Saturday night on the Hotstove, hockey reporter extraordinaire Elliotte Friedman reported the NHL’s new realignment plan. Unlike the plan that was approved by the NHL and rejected by the NHLPA in 2011, both “Eastern” conferences would have eight teams rather than seven, with Detroit and Columbus moving to the more geographically appropriate centres.
Above is a screen cap, via Harrison Mooney and Puck Daddy, of the proposed changes. Everybody has seen them by now. The Leafs and the Red Wings used to play in the NHL’s “Central” Division back before the Gary Bettman expansion in the late-1990s.
The Leafs and Red Wings arenas are a four hour drive apart, yet they play each other once a season only, despite being Original Six rivals. When the NHL re-aligned after Nashville, Columbus, Minnesota and Atlanta joined the league, the teams were split into conferences, and the NHL for some reason never found a way to bring every team into every building each year like the NBA manages to do with the same number of teams and the same 82-game schedule.
The NHLPA had two major concerns: travel and the two uneven conferences. Some teams will travel more under the new setup. But, like the NHL [sic—presume he means NBA], the players want each team to visit every other city at least once. So there will be compromise on that issue.
One outstanding issue is the unbalanced lineup, with two “conferences” made up of eight teams and two of seven. The playoffs are still to be held within those groupings — the No. 1 seed plays No. 4 in the first round, and No. 2 goes against No. 3 — but that slight advantage of it being easier to make the playoffs in the smaller conferences remains a problem for the players.
Friedman mentions the idea of a “wild card” team perhaps in the Eastern Conferences or a play-in game to determine the final spot. On Toronto’s side of the bracket it would be significantly harder to make the postseason, with a 50% chance instead of a 57% chance in a 7-team conference. The first kink to sort out is the unbalanced approach to teams, but you don’t want to get too carried away with crossovers and such since you want to keep the divisional playoffs.
That’s one advantage, anyway, to the set-up proposed by the NHL. I’ve long been a proponent of less divisional focus in the regular season, but setting up more common playoff match ups. The cliché is that rivalries are made in the playoffs, and the best ones–Habs/Nordiques, Flames/Oilers, Canucks/Blackhawks, Oilers/Stars, Leafs/Senators—came to be thanks to a lot of playoff match ups against one another. In recent times with more teams it’s been tougher to get those common match ups. All-divisional matches will mean the best-managed teams in any common geographical area (like Southern Ontario and Florida, for instance) will generate some good rivalries.
The second advantage is the flip-side of that. Friedman notes that the NHLPA want teams to play in each building each season. This is a positive from a revenue-and-interest standpoint (though I could care less if anybody in Phoenix gives a damn about the sport) but also from a quality product standpoint. The problem with the focus on regular season divisional games is that it waters down the product. While the rivalries are good, suffering through a bunch of games against the Buffalo Sabres isn’t. Not being able to get star players like Pavel Datsyuk and Jonathan Toews and Jamie Benn each season isn’t. It’s the major flaw in the current schedule setup and deprives the die-hards of interesting cross-conference games between good teams.
There are drawbacks: more Western games means more games that end past a reasonable hour for sleep, but I think overall it’s a positive, particularly in this era when you can record a game and watch it on your phone.
What do you think? Is the focus on playoff divisional play and the re-alignment a positive step? To say nothing of the Red Wings, a perennial juggernaut, moving into the Maple Leafs’ division again…