The NHL's Proposed Conference Realignment Is Not Perfect, But It Works
On Tuesday, the NHL announced its latest proposals for conference realignment, which has been a nagging issue for the league since the Atlanta Thrashers moved to Winnipeg in 2011 to become the Winnipeg Jets. The Jets are still a member of the Southeast Division in the Eastern Conference, and travel more than any other Eastern Conference to play their road games.
Unlike the weekend plan that placed teams into four different "conferences," Tuesday's plan has the NHL keeping an Eastern Conference and a Western Conference, and instead of six divisions, there will only be four.
Here's a breakdown of what the conferences will look like.
- Carolina Hurricanes
- Columbus Blue Jackets
- New Jersey Devils
- New York Islanders
- New York Rangers
- Philadelphia Flyers
- Pittsburgh Penguins
- Washington Capitals
- Boston Bruins
- Buffalo Sabres
- Detroit Red Wings
- Florida Panthers
- Montreal Canadiens
- Ottawa Senators
- Tampa Bay Lightning
- Toronto Maple Leafs
Eastern Conference teams will play 28 games against Western Conference teams, one home and one away. They will also play 24 intraconference games against teams in the other division, meaning they will play three games per team with the extra home game rotating each year. And finally, they will play 30 games against divison foes, with two teams facing each other five times and the other five teams playing each other four times.
- Chicago Blackhawks
- Colorado Avalanche
- Dallas Stars
- Minnesota Wild
- Nashville Predators
- St. Louis Blues
- Winnipeg Jets
- Anaheim Ducks
- Calgary Flames
- Edmonton Oilers
- Los Angeles Kings
- Phoenix Coyotes
- San Jose Sharks
- Vancouver Canucks
Western Conference teams will travel east to play 32 games against Eastern Conference teams, one away and one home. They will play 21 intraconference games against teams in the other division, three against each team with the extra home game rotating each year. And Western Conference teams will play 29 division games, with four games against one team and five games against four teams.
The conferences are uneven, as the Western Conference contains 14 teams while the Eastern Conference has 16. Three teams will change conferences in this plan, as the Winnipeg Jets will be rightly realigned to the West, while the Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets will be moved to the East and play teams in their time zone. Since the Western Conference (in this proposed realignment) has fewer teams in the conference, there is speculation that the NHL will eventually expand to 32 teams to even out the conferences, but league officials haven't indicated that will happen any time soon.
The NHL is also changing how teams will qualify for the playoffs. The top three teams from each division will automatically qualify for the playoffs. The fourth seed in each division, however, is reportedly going to serve as a wild card, and honestly where things get a little confusing.
Fourth seeds will be given to teams with the highest point totals, regardless of division. This means that one division could possibly have five teams qualifying for the playoffs. The fourth-seeded team with the lowest point total will also play the team who has the most points in the conference standings regardless of division, meaning that possibly the Midwest Division Dallas Stars could "cross over" to play the Western Conference champion Vancouver Canucks and become a Pacific Division team in the playoffs. In the event the Stars win that first round series against the Canucks, they would stay in the Pacific Division and possibly play either the Los Angeles Kings or Anaheim Ducks in the second round. So, should this plan go through, the goal for teams will be to make it into the top three seeds in each division, since that will guarantee a playoff spot.
There were also discussions of having an NCAA Basketball-like Final Four tournament for the third round of the playoffs, pitting the remaining top-seeded team against the remaining fourth-seeded team, and the remaining second-seeded team against the remaining third-seeded team, regardless of conference. The NHL scrapped those plans, however, and we will continue to see a Western Conference Finals and an Eastern Conference Finals for the third round of the playoffs.
In terms of geography, the biggest winners of this realignment are the Dallas Stars and Minnesota Wild. The Stars have been in the Pacific Division since 1998, and play most of their road division games at 9 p.m. Central Time. This causes them to lose out on a lot of TV revenue because many fans in Dallas-Fort Worth can’t stay up that late to watch the entire game because of work or school the next morning. The new plan will have all their division games take place in the Central time zone, with the exception of Denver being in Mountain Time.
The Wild have a similar situation, being in the Northwest Division since 2000, and have to travel more than any other team in the NHL this year, mostly due to frequently traveling to western Canada to play their division games. The reduced travel the team will have with this plan will satisfy the team and their fans, and like Stars fans, Wild fans won't have to wait until 8 or 9 p.m. Central Time to watch road division games.
Two other winners for realignment are the Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets, who are the only two teams in the Western Conference who play in the Eastern Time Zone. Both fanbases currently to wait until 8 p.m. Eastern at the earliest to watch most of the road games both teams will play. When games are on the West Coast, fans have to wait until 10 o'clock Eastern Time for the game to come on TV. Switching them to the Eastern Conference will fix that, ultimately giving both teams more TV exposure.
The biggest losers are the Florida Panthers and the Tampa Bay Lightning. There was no winnable scenario for them, though. No matter what, they were going to have to travel long distances to play their division games. The Panthers and Lightning are in a division that has most teams north of Pennsylvania. The only good news for them is that they won't have to cross time zones to play their division games, so while they will travel a lot, they will only lose the time it took to travel to a road city. It will be an adjustment for both Florida teams getting used to more travel.
Another huge loss in this realignment plan is the Blackhawks-Red Wings rivalry, which will now only see two regular season games per season between the two clubs. Those two Original Six teams have been playing each other since 1926. It's unfortunate such a storied rivalry will take a huge hit due to conference realignment, but at least they will still get to play each other twice a year, and it will more than likely be on national television both times. If there is any positive coming from splitting the Blackhawks and Red Wings, it will be the potential for a Stanley Cup Finals matchup between the two teams, and if that happens, it will definitely be a lot of fun to watch.
A change that should happen is the naming conventions for the divisions. For the past two decades, the NHL has named their divisions based on geography, but prior to that, the divisions were named after legendary NHL figures: Adams, Norris, Patrick and Smythe.
Since the NHL is notorious for honoring its past, they should return to naming the divisions after hockey legends. Therefore, the Pacific Division should be named the Gretzky Division, the Midwest the Norris Division, the Atlantic the Lemieux Division, and the Central the Howe Division. Naming the divisions would give proper respect to the people who made this game great. It will also eliminate geographical discrepancies in division names, such as the Boston Bruins playing in the "Central" Division when they are geographically the most Eastern team in the NHL.
In the event this plan is approved, the league and the players' association can meet after the 2015-2016 season to discuss if they want to keep this realignment format. Of course, the new plan has its flaws. There will be more in teams in one conference than the other to start out. The two Florida teams will have leapfrog the other Eastern Conference division to play their road division games. And the playoff format is a little confusing, especially with the fourth seeds.
But for the time being, this plan is a win for most parties involved. All the teams in the Eastern Time Zone are rightly placed in the Eastern Conference, and while Western Conference teams are still spread out, all the teams in the Central Time Zone are in a division together, and all of the teams west of Colorado are in a division together. This will overall increase exposure to the sport since more fans will be able to watch the games at reasonable hours, especially those crucial late-season division games. For a sport that badly needs more fan support in North America, this realignment plan will help acquire it.
It's not perfect, but it works.