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NHL Realignment: What To Do?

By Charles Vanegas

Since the NHL announced its return to Winnipeg, the most obvious anomaly has been the team’s placement in
the Southeast Division, with their closest “rival” (Washington) being over 2,000 km (about 1,250 miles) away. Rather than switch the Jets over to a Western division this season, the league is now discussing a much larger realignment for 2012-13 that will also address the concerns of the other franchises.

The most commonly reported system has been 4 divisions with 7 or 8 teams each.

I`m going to play Bettman – and attempt to hatch a realignment plan that makes the most sense for everyone.

First, we’re tossing out conferences. There simply aren’t enough teams actually located in the west to warrant its own conference. However, dividing teams based on location is still the most logical thing to do.
In the current set-up, teams like Dallas and Minnesota have to play division games in San Jose and Vancouver – which often don’t start until 9 or 9:30 CT. On the opposite side, when the Sharks and Canucks visit, the games are beginning at 5 and 5:30 PT. It’s pretty hard to follow your team when the games finish too late or start before you even get home from work. It’d make a lot more sense if divisions stayed within only one or two time zones.

While it’s important to maintain the league’s biggest rivalries, many of the current divisions simply don’t produce rivalries like they should. Once again, Minnesota comes to mind. Do they have a real rival in the Northwest? The Canucks, Flames and Oilers (at least their fans) dislike one another exponentially more than they even think about the Wild. On the other hand, fans of Columbus – who joined the league in 2000 along with Minnesota – have already developed hatred for the Red Wings. While Detroit’s dominance has made this a one-sided rivalry, the passion is
at least there. The NHL would be wise to pit teams in the Great Lakes region against one another, as there are already rivalries that exist in other sports that can be built upon (Michigan-Ohio State, Bears-Vikings, Steelers-Browns, etc.).
The new system would allow for more variety in opponents. Currently, teams play 24 division games (each team 6 times) and 40 games against the rest of the conference. That leaves only 18 games for the remaining 15 teams. While larger divisions would increase the amount of division games*, the elimination of conferences would still give fans a better variety of opponents. In addition, the hassle of travelling to the west coast would be divided evenly on every team, instead of just the Dallases and Detroits.
*Having only 7 members would mean the North and South divisions would have six fewer divisional games (36 instead of 42). They would make up the difference with each other, which is convenient because they’re both contained in the East and Central time zones.
So what happens in the playoffs?
I’ve heard plans that have the top four teams from each division making the playoffs. That can’t happen. Uneven division are only unfair when it becomes systematically more challenging for certain teams to make the post-season than others (I’m looking at you, MLB’s AL West/NL Central), and this would do that.
A plan that keeps the first two rounds within the divisions? Also terrible.
Prior to 1982, playoff teams were seeded regardless of conference. That would work now. Division winners should automatically get the top four seeds, and point totals should determine the rest.
Using last season's point totals, these would have been first-round match-ups after realignment:
#1 Vancouver vs. #16 Dallas
#2 Washington vs. #15 Buffalo
#3 Philadelphia vs. #14 Montreal
#4 Pittsburgh vs. #13 Chicago
#5 San Jose vs. #12 Los Angeles
#6 Detroit vs. #11 Phoenix
#7 Boston vs. #10 Nashville
#8 Tampa Bay vs. #9 Anaheim

The great thing about eliminating conferences is that we’d never have to hear anyone say “if they were in the Eastern Conference they would’ve been in the playoffs...” ever again, and it reopens the possibilities of a Boston-Montreal, Detroit-Chicago or Toronto-Montreal Stanley Cup Final.
It also evens the amount of travelling done by each team. Before meeting the Bruins in the finals, the Vancouver Canucks had to travel back and forth from Chicago (2,830 km away), Nashville (3,270 km) and San Jose (1,320 km). By contrast, Boston only had to travel to Montreal (407 km), Philadelphia (447 km) and Tampa Bay (1,900 km). By the time the teams met, Vancouver had travelled 27,040 km (16,801 miles) compared to Boston’s 10,122 km (6,290 miles). You can argue how much travel actually affects performance, but the reality is that the Western Conference champion travels twice as much as their Eastern counterpart every single year.
Obviously, we won’t know the exact plans of the NHL until the Phoenix situation is resolved (because clearly that’s the real reason behind the wait), but these are some things the NHL should be thinking about.
Charles Vanegas can be found on Twitter: @charlesvanegas

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