Boston and Montreal are perhaps the NHL's most historic rivals; Mandatory Credit: Steve Babineau, NHLI via Getty Images

Jetting Around: Tackling NHL Realignment

When the 2012 – 2013 National Hockey League schedule was released this past weekend, one of the major concerns was which division the Winnipeg Jets would be (temporarily) deposited into.  Word around the rinks was that they’d switch places with a team like the Columbus Blue Jackets or Nashville Predators for the upcoming season to ease travel.  The league couldn’t possibly force the ‘peg to play four games a week while playing divisional opponents more than 2,000 miles away, right?

The Jets returned to Winnipeg in 2011-12; Mandatory Credit: Lance Thomson, NHLI via Getty Images

With the Atlanta Thrashers relocating to Winnipeg following the 2011 season, relocation became a necessity.  There wouldn’t be enough time for the logistics of realignment and drawing up a new schedule for the 2011-12 season, so it was decided that the franchise would remain in the Eastern Conference for one more season, continuing to compete in the Southeast Division.

Going forward, different theories began to trickle out on the best ways to realign.  Some expected a one-for-one switch between Winnipeg and a Western Conference team, perhaps in the Central Division.  Others envisioned a domino effect, whereby a few teams would be displaced and bump each other over.  While some teams were concerned with geographic and travel concerns, others fought to preserve rivalries.  Dallas wanted into the Central; Detroit wanted to go east; Winnipeg wanted to be grouped with Minnesota.  As Gary Bettman put it, “If you asked 30 clubs you probably would get 30 different solutions.”

What Bettman and the NHL’s Board of Governors came up with was a brand new system, dubbed by many as “Radical Realignment.”  The premise of the plan was a four conference system, two conferences made up of seven teams and two made up of eight.  The conferences shook out as follows:

  • Conference A: Anaheim, Calgary, Colorado, Edmonton, Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Jose, Vancouver
  • Conference B: Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Detroit, Minnesota, Nashville, St. Louis, Winnipeg
  • Conference C: Boston, Buffalo, Florida, Montreal, Ottawa, Tampa Bay, Toronto
  • Conference D: Carolina, New Jersey, NY Islanders, NY Rangers, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Washington

 

Overall, these groupings did a very good job at keeping rivalries intact.  Detroit may have wanted to join a grouping with Toronto so as to reignite their historic rivalry, but doing so likely would have created even more problems, in effect downgrading their rivalries with Chicago and St. Louis, as well as Columbus’ attempt to piggyback off of the University of MichiganOhio State University rivalry in the NCAA ranks.

The Central Division has been one of the league’s best in recent years, so I’d be happy to see those five squads remain together, while welcoming Minnesota and Winnipeg.  Similarly, there was really no way to break up the hostile Northeast or Atlantic Division rivalries.  The solution?  Strip down the remaining Southeast Division teams so that the two Florida squads join those of the old Northeast, and Carolina and Washington join the big boys in the Atlantic.  For Washington, this could really help take grudges with teams like Pittsburgh and the Rangers to new heights, while fans of the Northeast making their retirement homes in the state of Florida would be excited to see their true home teams in person more often.

Of course, this system is not without flaws.  The most obvious flaw is the lack of competitive balance across conferences.  Again, two conferences would consist of seven teams and two conferences would consist of eight.  Quite simply, this puts some teams at a disadvantage before the puck is even dropped.

Does this system foreshadow expansion?  How about contraction (not likely, as this would almost certainly cause the NHLPA to strike)?  For a system that mathematicians don’t need to tell you would work better with either 28 or 32 teams, really the only benefit would be that less shuffling would need to be done should existing teams relocate in the near future.  For example, the Phoenix Coyotes could move to Quebec City and easily maneuver out of the eight team Conference A and settle into an additional spot in seven team Conference C without any of the other teams being displaced.

But would this really be the best business plan for the NHL?  It seems like operating under such pretenses would only continue down the same dark road in this period of unrest.  Though it would likely strengthen the existing franchises to cut off the fat weighing them down (and improve the on-ice competition at the same time), I realize there is no way that contraction will happen.  Intrigued as I am to see hockey return to areas of past glory or to start anew in cities that want (deserve?) to have a team, I see this right now being better solved by relocation than expansion.  Sorry if your city no longer has a team or never had one to begin with, but the “Original 30” is an exclusive club.

Really the biggest reason for the NHL to expand isn’t for realignment, scheduling, or competitive balance.  It’s for money.  Owners who may have lost a few pennies during this lockout may be even more resolved to open up their club to two new members than those who previously opposed it, as long as they make out well in the form of the corresponding expansions fees.

Earlier this week, Bleacher Report attempted to apply the National Football League model to realign a 32 team NHL.  In the NFL-style model, each conference would contain four divisions of four teams.  Unfortunately for their suggested groupings, none were without problems in breaking up key rivalries.  Comparing this again to the NFL, why else would the Dallas Cowboys have remained in the NFC East post-realignment?  Because the NFL was smart enough to realize the immense importance of the franchise’s rivalries within the division, especially with the Washington Redskins.  The NHL would be foolish to split up Boston and Montreal, Montreal and Toronto, Detroit and Chicago, etc.

 

Back to the NHL’s Radical Realignment model, a caveat to the new system that many traditional fans have been calling for since it went away (due to the alignment/playoff format that has been in place since 1992-93), was that teams would have to play their way out of their own division (“conference”) in the playoffs.

What a great nod to the good ol’ days.  As New England Sports Network analyst Jack Edwards put it, “You should play out of your division in the playoffs.  That’s what makes rivalries so bitter.  Why do you think the Bruins hate Montreal?  Is it because of all those regular season games?  No, it’s because of all the hatred built up from all the playoff agony over the years.”

Edwards hit the nail on the head.  I absolutely love this old school aspect of the new proposal.  As this upcoming season’s condensed schedule is sure to demonstrate, familiarity breeds contempt.  While most people seem to be back on the “play-your-way-out” bandwagon right now, it’s important to take a look at why this format was changed in the first place: many fans felt that such familiarity actually made for stale, repetitive match-ups.

Well, Edwards has an answer for this one, too.  In fact, his solution may even help to negate the issue of competitive balance between unbalanced divisions.  In his playoff model, which works off of the NHL’s Radical plan, the four “conferences” divide into pairs of divisions within an Eastern and Western Conference.  Each of the top three teams in each division qualify for the playoffs and are seeded as such, with the fourth seed in each divisional playoff tournament being determined by the next two teams in the conference with the highest point totals.  Should both of these teams come from the same division, the 5th place team in that division would be flipped over to the 4th seed in the other division in their conference, where they would have a chance to play their way out of that division.

Should the NHL elect to work off of the framework of their Radical Realignment proposal, as well as revert to having teams play their way out of their division, I find Edwards’ solution to be rather ingenious.  Fans will still get to see plenty of hated rivals match up with each other in the first two rounds of divisional playoffs, while still having the possibility of a more unique matchup or two when their team slides over to compete in the conference’s other division.  Even when a team’s divisional rival finishes as a 5th seed and is flipped to the other division, there is still the chance the two could meet up in the conference finals, where a rivalry is even further enhanced.

For my money, this is the way the NHL should go.  I don’t necessarily have a problem with the current two conference/six division format, but I do find this to be an improvement.  Furthermore, I’m a big proponent of keeping an unbalanced schedule that is heaviest within division, and heavier in within a team’s own conference than in the other one.  Again, this helps to facilitate rivalries.  It also ensures that teams need to get up for big games within their division/conference, where the impact of two points can be a four point swing.

Tags: Eastern Conference NHL Expansion NHL Realignment Rivalry Western Conference Winnipeg Jets

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