NHL proposes new realignment format: Good or bad?

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.

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Here are some notes from Friedman:

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. 

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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…

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  • The teams out East need to stop complaining about this proposed playoff format. Teams like NJ, NYR, NYI, PIT, and PHI are all within a few hours of each other by bus. Teams like CGY are a couple hour PLANE RIDES to get to most of their opponents (2 hours to VAN, COL, MIN, etc.).

    Western teams have to travel a lot, and as we see every year, the race for the playoffs is always tight. In the East, most of the playoff teams in 5-8 wouldn’t be in the playoffs at all under a format where they considered overall standings. This proposal is called ‘balancing’ the league. My biggest fear is the playoff format – I watch the playoffs even when my team’s out, but I will say screw it if the Cup series is NYR/PHI year in, year out.

    TL;DR Western teams travel long distances, Eastern teams don’t. This balances that out. Plus, who cares if Carolina and Florida aren’t able to miraculously squeak into the playoffs?

    I’m fer it.

  • If they wanted to make travel fair they would set up divisions that spanned east- west instead of north south so that everybody traveled a somewhat similar distance. Have some geographic and some made up rivalries. Silmilar to the NFL

  • I love everything about realignment.

    It will re-energize the divisions. The problem with the current system was you played all these games within your division but you weren’t really competing with those teams for playoff spots. Now, not only will divisional games matter more but fans will have a reason to follow their competitors.

    Second, it will make for better playoff rivalries.

    Finally, the idea that it is less fair is silly. The difference between four out of seven and four out of eight is of vanishing significance that will on average affect a team once every sixteen years. That’s irrelevant, considering the other elements of unfairness that are endemic in any system.

    It is amusing that there is talk of a solution to this perceived unfairness through a play-in game which would actually compound the unfairness.

    Now all we need to do is get three points for a regulation win and smaller goalie pads and the game will almost be perfect.

  • I say in both east and west they join both confrences up for playoffs, in the west they have the regular top 8 in a elimination format, in the east they have the wildcat format, the teams ranked 1-6 in standings get a bye and teams ranked 7-10 play best 2-of-3 for the final 2 spots… I like the idea of having 2 more teams then usual. How about everyone else ?

  • I love it. Especially with the today’s proposed revision of 3 teams from each conference making the playoffs and 4 wild cards to fill out the 16 team playoff bracket.

    Sure Detroit will probably smoke the Leafs in every season series but I can’t wait to bring back that rivalry. Though I’m a little worried our Leafs might suffer gun shot injuries on the way to the rink!