New alignment plan will have pros, cons for Florida Panthers

The Panthers’ foes in a new division should boost attendance, but the Cats also will face lengthier travel.

03/16/2013 12:00 AM

03/16/2014 9:49 PM

So how did the Panthers fare in the NHL’s new alignment, one in which Florida and Tampa Bay leave the sunny south and count the likes of Buffalo, Boston, Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa and Detroit as divisional rivals?

Depends on whom you ask.

The business side of the organization loves the new format, with six of the seven other teams coming from “snowbird’’ areas in the northeast, Michigan and Canada. The other team in the new and as-yet-unnamed division is a short drive away.

That means a full building many nights as fans of Original Six teams Toronto, Boston, Montreal and Detroit make their way to Sunrise. The Panthers should also get a boost in television coverage with so many games against high-interest opponents.

“Not only will we maintain and grow our in-state rivalry with the Lightning, but we will also be able to cultivate rivalries with some of the NHL’s most historic clubs,’’ Panthers president Michael Yormark said in a statement.

The hockey side of things, however, isn’t as thrilled with the change.

The Panthers are currently in the Southeast Division with the closest road game — aside from Tampa — being a quick flight to Carolina or Washington.

Now, as coach Kevin Dineen said, the Panthers are going to be “flying over” NHL cities such as Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and New York to get to new divisional destinations.

The added games against Canadian teams is also going to add to Florida’s travel times as trips through customs can be a lengthy process both coming and going. If the NHL factors this into consideration and consolidates as many trips north as possible, it should be only a slight problem.

But if the league doesn’t do that, the Panthers and Lightning could find themselves traveling more and spending substantially more money in airfare.

Because of their geographic location, the Panthers and Lightning already travel more than any other teams in the Eastern Conference.

The new format — one that makes no geographical sense — could make things even worse. Outside of Tampa, Florida’s closest new divisional rival resides in Buffalo, N.Y.

“It’s going to be expensive and it’s going to be time-consuming,” general manager Dale Tallon said. “Those road trips to and from Canada are going to be rough on Tampa and ourselves. But it’s probably best for hockey overall.’’

Commissioner Gary Bettman said Thursday the league is going to keep the Panthers and Lightning in mind when the schedule is worked out.

“From a business standpoint, I think this is probably really good for both Florida teams,” Bettman said. “Travel-wise they may have issues. But based on where it is from the geographic standpoint, it wasn’t going be perfect. ... We’re going to try and do the best possible job of focusing on the travel needs of the two Florida clubs and the teams in their division and their travel to and from Florida.’’

This current alignment will be in place for the following three seasons with the league and its players’ association re-examining things after that.

Even though Bettman said there are no plans for relocation or expansion, both are expected. With the probability of expansion teams coming to Quebec and the Toronto area, the divisions may have to be redrawn anyway as there are 16 teams in the east and 14 in the west.

“The travel is more, but hey, we get four of the Original Six teams in our division,” Tallon said. “This should be good for hockey fans in South Florida.”

Jovo’s status

Although Kris Versteeg is done for the season after hurting his right knee in Tuesday’s 3-2 loss to the Lightning, defenseman Ed Jovanovski could be back in the lineup soon.

Jovanovski traveled to Boston and worked out Thursday morning. Jovanovski said that if he feels good on Friday, he may play Saturday against the Islanders. Jovanovski has been out since Jan. 29 with a lower-body ailment.

“I feel all right, feeling better,’’ Jovanovski said. “It’s nice to be back in a team setting, get on the road and get a skate in. We’ll see what happens for Saturday. I’m cautious. It’s one of those things where I see where I’m at in the morning after a skate. There’s been a lot of down days.”

• The Panthers will hold their morning skate Saturday at the Iceplex in Coral Springs. The practice is scheduled to start at 10:15 a.m. and is free and open to the public.

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