“But you promised!” Mike Ilitch says Gary Bettman promised him Detroit would move East

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The NHL is going to be jumping into realignment next season in one form or another. Three teams want to move to the Eastern Conference from the West because the travel is a righteous pain in the rear-end and, let’s face it, having teams like Detroit, Columbus, and Nashville in the Western Conference makes as much geographic sense as having Winnipeg in the Southeast Division.

Detroit owner Mike Ilitch apparently has the inside line on what’s happening with the Red Wings in the realignment puzzle because he knows people, mainly NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. He believes the Red Wings are moving to the Eastern Conference no matter what next season. How is he so sure? Ilitch told Bob Wojnowski of The Detroit News in a Q&A session why he knows what’s up.

Q . OK, once and for all, are you gonna get the Wings out of the Western Conference or not?

A . The commissioner (Gary Bettman) promised me I was next. We even had a meeting over lunch this past season, and he had all his people here, and he goes, ‘Yeah, I promised Mike he’d be the next one to go in the Eastern Conference.’ So I expect to be in next year. Jimmy D (Devellano) is on the phone every other week reminding them.

To call this a game changer would be a massive understatement. With Detroit in the Eastern Conference, old rivalries with original six teams like Boston, Montreal, New York, and Toronto are back on in a big way. Throw in a regional foe like Buffalo and put the Wings in battles more often with the likes of Philadelphia, Washington, and Pittsburgh and the Eastern Conference becomes a nightly must-see war zone.

Moving Detroit out of the West does have one downside though as the Red Wings rivalry with Chicago that was reignited the last few seasons now gets kicked in the teeth. There is one saving grace to that situation, however, and it’s one that makes an conference changing easier to stomach: The rumored return of the balanced schedule. Fox Sports Tennessee’s John Manasso dug in about that topic with Predators GM David Poile.

However, there is a way of possibly making all three happy and it seems to be gaining currency. Predators general manager David Poile said as much on Thursday.

“We’re happy with where we are,” he said. “We’re open-minded to working with everybody in the league to do what’s best for the league. We’re always conscious, being a Western team, that there could be, in our minds, a more balanced schedule. Regardless of whether we stay or move, there could be a more balanced schedule. That’s an aspect I’m pretty sure you’d hear that from other 14 teams in our conference.”

Spreading out the travel burden to make those eastern-located teams that may get stuck in the Western Conference helps make it easier to stomach. It also can help to save that Chicago rivalry with Detroit by guaranteeing two games between the teams each year with one in each city.

If it’s true that Detroit comes to the East, however, how does that affect Columbus? The Blue Jackets also desperately want to move to the East and, let’s face it, they could use the assistance in trying to improve their shot at getting back to the postseason. Are they left out in the cold now or will the NHL have a realignment model in place that gets both teams into the East? It’s all part of the puzzle that waits to be figured out. A decision on how to realign will likely come by the end of December when the NHL Board of Governors meets to get the ball rolling for how things will go next season.

Ristolainen suspended three games for hit that concussed Guentzel

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Buffalo defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen has been suspended three games for interfering with Pens forward Jake Guentzel, the NHL’s Department of Player Safety announced on Thursday.

Ristolainen was given a five-minute interference major and game misconduct for the hit in Tuesday night’s tilt, which left Guentzel bloodied and, as we later learned, with a concussion.

Pittsburgh head coach Mike Sullivan confirmed the diagnosis in his postgame presser.

Ristolainen, 22, didn’t have any prior history with the DoPS, which has yet to release a video explanation for the punishment. It could be argued that Guentzel was in a prone position, and that Ristolainen took advantage of it.

“I thought it was bad,” Penguins forward Chris Kunitz said of the hit, per the Buffalo News. “The puck doesn’t get to him. He’s looking to get the puck to get into the play, and the guy holds up a second and then he still goes through him.”

As a result of today’s announcement, Ristolainen will now sit out Buffalo’s game on Saturday against Toronto, Mar. 27 against Florida and Mar. 28 against Columbus. He’ll be eligible to return on Sunday, Apr. 2, when the Sabres take on the Isles.

Ristolainen will also forfeit $90,000 in salary to the Players’ Emergency Assistance Fund.

Pre-game reading: Does the NHL’s playoff format need fixing?

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— Up top, Brian Boucher and Mike Milbury have their say on NHL participation in the Olympics, something Gary Bettman continues to put into doubt.

— At least fans can still be certain there will be playoff hockey. That being said, does the NHL’s format need fixing? Because as it stands right now, at least one of Washington, Pittsburgh, or Columbus is guaranteed to be gone after the first round, and only one of those three can survive past the second round. The Capitals, Penguins, and Blue Jackets are first, second, and third in the overall standings, respectively. Hence, the debate. (The Washington Post)

— The Caps take on the Blue Jackets tonight in D.C., and Barry Trotz is looking forward to the fight for playoff positioning. The Caps, you’ll recall, coasted to first place in the Metro Division last season. But they can’t afford to coast now. “Having gone both routes now, I prefer this,” Trotz said. “Because it’s more meaningful. … It was in our hands too early last year, and I think it took a little edge off. You get too comfortable for too long, you get too soft.” (Washington Post)

— Don’t expect the NBA’s controversial practice of resting star players to become a common problem for the NHL. Said Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty: “I just think hockey’s a different kind of animal where I don’t think guys would want to do it. Guys are stubborn enough to probably fight it if they were asked and that’s how I would see that going down.” (Canadian Press)

— Why Dave Hakstol won’t be fired, by Flyers beat reporter Dave Isaac, who writes: “It took multiple pleas to woo Hakstol from a much more comfortable college job at the University of North Dakota. To fire Hakstol this early would be an admission from Hextall that this part of his grand plan — hiring the coach that he thought would grow with the roster — was wrong.” (Courier-Post)

William Nylander may sometimes get overshadowed in Toronto by fellow Maple Leafs rookies Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. But with 20 goals in 70 games, what Nylander has done is still very impressive. (The Hockey News)

Enjoy the games!

Bowling Green goalie Nell leaves school, signs with Rangers

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The Blueshirts added to their goaltending depth on Thursday, signing Bowling Green junior Chris Nell to an entry-level contract.

Nell, 22, just wrapped his junior campaign at Bowling Green, going 17-14-2 with a 2.15 GAA and .916 save percentage. This year, he became the school’s all-time leader in career shutouts, this after a terrific sophomore campaign in which he finished with a sparking 1.31 GAA and .930 save percentage.

An undrafted free agent, Nell now joins an organization with several young netminders in the mix. Mackenzie Skapski, a 2013 draftee, made his NHL debut two years ago but has struggled this season, splitting time between AHL Hartford and ECHL Greenville. Brandon Halverson, a second-rounder in ’14, has also split time between Hartford and Greenville, and was recently recalled to New York on an emergency basis.

New York has also drafted Russian netminder Igor Shesterkin (fourth round, ’14), Slovak Adam Huska (seventh round, ’15) and UMass-Lowell product Tyler Wall (sixth round, ’16).

 

On verge of missing playoffs, Red Wings aim to keep winning culture

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The Detroit Red Wings have no intention of tearing their roster down and undertaking a painful rebuild, a la the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Why not, you ask?

Because even though the Wings are going to miss the playoffs for the first time since 1990, and even though their leading scorer (Henrik Zetterberg) is 36 years old, they don’t want to lose the culture that made them so successful over the past quarter century.

“There are organizations where they have lost culture,” said head coach Jeff Blashill, per the Detroit Free Press. “They have missed the playoffs, and they miss it 10 straight years. We don’t want to be in this position again. This isn’t OK. That is the approach we are taking every day.”

We have heard other teams say similar things. For example, the Vancouver Canucks. (Which won’t make Wings fans feel great to hear.)

While there’s nothing wrong with trying to maintain a winning culture, the biggest challenge the Wings have is a lack of talent — particularly on the back end.

That’s up to GM Ken Holland to solve, and solve relatively quickly, given his lack of appetite for a lengthy rebuild.

“We’re going to continue to try and be competitive, we’re going to continue to try and make the playoffs and our ultimate goal is to eventually be a Cup contender,” Holland said a few months ago.

“To me, rebuild means eight to 10 years, and there are teams that have made the playoffs one year in 10 while rebuilding.”

Related: It’s going to be a very different draft for the Red Wings