TORONTO – This was never about finding a perfect system.
No one involved in the NHL’s first realignment in more than a decade was under any illusion that such a thing existed. In fact, commissioner Gary Bettman told The Canadian Press on the eve of the season that the process is “among the most difficult and potentially contentious issues any sports league can deal with.”
Despite that, Bettman managed to successfully navigate the tricky political waters and come up with a plan that received overwhelming support from the Board of Governors at their annual meeting this week.
Here’s a closer look inside the four-conference alignment that will take effect next season, pending approval from the NHL Players’ Association:
The five teams that expressed concerns about the current setup at September’s board meeting all came away happy. Detroit, Columbus, Minnesota, Dallas and Nashville were each seeking divisions including better regional groupings and/or a change to the schedule matrix that would see all teams face one another home and away.
They got elements of both.
While the Red Wings and Blue Jackets didn’t achieve their desired goal of being moved into an Eastern-based conference, they will see a reduction in travel under the new system with only one swing through California and western Canada each year.
They’re also happy that all of the Eastern teams are now due to travel more—levelling the playing field slightly—and will each play a road game in their building every season.
The league also did a fairly good job of keeping historical rivals in the same division. For example, one early concept that leaked had Pittsburgh and Philadelphia being separated, but that was changed in the approved proposal.
Rivalries were also a key theme behind the introduction of divisional playoffs for the first two rounds—something the NHL used throughout the 1980’s and early 90’s when it was a 21-team league. It will be intriguing to see how some of those heated matchups play out at the most important time of year.
The four-conference alignment also gives the NHL added flexibility if another franchise is forced to relocate in the future because there is essentially three other regions for it to be placed.
Winnipeg was forced to play out of the Eastern Conference this season after the move from Atlanta, setting the wheels in motion on this dramatic realignment.
The most obvious competitive flaw in the system is that two conferences feature eight teams while the other two have only seven. That’s a significant difference since four teams in each conference qualify for the playoffs.
You can already cue up the uproar for when a weak fourth-place team makes the post-season while a strong fifth seed elsewhere falls short.
It also appears as if realignment will end up making the league a more expensive operation to run. With teams in the East visiting every Western city for the first time since before the 2004-05 lockout, they’re all looking at an increase to the travel budget.
On top of that, there are some inherent problems with having every team play one another home and away. While no one will complain when Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins come to town, there are bound to be more games featuring visiting teams that create little or no buzz in a local market.
Recall that one of the main reasons the NHL shifted its schedule coming out of the lockout was to combat that problem. It won’t be the least bit surprising a couple years down the road if the Jets, for example, are looking to have more frequent visits from Canadian teams rather than the steady flow of games involving Dallas, Columbus, Nashville, St. Louis, etc.
And they won’t be the only ones.
The biggest unknown revolves around the playoff format. While the governors have committed to the first two rounds being conducted within each division, they’ve left it up to the general managers to decide how the third round and Stanley Cup final will play out.
Essentially, that group must determine whether to have the four teams reseeded by points or grouped geographically in the third round.
If they end up going the points route, it remains possible two Eastern- or Western-based teams could contest the Stanley Cup—say Pittsburgh-Boston or Chicago-San Jose, for example.
Finally, it remains uncertain what the conferences will actually be called. The official NHL release had them labelled using letters from A to D, but that will be changed by the time they come into existence.
Will the league stick with regional names like virtually every other North American sports league or draw on its past and name them after former players or personalities?