Bruins & Habs have to be in same division/By S. Bradley

The projected move of the Winnipeg Jets from the Southeast Division to the Western Conference after the 2011-12 season has everyone, especially during this dead part of the hockey summer, formulating their realignment plans for the NHL.

It’s widely known that Detroit, Columbus and Nashville all want to move into the Eastern Conference, which could cause some heated debates should the league opt to just swap one of those clubs with Winnipeg. That’s why many are trying to find a way to placate all three Eastern-Western clubs and get Winnipeg to land in a happy home.

Veteran writer Kevin McGran of The Star in Toronto offers up three alternative alignments for the NHL today.

His first option does away with the divisions and just has two 15-team conferences. While that looks great to me (in all sports, not just hockey), we all know the owners are not giving up the extra cash that comes with winning a “division” and they’re not releasing the false sense of hope mediocre teams in a horrible division get by accumulating loser points and then saying “heck we’re only eight points out of the division lead” even though they might have the 10th or 11th-best record in the conference and have no real chance of making up the ground.

A second option maintains two conferences but includes four divisions, mostly separated along geographic lines. McGran’s plan looks like this:

Great Lakes Division: Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Detroit, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Columbus.

Atlantic Division: Boston, Rangers, Islanders, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Florida, Tampa Bay, Washington.

Midwest Division: Chicago, St. Louis, Nashville, Carolina, Colorado, Dallas, Minnesota, Winnipeg.

Pacific Division: Anaheim, Los Angeles, San Jose, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Phoenix.

And then his third plan, which I consider the most controversial, breaks up the league into four conferences. The conferences would have their own four-team playoff format and the conference winners would be the NHL semifinalists. It doesn’t sound all that radical until you see how the teams would be grouped.

Canadian Conference: Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver.

Eastern Conference: Boston, Rangers, Islanders, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Washington, Carolina.

Midwest Conference: Detroit, Columbus, Chicago, St. Louis, Colorado, Minnesota, Buffalo, Nashville.

Sunshine Conference: Tampa Bay, Florida, Dallas, Anaheim, Phoenix, Los Angeles, San Jose.

Isn’t that great? We’ve gotten to the point where Canada is so worried it won’t have a team in the final four that it creates a system whereby a North-of-the-Border squad is guaranteed a semifinal berth.

But I’m not going to delve into the inherent ridiculousness of that concept. I’m more worried about rivalries, especially some of the longest-running ones in NHL history. Ones that are what hockey is all about.

Both of these second two plans separate the Bruins from their traditional rivals in Toronto and Buffalo. And worst of all, the Bruins aren’t in a division with Montreal. Of course, they’d still play the Canadiens. But not as many times and with not as much on the line. That’s almost as preposterous as the concept of the Bruins offering Steven Stamkos one-sixth of their salary-cap space.

There are other similar problems with these alignments that affect other teams. In one, Buffalo would be in a division separate from all its Eastern rivals and included with all teams that have been considered Western teams for some time. In another, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh are no longer in the same division, a pairing that both teams fought hard for when the league last realigned.

But any new structuring of the NHL that doesn’t keep Montreal and the Bruins in the same division so they can fight to the death for a championship — and do it upwards of six times a season — can’t ever be seriously considered. It’s one of those rivalries that even when one of the teams is having a down year, the players and fans still treat the match-up like a playoff game. It’s a reason to buy a ticket, a reason to circle games on your schedule in July and a source of continent-wide, two-country media attention when the clubs lock horns and inevitably create some sort of controversial or unexpected situation.

Making all 30 teams happy with their league and divisional assignments and then creating a schedule that pleases everyone as well, is an unenviable and near-impossible task. Nonetheless, I can tell you without doubt that no plan that separates Boston and Montreal should have a place in anyone’s thought process.