Last month, I tackled NHL realignment by looking into the NHL Board of Governors’ previous proposal and offered up some alternate solutions. CBC’s Elliotte Friedman first leaked information over the past weekend of a supposed update to last year’s four-conference proposal. The NHL has since come out and clarified that the new proposal would, in fact, retain two conferences, albeit with two divisions in each. Though some details have yet to be revealed, and both the Board of Governors and the NHL Players’ Association have yet to ratify the agreement, today we’ll take a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly of this potential shakeup.
Without further adieu, here is the latest two-conference, four-division proposal:
- Atlantic: Carolina, Columbus, New Jersey, NY Islanders, NY Rangers, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Washington
- Central: Boston, Buffalo, Detroit, Florida, Montreal, Ottawa, Tampa Bay, Toronto
- Midwest: Chicago, Colorado, Dallas, Minnesota, Nashville, St. Louis, Winnipeg
- Pacific: Anaheim, Calgary, Edmonton, Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Jose, Vancouver
The regular season scheduling will still be weighted heavier within a team’s own conference and heaviest within its own division. However, each team will play every other team in the league both home and away each season.
The playoff format will revert from an 8-seed conference tournament to two initial rounds of divisional play. This means that the first round of the divisional playoffs will be 1 vs. 4 and 2 vs. 3 within the division; both winners meet in the second round; division winners meet in the conference finals; conference champions meet for the Stanley Cup.
The one wrinkle to the divisional playoff seeding is a reported “wild card.” The top three teams in each division at the conclusion of the regular season will automatically qualify for the playoffs. The final seed in each division will be made up of the next-best two teams in the conference, regardless of which division.
This means that within the same conference, five teams could qualify from one division and just three from another. The division winner with the highest point total would then take on the wild card team with the lowest point total. How does this proposal shake out?
Perhaps the most important part of any realignment is maintaining rivalries. This proposal does an excellent job at maintaining the historic and ongoing rivalries in the current-day Northeast and Atlantic Divisions. By flipping Detroit into the Eastern Conference, the Red Wings can ostensibly resume their suspended rivalry with the Toronto Maple Leafs. By placing teams like the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals into the same division, these two teams can really take their present-day rivalry to new heights.
Realignment became necessary when the Atlanta Thrashers relocated to become the second incarnation of the Winnipeg Jets. The Jets needed to find a home in a Western Conference division, and the move was likely to shake up a conference with many geographic concerns to begin with. The proposed Midwest and Pacific Divisions probably do the best job and creating a geographic alignment that is most true to travelling within the same time zone. The one exception to this is in Colorado, where the Avalanche find themselves on Mountain Time, rather than Central. For Winnipeg, they’re now able to develop the rivalry that everyone has hoped to incite with the Minnesota Wild, their closest neighbors.
In terms of scheduling, I view it as a positive that teams will still play a schedule tilted towards more meetings with both divisional and conference opponents, slightly upgraded in that sense from the outline of last year’s proposal. For organizations that have a tough time drawing fans, seeing every team in their barn every year can only help put people in the seats to get a look at the top team/player attractions the league has to offer.
What I like most about this proposal is the playoff format, one which happens to be the Jack Edwards design that I endorsed in my previous column. The old school aspect of “play-your-way-out” of your division coupled with a wild card formula that would help to resolve competitive imbalance is spot on.
Familiarity breeds contempt. If there is such a thing as too much familiarity, to the extent where repeated early round playoff opponents begin to grow stale, the wild card will serve as a combatant. As I wrote before, “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.”
As admirable a job as the NHL did at preserving many of their existing rivalries, there were a few casualties. Most notably, the Original 6 feud between Detroit and the Chicago Blackhawks will be severely leveled. More recently, the current Central Division has also seen antagonism between Detroit and the St. Louis Blues, not to mention one of the preeminent budding rivalries in the league right now between Detroit and the Nashville Predators.
Speaking of Nashville, they may not be happy about remaining in the Western Conference. Under this proposed realignment, the Predators find themselves as the eastern most team in the West. Had the NHL elected to go with the least radical form of realignment based on their current structure, the most logical one-for-one switch would’ve been placing Winnipeg in the Central Division and swapping Nashville into the Southeast. The state of Tennessee is split between the Eastern and Central Time Zones (though Nashville is in the Central), and the area’s proximity to teams in the current Southeast Division meant that the exchange could have been a feast for the Preds.
Looking at the league’s two southernmost teams, what do the Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers think about being grouped with Detroit and the present-day Northeast Division? Aside from pairing the state of Florida squads together, the two were hard to group elsewhere. Still, it makes more sense for the alignment of the rest of the league to slot the Florida teams in the new Central Division, while those arenas benefit from enhanced attendance as fans from Northeast cities often vacation and retire in the Sunshine State. Still, players on these two squads might as well take up second residencies up north.
The new scheduling also means that there are fewer interdivisional rivalry matchups between teams like Chicago—Vancouver and (the NBC-led) Boston—New York Rangers. Rivals like Detroit and Colorado will only play each other twice a year, and wouldn’t meet in another classic playoff series until the Stanley Cup Finals (which might actually be the only way to elevate their playoff rivalry from the past two decades).
Of course, the ugliest part of this proposal is still the unbalanced divisions/conferences. Thirty does not divide by four, but it does divide by two. Having both of the overloaded eight-team divisions appear in the Eastern Conference could be enough for the NHLPA to nix this proposition.
Furthermore, instability still remains amongst several of the league’s franchises. Additional realignment might not be necessary if, say, Phoenix relocates to Seattle, but suddenly it appears less of a foregone conclusion that the NHL is interested in a return to Quebec City or fielding another squad in (Greater) Toronto. If this competitive imbalance is just a prelude to expansion, a new team in Seattle could easily be placed in the Pacific Division and Kansas City or Wisconsin in the Midwest. Still, that’s bad news for cities falling east of the divide.
For fans of Western cities who are annoyed with the media’s East Coast bias, prepare to be further alienated. The Winged Wheel of Detroit, perhaps the current Western Conference’s biggest television and attendance draw, are taking their fanfare to the East.
On the other side of the coin, the Atlantic Division contains a cluster of several major media market teams. Sure, today’s Atlantic Division is pretty similar, but the current playoff format allows for more of these teams to qualify for (and go deeper in) the postseason. In the proposed Central Division, television networks find four of the Original 6 squads in a similar cluster.
The ugliest thing about the Eastern Conference division opposite the Atlantic is its name, the Central Division. Though the names in this proposal are not final, it would feel odd that Boston, the NHL’s easternmost city, would be competing in the Central. Adding the two Florida teams to Detroit and the Northeast Division may prove to be prohibitive for retaining the Northeast name, but I do feel they can do better. Maybe a return to the Adams, Norris, Patrick, and Smythe Division names is in the cards? An idea has even surfaced that the NHL could look to earn revenue through sponsored divisions. Would it serve the league well to line their pockets while teams battle their way out of the Bridgestone Division?
There may not be any way to realign the NHL that will satisfy all thirty teams. The proposal you see above represents the best thing for appeasing the most teams. It won’t last forever and it stands to reason that it could even be tweaked before it is implemented. For my money, the alignment looks good and the playoff structure looks great. Ratify this proposal and let’s draw up a schedule for the 2013-14 season.