NHL Realignment Hits the Right Notes

When the Atlanta Thrashers relocated to Winnipeg prior to the start of the NHL season, the talk of realignment began gathering steam.
NHL Realignment Hits the Right Notes
The new NHL realignment means more Crosby versus Ovechkin. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Rahul Vaidyanath
Updated:
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When the Atlanta Thrashers relocated to Winnipeg prior to the start of the NHL season, the talk of realignment began gathering steam.

Winnipeg just couldn’t continue to play in the Southeast Division. In addition, other teams had long been unhappy with the amount of travel they had to do because of being placed in divisions with the majority of fellow teams are located in a different time zone. There were other gripes that began to be heard.

On Monday, after the NHL’s Board of Governors approved a new four-conference setup, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman outlined the conferences and answered questions about the realignment, which should go into effect next season. The players’ union needs to provide its input before the new alignment is implemented.

In his press conference shown on NHL.com, Bettman said he intended to “come up with something that everybody can live with, get comfortable with.” By all accounts, the GMs were quick to endorse the change after a discussion that lasted only about an hour.

NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said the meeting with the GMs “wasn’t contentious at all,” and, as he put it, felt they had a “strong consensus at the end of the day that we’re making the right step.”

The new format (whose conferences have yet to be named) are:

* Carolina, New Jersey, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Washington

* Boston, Buffalo, Florida, Montreal, Ottawa, Tampa Bay, and Toronto

* Chicago, Columbus, Detroit, Dallas, Minnesota, Nashville, St. Louis, and Winnipeg

* Anaheim, Los Angeles, Calgary, Colorado, Edmonton, Phoenix, San Jose, Vancouver

The new “four-conference format” for lack of a better term is a good step toward reducing travel, renewing or maintaining long-standing rivalries, balancing schedules, and providing for an easier way to integrate future potential franchise moves or expansion.

Another benefit of the new alignment is that every team will play each other at least twice. The benefits are two-fold: From a pure competition purpose, it is equitable. Currently, some teams only play each other once a season, so each team will face a different set of opponents at home and on the road. Secondly, from a fan’s perspective, you'll get to see every NHL team visit your home arena at least once. So no fans can complain about not being paid a visit by Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin.

Some details about the playoff format need to be ironed out. One thing that will happen is the top four teams in each conference will make the playoffs. The top team will play the fourth place team, while No. 2 will take on No. 3.

Once the four conference champions are determined, it remains to be seen how the conference winners will match up against each other. It is thus possible that the Stanley Cup final could feature two teams currently in the Eastern Conference (or Western Conference, for that matter).

Certainly the chance of two original six teams meeting for the Stanley Cup final is a mouth-watering possibility for the hockey purist; however, one could also have a matchup like Dallas against Phoenix, which probably wouldn’t do wonders for television ratings.

No system of organizing 30 teams will be perfect and, at first blush, seeing Florida and Tampa Bay in a division with Boston, Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, and Buffalo doesn’t make a lot of sense.

The fact that two conferences have seven teams and the other two conferences have eight teams should not have a noticeable effect on the fairness of the competition for playoff spots since only the top four teams will make it.

Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin are back in the same division (‘conference’) now as in the days of the old Patrick Division where Washington and Pittsburgh used to go at it eight times a year.

Winnipeg’s long-time western Canadian rivalries were not able to be reinstated. But traditional rivalries between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Boston and Montreal, and Detroit and Chicago were maintained.

Reducing Travel

Columbus GM Scott Howson felt that reducing the travel burden was the most important thing. He cited the example of Dallas currently having to play all its road division games two time zones away. Certainly Minnesota can have a similar complaint as well.

About the new four-conference alignment, Howson said it “satisfies everybody to the largest extent possible.”

Detroit had a preference for a switch to an “Eastern Conference division” to resolve problems of a lack of road games in prime time and reduce playoff travel. (Last year Detroit faced Phoenix and San Jose in its opening two rounds.)

Detroit GM Ken Holland termed the four-conference system a “lot better than the current system.” It would seem that the old Norris Division has been recreated (minus the Toronto Maple Leafs).

Toronto GM Brian Burke was also most concerned about travel. “My concern is the wear and tear on the players, not the cost of the travel,” he said. Burke said the new alignment had solid support and that now, “the Eastern teams shouldn’t complain much about travel.”

Burke also felt that since a team must visit every arena in the NHL at least once, some travel efficiencies could be gained, such as while returning from California, a team could stop off in Nashville or St. Louis for example.

Dave Poile, Nashville’s GM, focused on the benefits to his team’s fans. “Our fans would really appreciate to see everybody at least once,” he said.

In general, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages for this radical new proposal that should bring back a greater sense of how the NHL used to look during the 80s when we didn’t hear much talk about strange divisions, excessive travel, and unbalanced schedules.

Follow Rahul on Twitter @RV_ETSports

Rahul Vaidyanath is a journalist with The Epoch Times in Ottawa. His areas of expertise include the economy, financial markets, China, and national defence and security. He has worked for the Bank of Canada, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., and investment banks in Toronto, New York, and Los Angeles.
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