plus Winnipeg, Edmonton and Calgary replace short trips to Anaheim, Los Angeles and Phoenix.
With Vancouver and Edmonton joining the division, it may appear that San Jose will have to become faster. However, they will gain no more than one game per year against those teams while losing one game per year against Colorado, Chicago, St. Louis and other current Western Conference teams that skate well. At the same time, they will gain a few games against fast teams in the current Eastern Conference.
It will take a detailed analysis by San Jose's management to determine those tweaks. One thing they will have to change is their secondary scoring. Almost every team in the division is strong on the back end (blue line and goalie), and you cannot always count on your line match-ups to free a scoring line from tough defenders—especially on the road.
But then, that problem is also prevalent now, and for the same reason.
The top three teams from each division will make the playoffs, plus the two other teams in the conference with most points. Those two teams are considered wild card teams, and the lower one in the standings plays the higher-seeded division winner and vice-versa.
Through that point, there is no fundamental change to the playoff format. But the second and third place teams in each division play each other, assuring some deepening rivalries and reduced travel for some teams—ironically not division winners—each April.
For instance, in 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs would have been drastically altered. Assuming every team had finished with the same record despite vastly different schedules, the Ottawa Senators would not have made the playoffs, but the Flames would have. Their first-round opponent would almost certainly have advanced and been a healthier team in the second round, possibly changing the outcome of the entire tournament.
The Sharks would have played a Phoenix Coyotes team that was weaker than the Blues, but one that dominated them almost as much in the regular season. As much as many of these changes by themselves are barely significant, there are significant differences that will alter many teams' approach to the 2013-14 season that is the first under the realignment: Detroit is gone from the Western Conference Stanley Cup playoff dynamic and teams are more likely to play divisional foes in the first round.
This only makes it more logical for the San Jose Sharks to move in a new direction when a combination of expiring contracts, aging players and salary cap restraints will force some changes. That probably makes the Sharks more likely to be buyers at the trade deadline, giving the remaining roster one more chance. Those who are either traded or becoming free agents will thus be out of the way for the rebuild.