Seventeen years ago, in an effort to continue modernizing its operation, the NHL decided to discontinue naming its divisions and conferences after famous figures from hockey history. And so the Adams, Norris, Smythe and Patrick Divisions became the Northeast, Central, Atlantic and Pacific Divisions, and the Prince of Wales and Campbell Conferences became the Eastern and Western Conferences.
Some fans decried the changes, but most hockey fans accepted them and moved on. And now, the NHL needs to take the next step, finish the modernization job and eliminate divisions altogether.
Quick – without looking at the standings on a website or in a newspaper, can you name the current order of teams in the NHL’s Pacific Division? How ’bout the Southeast? If you’re like most people, you haven’t the faintest notion of any intra-divisional drama. To the majority of fans and players, the only thing that matters these days is being on a top-eight team (a.k.a. a playoff team) in their conference at the end of the regular season.
Certainly, there are benefits to the six teams that win their division – the main one being one of the top three seeds in the conference. But how does that process do justice to teams that wind up ranked fourth or lower despite having a better record than a division winner?
The obvious answer: it doesn’t, which is why a straight-ahead, record-determined ranking would be easier for casual hockey fans to comprehend and fairer to teams who have more success in the regular season. Of course, in doing so, it also would be necessary to do away with the league’s current unbalanced schedule – or, rather, create a less-unbalanced, more simplistic schedule.
Such an arrangement could still include each team playing six games against each of their traditional division opponents. If each team then played one home and away game against the 25 other franchises, that would total 74 games, leaving eight to be used (or at least requested) as the organization sees fit.
Suddenly, the built-in geographic advantages currently enjoyed by certain Eastern Conference teams – I’m looking at you, entire Atlantic Division – would all but disappear. At the same time, every fan base in the league would have one opportunity each season to see every franchise and its stars.
That said, that geographic advantage (which allows teams along the eastern seaboard to save a significant amount of money on travel costs) is perhaps the single greatest obstacle toward reforming the divisions and/or schedule.
“When you talk about making changes like that, you first have to understand where the power base lies in this league,” said one former NHL GM, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “It’s definitely not with the Columbuses and Dallases – it’s with (Flyers owner Ed) Snider and (Bruins owner Jeremy) Jacobs and (Rangers owner James) Dolan, the East Coast owners.
“Those guys are perfectly OK with the way things work now. They prefer the costs of taking a train, a bus or a short flight to games over taking a week-long West Coast road trip. It’s hard for me to imagine they’d want to give up that perk very easily.”
Nevertheless, with a dash of creativity, the right kind of leadership and some incentive, those poor, poor eastern-based owners might be persuaded to show some flexibility in the way the schedule is drawn up. To wit: perhaps one or two of those eight extra games in my proposed schedule could be used by a team to play another game against a natural geographic (and former divisional) rival; that would be a guaranteed moneymaker and the revenue from it could help offset the costs of increased travel.
Forget about the term “addition by subtraction” – as far as the NHL goes, it ought to be “addition by subtraction of divisions.”
Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. Power Rankings appear Mondays, his blog appears Thursdays and his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays.
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