Last year, the NHL’s Board of Governors and the Players’ Association came to an agreement, one that would change the divisional setup in the NHL. The move was necessitated when the Atlanta Thrashers picked up and moved to Winnipeg, but remained in the Southeast division. Since there is nothing southeast about Winnipeg, other than it’s location in Western Canada, the NHL got to work.
The reincarnation of the Winnipeg Jets wasn’t the only issue that realignment had to solve. The Dallas Stars played in the Pacific division, where all the other teams played on the West Coast. The Columbus Blue Jackets and Nashville Predators were in the Western Conference, despite being in the Eastern time zone. Also, Detroit Red Wings’ owner Mike Illitch and crew were clamoring to Commish Gary Bettman for a move to the Eastern Conference.
This new system couldn’t possibly please everyone, but it did many teams involved a huge favor. Here’s the new setup, for those who don’t know:
This new 4 division plan came with a new/old way to decide who makes it to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The top 3 teams in each division make it automatically, and then the other 2 spots in each conference are decided by the next 2 best records, or 2 wild cards. Then, each division will have their own playoffs, culminating with the 4 division champions in the Conference Finals.
There are many ways that we can see this as an improvement. There are also some massive flaws with the system.
The NHL got problems solved with this move, and also added a couple new ventures to enhance rivalries and playoff pictures. First, Winnipeg is in the Western Conference, which was one of the root causes for this whole shpiel. They join the Central Division, who also picked up Dallas from the Pacific, getting them off the West Coast. The Columbus Blue Jackets join the Metropolitan Division, and could very easily spark a rivalry with the Pittsburgh Penguins, considering that the cities are 3 hours away from each other. Also, one of the NHL’s favorite rivalries, the Ovechkin v. Crosby rivalry, has become a divisional matchup. Yet another rivalry, albeit renewed, that pops up is Detroit v. Toronto. The two teams have a long and troublesome history, and face off in the 2014 Winter Classic at Michigan Stadium. The 2 Florida teams join the new Atlantic, and it makes sense for older fans who have set up retirement homes, but still want to see their hockey teams play.
Looking at the bigger picture, the schedule has every team playing at least one game in each of the other 29 arenas in the NHL, which forces any big free agents to play at least one game in their old barn, and also expands exposure of each team. Also, the playoff system now in place leads me to believe that divisional rivalries will become much more bitter (to the enjoyment of the fans). In the days before my time, when divisions were named after hockey greats (between 1981-1994), the NHL actually used a similar format, and had some excellent moments and rivalries built within these playoffs.
However, that old system was much simpler, and didn’t have a discrepancy of teams in one conference or another.
The advent of wild card teams, plus the fact that one conference has more teams than the other, makes it almost as head-scratching as the 1950 NBA Playoffs (don’t ask how I know that). Consider this: The East currently has 2 divisions of 8 teams, while the West has 2 of 7. The Western teams have less teams to watch for than the East, plus have a smaller pool of teams to fight against.
While I do understand that this problem likely will be solved with expansion to 32 teams, that’s a conversation for a different time.
There are a couple of other flaws we can point out. We mentioned that the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning join the Canadiens, Maple Leafs, Bruins, Sabres, Senators, and Red Wings in the Atlantic Division. The distance between South Florida and Southern Canada is approximately 1,100+ miles (1,770+ km for our readers outside of the States). This leads to increases in travel for the Cats and Bolts, which seemed to be the issue for the Stars and Jets last year, whose problems were solved, not complicated.
Speaking of the Red Wings, they get an Eastern Conference spot, after years of waiting for one. However, this causes some problems, despite solving the travel costs and time difference issues. All of these problems fall under one umbrella, broken rivalries. One of the longest standing rivalries in NHL history, plus one with the second most games played, is the Detroit Red Wings vs. the Chicago Blackhawks. They have played 879 games, including 80 playoff games. The tickets for these games are extremely sought after, and the fans hate the other team with a passion. With the Wings not just leaving the division, but the conference, it breaks up this legendary rivalry. The Red Wings also have established “beefs” with the Colorado Avalanche (inculdes the legendary Blood Game), and Nashville Predators. Those games now have significantly less meaning because the teams are in separate conferences. All this opportunity lost, because Commish Gary Bettman made a promise.
It is fairly obvious, as much as the NHL is denying it, that expansion to 32 teams is on the horizon. The current realignment isn’t here to stay, though, we can say that it is a building block for years to come in an improved NHL. The current system is far from perfect, but it very well could be the precursor to a new system that works, and is conducive to a bigger and better league.