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Realignment

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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Comments

42jeff's avatar

The Stanley Cup may be decided based upon the travel situation in the semi-finals.

How is this any different than the way it is now?

Posted by 42jeff from The greater Howard City, MI metroplex on 12/06/11 at 04:10 PM ET

scottytooshotty's avatar

Jeff, you took the words right out of my mouth.

Posted by scottytooshotty on 12/06/11 at 04:22 PM ET

Russian Rocket's avatar

The NHL is to be realigned into four conferences (which are NOT divisions).  Two divisions will have eight teams and two will have seven teams.

C’mon man.

Posted by Russian Rocket on 12/06/11 at 04:45 PM ET

PuckStopsHere's avatar

The distance between semifinalists can increase under this scheme.  An Atlantic coast team can meet a Pacific coast team in a semi-final.  That big a distance between semi-final opponents is not possible now.

Though the NHL is careful to call the team groupings conferences, they seem more like divisions in my mind.  I am not certain that I will hold to the NHL naming scheme in the future, though I did edit that inconsistency.

Posted by PuckStopsHere on 12/06/11 at 05:16 PM ET

mrfluffy's avatar

The distance between semifinalists can increase under this scheme.  An Atlantic coast team can meet a Pacific coast team in a semi-final.  That big a distance between semi-final opponents is not possible now.

How is this any different than what Detroit has done for at least the last decade? You’re nitpicking at best, grasping straws at worst.

Posted by mrfluffy from A wide spot on I-90 in Montana on 12/06/11 at 05:57 PM ET

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Yes the distance between semifinalists can increase, but the distance between 1st and 2nd round opponents should definitely decrease.  Vancouver last year had over 5600 miles between them and the 3 teams they beat to get to the Finals.  Boston didn’t even have 2000 miles and never left their time zone.  That’s generally the norm in the current East/West setup and not even remotely fair.  The disparity in travel in the playoffs should decrease overall in the new setup even though some teams will have to travel more, but I see that as a good thing.

Posted by Valek from Chicago on 12/06/11 at 06:12 PM ET

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I think the draw is in start times, not travel.  Colorado and Vancouver are going to have long distances no matter what, but Detroit is going to lose the 10:30 local start times.  That was another reason why the potential north-south divisions never had a chance; it would suck as a montreal fan when your team went to vancouver and vice versa.

Posted by Gstpulldn from Denvere on 12/06/11 at 06:41 PM ET

PuckStopsHere's avatar

How is this any different than what Detroit has done for at least the last decade?

The potential semifinal distances are bigger than Detroit has ever faced.  The west coast teams are the ones that have the biggest problem.  They will travel even further in semi-final series than in the past.  They can travel to the Atlantic coast for the semifinals now.

It is the western teams who most suffer due to travel.  They travel the largest distance in a season.  The eastern West Conference teams benefit during the regular season because they play more games against the travel weary western teams.  This is a regular season effect that has been beneficial to Detroit.

Here is something I once wrote that studies the issue.  Playoffs are a different story - western teams (by this I mean California, Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver)  have historically outperformed the eastern ones in playoff time when travel becomes more equal between a team and their opponent, but this goes the wrong way.  It increases travel for a western team in the playoffs before it makes the Stanley Cup finals.  For example a team like Vancouver could have had to go through Los Angeles, San Jose and Boston to make the finals.  A team like Detroit has it easier as they could go through Nashville, Chicago and Pittsburgh.  An Atlantic team like the NY Rangers has it best given how small their division is.

Posted by PuckStopsHere on 12/06/11 at 06:44 PM ET

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“A team like Detroit has it easier as they could go through Nashville, Chicago and Pittsburgh.”

But the old system was no better necessarily for the West look at last year Detroit had to play Phoenix, San Jose and theoretically Vancouver…

I like the ideal of making the a the East teams face a grueling cross country travel series before the final.

Posted by paulklos on 12/06/11 at 07:09 PM ET

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“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.”

You mean like the last couple of years where the better western conference had on or more teams that had a better records than several of the weaker east conference playoff slate bottom half?

Posted by paulklos on 12/06/11 at 07:16 PM ET

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paulklos: just a higher chance of that, now, with four separate playoff races instead of two. Probably can pencil in the “Atlantic” or “Patrick” as having at least one, since NYR/PIT/PHI/NJD/WSH is quite the crew.

Posted by Ralph on 12/06/11 at 09:04 PM ET

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Puck, you are taking wrong conclusions from long-term aggregate data. Today all teams travel with private planes. Extra 500 miles is less of a problem compared to extra time-zone change. So, not having to visit Detroit or Nashville during playoffs would help West Coast teams a lot. I’m not saying that Atlantic conference doesn’t have advantage over West Coast conference when it comes to travel. I’m saying that that advantage is mush less than when West Coast teams had to play Detroit, Chicago, Nashville and others, even though their miles traveled might not be much less.

Posted by Davor on 12/07/11 at 05:29 AM ET

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Hey, Brendan Morrison is back and he has 3g, 5pts in 3 games since his return.  So much for your 8 game sample size.  3 games is where it is at.

Posted by HockeyAnalysis on 12/07/11 at 02:07 PM ET

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imageThe Puck Stops Here was founded during the 2004/05 lockout as a place to rant about hockey. The original site contains over 1000 posts, some of which were also published on FoxSports.com.

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