In something that was expected for a while but happened fairly quickly once discussions formally got underway, the NHL decided to re-align and completely change its playoff format effective next season. Instead of six divisions, the NHL will now have four 'conferences' of 7-8 teams. Each conference/division/whatever will have four playoff teams square off against each other in the first two rounds, sort of like the format of the '80's and early '90's where division teams squared off until the Conference Finals. With the difference being now instead of two teams from the same conference playing off to go to the Stanley Cup Finals, you'll have four teams that get reseeded based on record.
Here are the new divisions (the hell with the conference designation), which are loosely based on geography - therefore my names are loosely based on intent:
Battle Division (7) - Devils, Rangers, Islanders, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Washington, Carolina
Northwest Division (8) - LA, San Jose, Anaheim, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Colorado, Phoenix
Central Division (8) - Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, Nashville, Columbus, Minnesota, Winnipeg, Dallas
North/South Division (7) - Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, Boston, Buffalo, Florida, Tampa Bay
Of course you'll notice some goofy pairings with this format, putting Florida and Tampa Bay (southern teams) with a bunch of Northeastern teams is one. Dallas is certainly going to be piling up the frequent flyer miles in its division to every place except Nashville, though they kind of do that now anyway. My Battle and Northwest divisions are the closest to being right geographically, the Northwest being the most based in reality of the four.
A potential flashpoint is that two divisions have eight teams and two have seven, which makes it unfair to the eight-team divisions having to beat out an extra team for the playoffs since now playoff berths are solely based on finishing top four in your division. Currently, you only have to finish in the top eight of your conference (assuming all three division winners fall in that designation) and each conference had fifteen teams. However, the NHL didn't rule out future expansion which would put eight teams in all divisions. I don't really know where else they're going to expand to, especially if Phoenix winds up going to Quebec and screwing up the realignment before it starts.
As much as I like the fact every team gets to play each other in a home-and-home during the regular season now, it comes at the cost of conference rivalries. Now the only true rivalries can exist in divisions, where you'll play around six times against each team, as opposed to twice against every other team. No longer will we get to see teams like Boston, Montreal, Toronto and Buffalo four times a year, and playoff matchups against such teams will be much rarer indeed. Would classic non-division conference matchups like Devils-Leafs in the early 2000's or Devils-Senators in 2003 happen now?
Essentially this format enhances rivalries that already existed for the most part (though now it tries to force some new ones as well), at the cost of others that could be cultivated from playing four times a year and in potential playoff series. Devils-Sabres was a classic first-round series in 1994, Rangers-Sabres was also pretty good a few years back. Heck, when the Isles actually made the playoffs before the lockout they had a barn-burner of a series with the Leafs. The fact that all the NY-NJ teams only get one home-and-home with the Sabres is too bad. Not to mention cutting down the Rangers' matchups with fellow Original Six members Montreal, Boston and Toronto.
Now, as for the actual Battle division...if I've seen one silly notion in the last 24 hours it's that this division is somehow unfair to us, given that 'giants' like Pittsburgh, Washington and the Flyers are in it, leaving one playoff spot to fight for between the Devils, Rangers, Isles and Canes (who actually will fit in this division since they have legit rivalries with us and a couple other teams here). I say that's nonsense, first of all that may be the case this year and next year, but what about five years from now? Five years ago, the Pens and Caps were bottom-feeders even with shiny new rookies Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin.
Plus if you look at every division there are obstacles to overcome. Would it really be any easier to beat out the Sharks, Kings and Canucks for a playoff spot? How about trying to get past Detroit, Chicago and Nashville? Boston, Buffalo and an improving Leafs team won't be a picnic either. Not to mention ours is one of the two divisions that only have seven teams, as opposed to eight. Any Devil or Ranger fan that feels this division is too tough a challenge, well that's just too bad and a defeatist atitude. We have to improve our team to be able to face those top clubs one way or another.
I'm sure Derek will have more to chime in on this subject (particuarly on the politics of why this happened), as it certainly isn't going to make the purists happy.