Williams: Blue Jackets happy to go East

For the Columbus Blue Jackets marketing team, the NHL’s realignment plan for next season is a dream come true.

The Blue Jackets will be shifting to the league’s Eastern Conference, which means most of their late-night West Coast games will disappear from the schedule. The Detroit Red Wings also are relocating to the Eastern Conference while the Winnipeg Jets (formerly the Atlanta Thrashers) are moving to the Western Conference.

Following Thursday’s 2-1 shootout loss to the Chicago Blackhawks, Blue Jackets forward Brandon Dubinsky said it’s good for his team, citing marketing research that showed few Columbus fans were devoted enough to pay attention to games ending after midnight, no matter how well the team was playing. (Right now, they are playing well, climbing back into the playoff hunt with wins in six of the last eight games.)

The bonus for Columbus fans is there will be more games against the Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers and Washington Capitals. Of course, that means fans of those teams may start making regular pilgrimages to Nationwide Arena.

“There’s going to be some real talent [coming] in this building [more often],” said Dubinsky, referring to Penguins captain Sydney Crosby, the Capitals‘ Alexander Ovechkin and former Blue Jacket Rick Nash (now of the Rangers).

“So I think it will be good for this organization,” Dubinsky said.

If the opposing fans come as expected, Blue Jackets’ ticket sales will receive a healthy boost. Equally important for on-ice success, the players on Columbus and Detroit will make far fewer long road trips.

The realignment plan keeps all 16 NHL teams in the Eastern time zone in the same conference. If there is a downside, it’s that it will be harder to qualify for the playoffs in the East where playoff teams will have to beat out eight teams to contend for the Stanley Cup. Those in the 14-team Western Conference will only need to beat out six teams.

The Blackhawks, the best team in the NHL this season, are losing their long-time division rival Red Wings. But head coach Joel Quenneville understands why.

“Everybody will be in the same time zone so travel will be a little bit lighter,” Quenneville said.

In addition to Winnipeg, Detroit and Columbus, the Dallas Stars will benefit most from the change. Instead of being in a division with West Coast teams, the Stars will be in a new division that includes Chicago, Winnipeg, the St, Louis Blues and the Nashville Predators.

In the NHL’s recent seasons, some teams played non-conference teams just once. That’s changing.

“I like the fact that you’ll get to see everybody once, you’ll be going into every building,” Quenneville said. “Everybody gets to see all the teams around the league so it will be healthier that way.”

Because of the lockout, this year’s NHL season features only conference games. Next year, the Western teams will play 32 games against Eastern opponents. The Eastern teams will have 28 of their 82 games against the other conference.

“We expect to create some rivalries quickly in our division,” said Quenneville of replacing the Red Wings and Blue Jackets.

In the meantime, the Columbus marketing team will be busy creating six-game packages they hope will lure new fans to Nationwide Arena. It will be interesting to see what they create.

Tom Williams is a sportswriter with The Vindicator. Write him at williams@vindy.com.

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