I’m very excited about the realignment of the NHL. Let me tell you what has changed, and then I’ll tell you why I think this is going to be good for everyone.
Currently, the NHL is divided up into two conferences of 15 teams each; each conference has three divisions with 5 teams each. Each team plays more games against teams in its own division than against teams outside of the division but in the same conference, and teams in the same conference more than teams in the other conference.
During the regular season, this isn’t so bad – some new rivalries have sprung up that wouldn’t have otherwise if certain teams weren’t suddenly playing each other more often. On the other hand, there are all kinds of issues with travel and time zones. For example, because Atlanta moved to Winnipeg, but are still in the Southeast division of the Eastern Conference, they’re constantly traveling to play east coast teams (and east coast teams are constantly traveling to them). Even worse off are teams like Detroit, who play in the Western Conference but are in the Eastern time zone – this has a dramatic impact on their fans because, since most of their away games are against Western Conference teams, and most Western teams are in Mountain or Pacific time, a good portion of their games start at 10:30 local time. So what ends up happening? Kids can’t watch because they’re in bed, and adults can’t watch because they need to get up in the morning. The same is true in the opposite direction – when the LA Kings are visiting teams like Detroit, game time is 4:30 (or 5:00 in some cases). Fans can’t watch these games either because, well, what time does the average person in LA get home on a weekday? Of course this isn’t completely avoidable unless there are teams you don’t play at all – but the *majority* of your games should be in your own time zone or no more than one time zone away. And finally, there are some match-ups that won’t happen at all. For example, Boston does not play in Vancouver this year, and several other cities won’t see the Stanley Cup Champions either.
To put it visually, here is a map showing the wackiness that is the conference / division geography as it stands today (click for larger):
There are seven teams in the Western Conference that lie east of Winnipeg, which is in the Eastern Conference! I wonder if their fans feel more or less slighted than Detroit about their time zone issues and game start times. At least the commute in Winnipeg is nowhere near as suicidal as it is in SoCal!
Come playoff time, at least since the current conference seeding was established in 1994, each division leader automatically makes the playoffs, then the next best 5 teams in the conference. This means that an entire division could, theoretically, send all 5 of its teams to the playoffs, while the two other divisions in that conference send only three representatives in total (two division leaders and then one other). Similar things have happened in the NFL wildcard in recent years, and it’s a shame to see, let’s say, an 11-5 team in a hard division not make the playoffs, only because, let’s say, an 8-8 team won their crappy division. In the NHL this has meant that instead of the old days, where the Bruins and Canadiens typically meet in the early rounds, the Bruins have played teams like Carolina and Washington. Still good teams, no doubt, but in a lot of cases it makes for less spirited playoffs. At least from this fan’s perspective.
A Realigned NHL
It only took about an hour for the Board of Governors to approve the new conference alignment, and once you dig into it, it is quite clear why there were few, if any, objections. There are now four conferences with either 7 or 8 teams each. Teams will play a large portion of their games against those other 6 or 7 teams. And, like today, they will play fewer games against teams outside of their conference. It is yet to be established whether “out of conference” will apply equally to the other three conferences, or whether they will be split into two western and two eastern conferences.
Geography alone makes this a much more sensible layout. While teams will still travel well out of their time zone at various points in the year, they are aiming for only once in each team’s city in the other conference, and I think twice in each team’s city in the same conference (but outside the division). It’s late here and I don’t have my textbook full of schedule builders’ algorithms, but I’m hoping it will still make sense in an 82- or maybe 84-game season. The fact that every team will play in every other team’s building at least once means more exposure of more superstars to each team’s fan base – this can’t be a bad thing.
Compared to the bizarre geographical layout depicted above, here is what the new breakdown looks like (click for larger):
For the playoffs, the top four teams from each conference will make it. The chance still exists, of course, that a mediocre team in a crappy conference could make the playoffs, while an excellent team in a much more challenging conference does not. But since there are more teams fighting for each set of four spots, it isn’t as likely that an entire conference will be made up of complacent teams. And to be honest, I really don’t see a weak conference here.
I think this is more fair overall – both to the teams in terms of travel time, and to the fans in terms of time zones and game starts. Though some teams are going to find their new division alignment quite challenging – I wonder how hard it will be for the Islanders and Devils to make it out of Conference D, never mind the Leafs in Conference C. I guess we’ll see next season.
What happens after the second round, when each of the four conferences has a champion, is another thing that remains to be seen. I have to think that, based on travel alone, they would lean toward pairing conference A & B together, and C & D together. That late into the playoffs it’s going to be impossible to avoid the time zone problems in at least one of the series.
On the Lighter Side
I really hope they go back to naming the divisions/conferences something meaningful. Atlantic and Southeast are boring even when they are accurate, but they made absolutely no sense when they weren’t. I really miss the Adams, Patrick, Smythe, and Norris divisions, and the Clarence Campbell and Prince of Wales conferences, because they meant something other than finger-pointing on a map. Granted, Wikipedia and others report that conference/division naming based on geography is better for dumb people, and the league is in fact moving back toward regional alignment (the earlier eastern/western division names were removed because they were no longer aligned regionally). That aside, here’s what I suggest:
Anaheim, Calgary, Colorado, Edmonton, LA, Phoenix, San Jose, Vancouver
Let’s call this the Gretzky Division. Why? Because most of The Great One’s legendary career was spent here.
Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Detroit, Minnesota, Nashville, St. Louis, Winnipeg
I’m going with the Howe Division here, though Bobby Hull gets a seriously honorable mention.
Boston, Buffalo, Florida, Montreal, Ottawa, Tampa Bay, Toronto
This one is easy: the Orr Division. The sentimental part of me wants to nominate the late Tim Horton, and certainly not because I like that chain’s coffee.
Carolina, New Jersey, both New York teams, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Washington
Here I’ll have to say it is the Clarke Division. I would go with Lemieux (Mario, not Claude) but I still don’t the NHL is too fond of him for his draft day stunt.
And Even Lighter
The balancing of the conferences leaves me wondering… with only 7 teams in each of the east coast conferences, could there be a strategy to leave room for returning franchises? I would love to see a return of both the Quebec Nordiques and the Hartford Whalers.
Winnipeg is certainly making a good case that hockey has recovered enough to once again support these teams even in small markets. Especially in cities that are missing their former and only major league team across all sports. Even though my heart is with the Bruins, I would love to wear a Mike Liut, Ron Francis or Peter Stastny jersey again.
It’s clear that I see all positives here. But what do you think about the realignment? Would love to hear your thoughts, who your team is, and where you are located.