Wednesday, June 29, 2011

What Realignment Means and Why Not to Worry

At the occasion of last week's NHL Awards (want to beat Jay Mohr WON'T be back next year?), Gary Bettman revealed his vision of the future - specifically the 2012-13 NHL season. With the Winnipeg franchise playing out the coming season in Atlanta's old spot in the South-East Division, it is clear that something will have to change. But what exactly? Could it be as simple as Winnipeg jumping to the West with Detroit finally coming East, and then re-configuring the make-up of the existing divisions? Then what happens if Phoenix moves to, say, Quebec City or Hamilton a year later? And what about Columbus, who like Detroit, is burdened with a difficult travel schedule from their geographic location?

Bettman's tentative plan, it seems, is something somewhat drastic: a vast realignment whereby the current structure would be scrapped in place of two conferences of just two divisions each. In the shorter term, it would mean uneven balances, with each conference having a division of 8 and one of 7 teams, but Bettman expanded by adding expansion to 32 teams at some point would not be impossible. He didn't say it, but hockey fans everywhere would be quick to remind him that contraction to 28 teams could be just as adequate of a solution.

Radical, perhaps, but not never-before-seen. Before the most recent waves of NHL expansion, the league consisted of four divisions: the Patrick and Smythe Divisions, which made up the Campbell Conferenece, and the Adams and Norris Divisions, which made up the Wales Conference. But it is issues like these that had the Toronto Maple Leafs playing in the “Western” Conference at times in their history.

Let’s take a look for a second at a scenario whereby no one moves after this season and there are no new teams being introduced. What might this new NHL look like? I guess the easiest way is to group together teams who MUST be in the same division. Starting with the East…

1) North-East:
Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, Ottawa Senators, Boston Bruins

When the NHL went to the newest iteration of its schedule, one of the justifications was to “increase rivalries.” Of course it makes sense for the Maple Leafs to be in a division with their biggest rivals, the Senators and Canadiens, but Montreal’s nearby north-eastern foe, the Bruins, should be glued to this trio as well.

2) New York: New York Rangers, New York Islanders, New Jersey Devils
3) Pennsylvania: Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers
4) Florida: Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Lightning

For both rivalry and geographic reasons, it would make no sense to ever separate any of these club groupings.

Now we’re left with the Buffalo Sabres, Carolina Hurricanes, and Washington Capitals, plus one team moving from the West to the East. Everything points to that team being the Detroit Red Wings, but it is hard to move them while justifying keeping the Columbus Blue Jackets and Nashville Predators West.

The Sabres fall somewhere between the North-East and New York groupings, while the Canes and Caps could realistically join any of the clusters, making them the easiest ones to work with.

So let’s take a shot at this.


North-East Division
Montreal Canadiens
Ottawa Senators
Toronto Maple Leafs
Boston Bruins
Buffalo Sabres
Detroit Red Wings
Pittsburgh Penguins
Philadelphia Flyers

South-East Division
Florida Panthers
Tampa Bay Lightning
Carolina Hurricanes
Washington Capitals
New York Rangers
New York Islanders
New Jersey Devils

It’s a little awkward putting the New York teams in the “South” while the Pennsylvania teams are in the “North”, but this is roughly as close as you can get due to the inability to split the clusters we identified. Maybe we’ll see the re-emergence of naming schemes like Adams and Norris to smooth the understanding of the realignment.

Next we shift our focus to the other side. Similar inseparable clusters emerge:

1) Western Canada
Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames, Vancouver Canucks, Winnipeg Jets

2) The North + East (ironically also the “Mid-West”)
Chicago Blackhawks, Columbus Blue Jackets, Minnesota Wild, St. Louis Blues

3) California + South-West
Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks, San Jose Sharks, Phoenix Coyotes

This geographic grouping leaves us with 3 “outliers”, being the Nashville Predators, the Colorado Avalanche, and the Dallas Stars, where it would seem the easiest classification goes according to time zone. However, given the three zones covered by Western Canada, a North-South split that alleviates travel distance seems easiest to establish.

Coordinating this is a bit messy, but let’s try:


North-West Division
Vancouver Canucks
Calgary Flames
Edmonton Oilers
Winnipeg Jets
Minnesota Wild
Chicago Blackhawks
Columbus Blue Jackets
St. Louis Blues

South-West Division
Anaheim Ducks
Los Angeles Kings
San Jose Sharks
Phoenix Coyotes
Colorado Avalanche
Dallas Stars
Nashville Predators

This would be one scenario with each conference featuring divisions of 7 and 8 teams respectively. There are a number of scenarios as to how this could work in terms of standings. One option is to follow the AHL’s imbalanced divisions approach: the top 4 teams from each division make the playoffs, and the first round of the playoffs is within the division only (followed by the standard re-seeding). There can be a clause by which if the 5th place team in the 8-team division has more points than the 4th place team in the 7-team division, it gets ranked ahead and “crosses over” to make the playoffs instead.

Alternatively, you could imbalance the conferences by taking Columbus out of the West and adding it to the East to create a conference with divisions of 8 and one with divisions of 7. The most logical way to manage this model would be a system that some in the media have been clamouring for regardless: have the top 16 teams league-wide make the post-season regardless of divisional or conference ranking.

In either case, there are a number of plausible scenarios that will shake-up the make-up of the National Hockey League following this season. But just as the league has survived many schedule alternations, and even the standings-impacting implementation (and subsequent modification) of the shootout/overtime loser point, this will not truly impact the game we all know and love on the ice.

So don’t freak out when you hear about a “major change to the NHL” in the form of realignment. Your Canadiens will still be Your Canadiens, whether they play in the North-East Division of the Eastern Conference or the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Division of the Ted Lindsay Conference. Let the cards fall as they may, and don’t let this be another reason to hate on Gary Bettman – the man has a difficult job, and may make mistakes, but let’s focus on the important issues like quality of product and safety of players. It is in the NHL's favour to bring us the fans the great matchups like Montreal-Boston, Montreal-Toronto, or games against other Canadian teams, and since we indirectly sign their paycheck, at the end of the day, they will give us what we want.

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