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The Brave New World of NHL Realignment.

Just when I think I’ve got the mindset of the NHL Board of Governors figured out regarding a quick decision on a bold proposal for changing their product, they surprise me.

I anticipated the proposed plan to change the league’s current divisional format from six divisions into four conferences would meet with foot-dragging among the Governors, who tend to be conservative toward radical change.

In fact, on Monday afternoon, I’d written the first draft for this post anticipating the potential problems in convincing the BoG to accept that plan, believing they would instead take the path of least resistance: relocating the Winnipeg Jets from the Southeast to the Central Division, shuffling either the Detroit Red Wings or Columbus Blue Jackets into the Eastern Conference, and if it were the Wings, dropping either the Philadelphia Flyers or Pittsburgh Penguins into the Southeast Division to accommodate Detroit in the Atlantic Divison, or if the Blue Jackets, seeing them slide in the Jets spot in the Southeast.

Yet in less than an hour in the opening day of their annual meeting earlier this week in Florida, twenty-six of the thirty governors voted for the significant realignment plan, which now goes to the NHLPA for its approval, following which it should be implemented by next season.

In hindsight, I should’ve anticipated the proposal’s approval when I discovered it was being pushed by league commissioner Gary Bettman, who more often than not is able to achieve consensus in his favor from the governors on issues he champions.

The realignment bears some resemblance of the old divisional system which existed from the mid-1970s to the early-1990s.

Most fans by now are familiar with the details of the plan. To summarize:

- There will be two seven-team conferences and two eight-team conferences, based upon time zones. The conferences are currently unnamed. 

- Conference “A” will see three Western-Canadian teams (Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary) join San Jose, Los Angeles, Anaheim, Colorado and Phoenix, while Conference B sees Winnipeg joining mid-western US teams Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, Columbus, Minnesota, Nashville and Dallas.

- In the East, Conference “C” has the three Eastern-Canadian teams (Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal) joining Boston, Buffalo, Florida and Tampa Bay, while Conference “D” would be made up of the current Atlantic Division rivals (NY Rangers, NY Islanders, New Jersey, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh) joined by Carolina and Washington.

- Every team plays one home-and-away series against each other at least once each season.

- The first two playoff rounds will be intra-conference, with first playing fourth and second playing third in the first round. The two winners in each conference would square off in the second round.

- The third round is then re-seeded, with the Conference champions facing each other in the third round, after which the two remaining teams will clash in the Stanley Cup Final. That creates the possibility of the third round being two series pitting Eastern and Western teams against each other, followed by a Cup Final between two Western or two Eastern teams.

Most pundits and bloggers have expressed approval for the plan, finding more pros than cons.

For Western-based teams, this new alignment based on time zones leads to a more travel-friendly schedule, especially in the first two rounds of the playoffs.

The setup makes it easier to adjust for a possible relocation by the Phoenix Coyotes if their ownership situation isn’t resolved by season’s end. For example, if they were to be moved to an Eastern area like Quebec City, they could be easily absorbed into Conference “C”, which currently has only seven teams.

Almost all of the natural rivalries are kept intact, and with Washington moving into the same conference as the current Atlantic division teams, old Patrick division rivalries with the NY Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers will be renewed, as the Capitals would face those teams more often.

Still, critics found this new alignment does have its share of potential problems.

The biggest concern is the possibility for a team making the playoffs in a weaker Conference while another club with more points misses the cut in a deeper Conference. That was a significant, justifiable complaint about the old Wales and Campbell Conference setups from 1974-75 through 1992-93.

The argument is made that sort of imbalance already occurs in the current conference setup, but those who remember the Wales and Campbell Conferences recall truly awful teams, with records well below .500, earning playoff berths in weak divisions, while teams with considerably better records and points in deeper conferences missing the post-season.

As long as the point difference isn’t significant, it shouldn’t be much of an issue. If, however, situations arise akin to 1985-86, when the woeful Toronto Maple Leafs (57 points) and Vancouver Canucks (59 points) made the playoffs, while teams like the Buffalo Sabres (80 points) and Pittsburgh Penguins (76 points) with significantly better records missed the cut, there could be considerable backlash if it becomes a recurring problem.

Some observers flippantly dismiss that issue by suggesting if a team isn’t good enough to make the playoffs in a deeper conference, it has no business being there. Of course, those people will sing a different tune should their team be the one in that situation.

Another issue is the possibility of a Stanley Cup Final between two Western or two Eastern teams. For example, a Final between San Jose- Vancouver, or Boston-Pittsburgh, has the potential to adversely affect national TV ratings.

For Eastern teams, they’ll be forced to travel outside their time zone more often , and while that’s done to balance out the heavier travel burden faced by Western teams, it’ll likely result in some grumbling from Eastern general managers, coaches and players over the physical toll taken upon the players. They shouldn’t expect any sympathy from their Western-based peers.

There’s also concern this new setup will rob fans of the exciting final-week playoff races we’ve enjoyed under the current system.

Some current playoff rivalries could be adversely affected. Vancouver and Chicago, for example, currently have one of the most heated rivalries in the league, dating back to the 2009 playoffs. These two teams hate each other, to the point where regular season games between them often take on the intensity of playoff games.

But under this new alignment, those two teams won’t be in the same conference. That means the earliest opportunity for those two teams to clash in the post-season would be in the third round, depending on how they’re re-seeded for that round. One of the best playoff rivalries in recent years could all but vanish.

Re-seeding the Conference Final, or Stanley Cup semi-final if Conference Finals is no longer the terminology to be used, raised the question what the league will do with the Prince of Wales and Campbell Trophies, which in the past were traditionally awarded to the winners of the Eastern and Western Conference Finals respectively.

There’s also the possibility what looks good in theory might not work out in practice.

For example, having Florida and Tampa Bay in the same Conference as the current Northeast Division teams suggests the league is counting upon vacationing or retired fans from those regions (“snowbirds”) turning out in larger numbers to buy more tickets for games in those Florida-based cities whenever those Northeastern US and Eastern Canadian teams visit. It remains to be seen, however, how many of those “snowbirds” actually turn out for those games on a regular basis.

The league is hopeful this alignment would increase divisional rivalries, especially in the post-season, and in turn attract more fans. A good theory, but one which might not work out as anticipated.

Following the lockout season, the league adopted a schedule which had divisional rivals playing against each other more frequently during the regular season.

It was believed the fans would prefer to see more divisional match-ups, as those games would supposedly contain more intensity and excitement. Within a couple of seasons, however, fans were complaining teams were playing each other far too often, robbing them of the opportunity of seeing the best teams or the best players from other divisions or the other conference.

The prospect of teams facing each other regularly in the first two rounds might appear attractive at first, but within a few seasons, fans could become bored by the same match-ups.

Ultimately, realignment won’t please everyone, and raises as many potential problems as it appears to address existing ones. It remains to be seen if this current one will have any significant impact for the better upon the NHL product, and how long it will be embraced by teams, fans, bloggers and pundits.

At the very least, it was a refreshing surprise move by league governors.

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Comments

Avatar

i think the philly division is by far the hardest new division. with perennial contenders in pitt, wash, nyr, philly, devils, and carolina, there will most certainly be a contending team that misses the playoffs. compare this with the other “EAST” division. its an absolute abomination from a fairness perspective. The one true contender in that group is boston and maybe montreal. Seems like the philyl division will beat up on one another all year and have much worse records because of the minimal disparity in competitiveness. This hurts draft order, playoff seeding, and home advantages come deeper rounds of the playoffs

Posted by ilya miller on 12/07/11 at 12:45 PM ET

Avatar

Carolina is a perennial contender? They’ve made the playoffs twice in the last 6 years,  and currently sit in last place in the east.

Posted by Tony from Buffalo ny on 12/07/11 at 01:03 PM ET

Avatar

I think the NHL is looking into the future as part of this plan. I have hear rumors they wish to expand to make the league have 32 teams. Though, depending on where they decide to expand…it would have to be division ally specific locations.

Posted by Kevin from UK on 12/07/11 at 01:15 PM ET

SYF's avatar

Yet in less than an hour in the opening day of their annual meeting earlier this week in Florida, twenty-six of the thirty governors voted for the significant realignment plan, which now goes to the NHLPA for its approval, following which it should be implemented by next season.

A couple of the talking heads on TSN.ca said that the NHLPA has veto power and that the NHL is in talks with Donald Fehr about the new realignment plan.

Posted by SYF from The Revenge of Johnny E on 12/07/11 at 03:23 PM ET

Chris from NOHS's avatar

Lyle,

Any comments on this issue regarding the new format and inequalities of the divisions? I’m interested in hearing your opinion.

http://nightmareonhelmstreet.com/2011-articles/december/the-elephant-in-the-room-regarding-realignment.html

Chris

Posted by Chris from NOHS from Columbus, OH/Grand Rapids, MI on 12/07/11 at 03:46 PM ET

Savage Henry's avatar

I think the 7-team conferences in the east were an incentive to get eastern teams to vote for the plan.  Otherwise, there would be enough of them opposing it (based on the fact that their travel will get worse and more expensive) to kill any realignment.

Posted by Savage Henry on 12/07/11 at 04:15 PM ET

Lyle Richardson's avatar

Chris: Apparently, that division is done to account for either the Coyotes relocation to an eastern city, or for future expansion teams. Evidently, the Western owners had no problem with this setup, since they overwhelmingly vote for it.

Posted by Lyle Richardson on 12/07/11 at 09:29 PM ET

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About Puckin' Around With Spector

I’m Lyle Richardson. You might know me from my website, Spector’s Hockey, my thrice-weekly rumor column at THN.com, my weekly column at Eishockey News (if you read German), and my former gig as a contributing writer to Foxsports.com.

I’ll be writing a once-weekly blog here with my take on all things NHL. Who knows, I might actually find time to debunk a trade rumor or two.