The NHL Realignment: THG Weighs In
By Rhys Richards (@RREsq)
On Monday, the NHL Board of Governors voted 26-4 in favor of realignment from six divisions and two conferences to four conferences. In a surprisingly quick move, the Board adopted the four-conference format that will establish two eight-team and two-seven team conferences primarily premised on geographical proximity. The NHLPA must still vote for the proposed realignment, but that seems like a foregone conclusion.
Calgary, Edmonton, and Vancouver will stay together in a new Conference that will include Anaheim, Colorado, Los Angeles, Phoenix, and San Jose.
The existing Central Division, including Chicago, Columbus, Detroit, Nashville, and St. Louis, will expand to include Dallas, Minnesota, and Winnipeg.
The existing Northeast Division, including defending Stanley Cup Champions Boston, Buffalo, Montreal, Ottawa, and Toronto will expand to include the Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers.
Finally, the existing Atlantic Division, including New Jersey, the New York teams, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh, would welcome the addition of Carolina and Washington.
Teams in the seven-team conferences will play each other six times, while teams in the two eight-team conferences will rotate playing each other five to six times every year with three teams playing six times and four teams playing five times.
For hockey fans everywhere, perhaps the most attractive aspect of the realignment will be the scheduling change pitting every NHL team against each and every other team in a home-and-home battle every season. That change will give fans the opportunity to see every NHL team play their team once a year. For some fans who do not live near their favorite team, that change may allow them to actually see their favorite team live once a season.
The other realignment option on the table at the Board of Governors meeting would have required either Columbus or Detroit to move to the existing Eastern Conference. While Detroit has long lobbied for that move, many Western Conference teams were seemingly unwilling to let such a powerhouse team with a huge fan base leave the Conference. On the other coast, several teams appeared concerned with any shift in power in the competitive Eastern Conference.
Thus, 26 teams agreed to changes that required all 30 teams to swallow some negative aspects of the realignment. As is the sign of any reasonably good deal, all teams walked away from the Board’s decision with something less than they desired going into the two-day meeting.
While NHL fans may never learn what deals, if any, were made behind closed doors to make this proposed realignment a reality, the virtually unanimous vote in favor of the proposed realignment made Commissioner Gary Bettman, who developed the plan, the big winner on Monday evening.
Bettman said, “This is not a subject that everyone is going to get their first choice on. What you try to do is come up with something everyone can live with, get comfortable with, and understand the value of.” He added, “If you asked 30 teams, you probably would get 30 different solutions.”
For the Detroit Red Wings, the realignment is a godsend. Detroit has long wanted to be in the Eastern Conference to reduce its travel to the West Coast. In fact, since the last realignment, arguably no NHL team has had to travel as much as Detroit. Granted, Columbus, and to a certain extent, Nashville, are in the same boat, but Detroit generally has to endure that travel further into the playoffs on top of the regular season.
Already in the practice of extending players’ careers, the Red Wings may be able to stretch careers out even longer due to the realignment and the less taxing travel schedule. Detroit fans are already salivating at the thought of Nicklas Lidstrom returning for more than a season. Red Wings players are just as excited as their fans.
Earlier this week, Dan Cleary told the Detroit Free Press, “We were just joking that Nick (Lidstrom) just signed a new two-year deal.”
While the playoff format has not been entirely ironed out, the new realignment would call for four teams from each conference to play each other in the first two rounds of the playoffs to determine four conference champions. Those champions would then play for the Stanley Cup.
When asked about realignment by the Detroit Free Press, Lidstrom said, “It’s going to be a lot less travel for the team and that’s something that I like. It helps even more during the playoffs, where you can go out to the West Coast two or three times, and that takes its toll on the body.”
For Detroit, who traveled to San Jose three times in the second round of last year’s playoffs, a change could not be more welcome. While an eight-team conference could cause a strong fifth team that is arguably better than a top-four team in another conference in the playoffs, Detroit surely does not plan on being in that position any time soon. Regardless, the Red Wings can continue to build on the team’s rivalry with current Central Division teams like Chicago and St. Louis while playing more games with fellow Midwest team Minnesota, rival Dallas, and new Canadian team Winnipeg.
For Detroit fans, the realignment means less 10 and 10:30 pm starts, which means they can watch more games on television and not need to worry about stumbling around like zombies the next day at work.
While many details will continue to be finalized, the proposed realignment is virtually all positive for Detroit.
THG WRITERS’ RANTS: Fellow THG writer Bob Haynes, Jr. loves the playoff rivalries that the realignment will create or rekindle but hates the very division-heavy schedule. 44% of the schedule played against the same six teams. Bob is also depressed by the loss of games between other rivals like Philly and Boston or Buffalo. On the positive side, Bob notes that he will only have to listen to Jack Edwards call half as many games.
As noted above, Bob agrees that there will be at least one quality fifth place team that does not make the playoffs while other lesser third or fourth place teams do. He added that a weak conference now has the prize of a trip to the semi-final round.
Regarding one of the issues to be ironed out by the Board and NHLPA in the near future, Bob suggests naming the conferences Howe, Gretzky, Lemieux, and Orr in honor of four players who were all time greats that changed the game for the better.
Fellow THG writer Tyler J. Altemose and our resident guy behind a computer with a keyboard on his lap wearing sweatpants with varying DC Comics characters on them acknowledges the same concern with weaker conferences sending four teams while the fifth in a stronger conference is on the outside of the playoffs looking in.
He adds that he still believes too many teams make the playoffs. He writes, “it has been the same thing year after year. April rolls around and my team makes the playoffs. Then May hits and maybe my team is still in it, maybe not. By June my team is usually eliminated and I’m stuck watching a bunch of teams I loathe (I’m looking at you, Canucks and Bruins) fight it out for professional sports’ greatest honor.”
For the playoffs, Tyler proposes that the top seeds in each conference would have a “bye” in the first round while the second- and third-place teams would each play a five-game series. He believes that an opening five-game series is good because it gets done quicker. The issue with ‘hot’ first-place teams getting ‘cold’ while waiting for an opponent, while still technically valid, is at least mitigated somewhat.
In Tyler’s second round, the winner of the #2-versus-#3-seed match in each conference would play that conference’s respective top seed with every playoff series after the first round being a best-of-seven. Next, the conference champions would be re-seeded based upon points received in the regular season, giving the President’s Trophy some additional meaning.
The third round would see the first seed versus the fourth seed and the second seed versus the third seed. Then, the winners of those series would play for the Stanley Cup.
Quotations obtained at tsn.ca.
Share your thoughts on realignment, the Red Wings, and the NHL with Rhys at Twitter: @RREsq. He can be reached via email at RhysJRichards@gmail.com. Join the many fans of The Hockey Guys on Facebook and Twitter @TheHockeyGuys.