NHL’s realignment plan not perfect–but flexible and forgiving nonetheless
In December 2011, the NHL proposed a realignment scheme to subdivide the league into four conferences, two of eight teams and two of seven. The scheduling changes proposed were drastic, with the majority of games being in-conference, and each team only seeing out-of-conference opponents twice per season on a home-and-home basis.
While the main motivation for this change of plans was purportedly to cut back on heavy travel and time zone changes for both teams and fans, a secondary motivation seemed pretty evident: being able to push “rivalry” games more heavily throughout the season in American viewing markets (think NBC favorites: Pens-Capitals, Blackhawks-Red Wings).
This plan was born from real needs, despite its flaws. The NHL needed to handle some key issues with this proposal: namely, the fact that the Atlanta Thrashers franchise had moved from Georgia and become the Winnipeg Jets but were still playing in the same division as Florida teams, which made divisional games frankly quite ridiculous for all involved (as they remain to this day).
The first realignment plan moved the Jets to a more appropriate time zone but failed to address the fact that Detroit and Columbus were frequently playing in wildly different time zones despite being on Eastern Time along with, say, the Atlantic Division.
The NHLPA blocked the proposal on the grounds that they hadn’t been involved in the planning process. Since the proposal involved such overwhelming changes to competition and travel, that was understandable. One wonders why they weren’t asked in the first place–ah, but then the NHL and NHLPA were in the beginning stages of a serious labor dispute.
The NHL proposed a new plan this winter that the NHLPA has approved. Both parties worked on the plan and, pending approval from the NHL Board of Governors, the new format will be enacted next fall. It envisions two conferences, Western and Eastern as we have today, but each containing two divisions each. The Eastern conference divisions would have eight teams each and the Western divisions seven, a reversal of the previous proposal.
Under the new schedule matrix proposed, teams will play home-and-home series between each team in the opposite conference and three games each against teams in their conference’s other division. Divisional play in the East sees five games apiece against division opponents but varies in the West since the number of teams in each division is uneven, so four games will be played against some opponents. This allows for much more varied play than the original realignment proposal.
The playoffs are not quite decided yet, but the suggestion seems to be that the top three teams in each division will earn berths, with two teams from each conference making it in as well via a wild card system.
The new Atlantic Division
Includes: New York Rangers, New York Islanders, New Jersey Devils, Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers, Columbus Blue Jackets, Carolina Hurricanes, and Washington Capitals.
Verdict: Not only has the NHL brought the Blue Jackets into play with nearby teams (Columbus is an easy five-hour drive from Pittsburgh), it is getting its money’s worth out of popular “old” Atlantic Division rivalries, including those that Atlantic teams have with the Capitals and the ‘Canes. Consider this the “NBC Sports” division.
The new Northeast Division
Includes: Boston Bruins, Montréal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators, Toronto Maple Leafs, Buffalo Sabres, Detroit Red Wings, Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Lightning.
Verdict: Florida and Tampa Bay are still getting the short end of the stick with travel time, but the NHL might consider it a lesser of two evils. If by taking away backbreaking time zone changes from teams in the current Western Conference they force some long airplane journeys on half of the Eastern Conference, that’s not ideal, but at least every player’s watch will be correct when they step onto the tarmac. A New York Times take on the realignment speculates that this change will stimulate ticket sales and TV ratings for Florida teams since many northerners have relocated to the state and their “hometown teams” heading south more often will be a treat. Whether that’s true or not remains to be seen.
The new Central Division
Includes: Chicago Blackhawks, Minnesota Wild, Dallas Stars, St. Louis Blues, Colorado Avalanche, Nashville Predators, and Winnipeg Jets.
Verdict: Solves the problem with Winnipeg without any fuss at all. Also moves the Avalanche, Wild, and Stars into a more logical spot from a travel perspective. (The Avalanche and Wild are currently part of the Northwest Division, which makes no sense, especially for the Wild.) And the Stars exit the Pacific Division to play nearer teams as well. It does unfortunately separate Detroit from the Blackhawks, but, thinking forward to Wings-Habs games, for example, those could get very nasty–and entertaining–indeed.
The new Pacific Division
Includes: Vancouver Canucks, Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, San Jose Sharks, Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks, and Phoenix Coyotes.
Verdict: While there will still be a few time zone changes here, too, they will be far less taxing on the teams involved. Phoenix could face potential relocation, however, which would potentially ruin the equilibrium of time zones that the NHL has achieved in its new Western Conference.
When looked at altogether. . .
If Phoenix relocates, and if expansion to 32 teams comes around, this plan has enough wiggle room to not make us panic. With potential locations for the Coyotes franchise and expansion teams including Markham, Ontario (outside of Toronto), Quebec City, and Seattle, some shuffling in the future could be tricky, but not disastrous. (Dallas might have to move back to the Pacific Division and Detroit back to the Central, for example, should Phoenix make it to Quebec.)
It’s better than it was before. It’s not perfect, but it’s a start. And with the option to re-evaluate the format after the 2014-15 season, any serious problems that come up should be addressed soon.