by PuckStopsHere on 12/06/11 at 02:58 PM ET
The NHL’s potential realignment scheme was released yesterday. The NHL is to be realigned into four conferences (which are NOT divisions). Two conferences will have eight teams and two will have seven teams. This scheme is a potential scheme at this point because the NHLPA is yet to sign off on it.
The westernmost conference will consist of the Anaheim Ducks, Calgary Flames, Colorado Avalanche, Edmonton Oilers, Los Angeles Kings, Phoenix Coyotes, San Jose Sharks and Vancouver Canucks. This is an eight team grouping that runs from Canada in the north to Southern California and straddles two time zones - the Pacific and Mountain zones. Likely this conference will lose a team as Phoenix is quite likely to move east when new ownership is announced.
The midwestern/central conference will consist of the Chicago Blackhawks, Columbus Blue Jackets, Dallas Stars, Detroit Red Wings, Minnesota Wild, Nashville Predators, St Louis Blues and Winnipeg Jets. This conference runs from Canada south to Texas and straddles the Central and Eastern time zones.
The northeastern conference consists of the Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres, Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators and Toronto Maple Leafs and for reasons that defy geography the Florida Panthers and the Tampa Bay Lightning. This conference runs from Canada south to Florida and is all in the Eastern time zone.
The atlantic conference consists of the Carolina Hurricanes, New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals. This conference covers the smallest geographic area from Pennsylvania and New York in the north to North Carolina in the south with all teams in the Eastern time zone.
I think the Florida teams are obvious losers here. They are isolated from their nearest rivals. It is a stretch to expect a Buffalo - Tampa Bay rivalry to develop and there is a significant geographical distance between these teams. Carolina is also a loser as they are stuck in a division with the more northern Atlantic teams and broken up from the Florida teams who had become as close to geographic rivals as the Hurricanes had. The former Southeast Division is a loser because the loss of the Atlanta Thrashers has caused it to be split up.
The idea of trying to set conferences to reduce travel is a good idea, but it isn’t possible since more than half of the NHL’s clubs are in the Eastern time zone. Inevitably the western teams will have more travel no matter how divisions or conferences are set. The atlantic/northeastern US teams are in the preferential situation travelwise with the smallest region covered by their conference.
This idea is clearly laid out in the graphic in this Puck Daddy piece. The western conference looks to be almost ten times as big in area as the atlantic conference.
The playoffs in this scheme will have the top four teams in each conference qualifying. Inevitably this means that a team with a far better record in one conference will miss playoffs with a fifth place finish in their conference while a much weaker fourth place team in another conference will make playoffs. This will create controversy. The eight team conferences will be more competitive and it will be harder to qualify for the playoffs than in the seven team conferences.
The first two rounds of the playoffs will be intra-conference. The semi-finals will be the four conference winners. These teams will be seeded based upon their regular season records. This could make one semi-final playoff series very close geographically while the other requires much more travel. For example the semi-finals could be Vancouver against Boston and Detroit against Pittsburgh. One can drive between Pittsburgh and Detroit in less time than one can fly between Vancouver and Boston. The geographically close semi-final winner will be more rested and less travelled than their opponent. The Stanley Cup may be decided based upon the travel situation in the semi-finals.
Realignment is a process where all teams in the league have demands and most of the demands are not possible to be accommodated. There are too many eastern time zone teams so some of the eastern teams will be in western conferences. There are not enough western teams, so there will always be extra travel required for the western teams. In the end, this scheme is probably not much worse than the current one, although there are new questions about the integrity of the playoffs introduced. The most alarming thing is that this scheme clearly opens up the possibility of two expansion teams being added to the league. At this point that is a bad idea. The NHL does not have 30 financially viable markets now. If it were up to me, I would keep the current six division format and move Nashville into the southeast with Winnipeg coming to the central. A Phoenix move might require another reassessment of things. I think that would be better because it doesn’t bring up the questions of playoff integrity.
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