SAN JOSE -- Even before the first puck drops Tuesday night, 2013-14 is already a season of big-time change in the NHL.

The Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets no longer are in the Western Conference, but the Winnipeg Jets are. There are four divisions, not six, and while the Sharks are still in the Pacific, three Canadian teams -- the Vancouver Canucks, Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames -- have moved into San Jose's division, and the Dallas Stars have moved out.

And for the first time since 1997-98, each franchise will play home and away games against every team in the other conference. That means annual visits to the SAP Center by the likes of the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins.

All of that translates into travel that has the Sharks flying more miles -- 57,612, according to ontheforecheck.com -- than any other NHL team.

Still, nobody in San Jose is complaining, at least publicly.

"It's the right thing to do for the fans," general manager Doug Wilson said of the increased Eastern Conference mileage.

"We'd always be in the top five of most miles traveled anyway," Sharks captain Joe Thornton said. "We deal with it, we're fine with it."

Realignment also means a new Stanley Cup playoff format. No longer will teams be seeded based on point totals among conference teams. Instead, the teams that finish in the top three spots in each division advance to the postseason, where they are joined by two wild-card teams from each conference.


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In each conference, the division winner with the most points will face the wild-card team with the fewest. That allows for the possibility, for example, of the Sharks meeting a team from outside the Pacific in the first round. But overall, the system is designed to pit division foes against each other.

"That," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said, "is where the true rivalries will come out. Ours with Vancouver evolved over two playoff series. It hasn't really evolved over the regular season."

At the same time, at least one longtime rivalry is given short shrift by all the changes. The Sharks have met the Detroit Red Wings in the postseason five times, more than any other foe. The only way they will meet in the new system is in the Stanley Cup finals.

While teams in the West log thousands of miles more than those in the East, they do have better odds of making the playoffs, as both Western divisions have seven teams each while the two in the East have eight.

All of which combines to create an unbalanced schedule as far as conference and divisional play. Within the Pacific, for example, the Sharks face the Los Angeles Kings five times, one more than the Canucks.

Is that going to lead to some teams claiming they had a tougher task than others?

"I think it all evens out in the end game," Sharks forward Tommy Wingels said. "Our sport is a little different. As you see in playoff series, there's parity from the top of the league to the bottom of the league. At the end of the year, you have five or six teams battling for a couple playoff spots and every team is really in it throughout the year.

Realignment has been in the works since the Atlanta Thrashers became the Winnipeg Jets in June 2011 because it made no sense for a Manitoba-based team to compete in the same division as those in the Southeast United States.

But it was too late to do anything that season and initial plans for 2012-13 became entangled in the labor strife between the league and its players.

The new arrangement isn't perfect geographically. Two Florida teams are grouped with Montreal and Toronto rather than nearby Carolina. Detroit is in the Atlantic Division.

But the changes did accomplish the one thing the owners wanted: No division game is more than one time zone away.

That goal, according to one former NHL governor, has less to do with hours spent on the charter jet than getting games into prime-time TV slots that deliver higher ratings and increased revenue, regular season and playoffs.

Whatever ulterior motives there may have been, Sharks defenseman Dan Boyle views the chance for fans to see every team, every superstar, every season as the overriding reason that the changes are good ones.

"The fans are, first and foremost, the ones we have to please," Boyle said. "They're the ones that pay to see us play."

For more on the Sharks, see David Pollak's Working the Corners blog at blogs.mercurynews.com/sharks. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/PollakOnSharks.

INSIDE

Sharks finalize roster; new rules, realignment at a glance. PAGE 4