The NHL recently announced that they have realigned the league into a new format to group their franchises in a more geographically logical manner. This new organization of the league changes the number of divisions from six divisions to four divisions, two in each conference.
The Eastern Conference will have two divisions with eight teams in each division. The Western Conference also will have two divisions, with seven teams in each division. The obvious first point of difference is that the East will have two more teams than the West will have, 16 to 14.
However, the league will keep the playoff spots fixed at 16 with eight teams in each conference making the playoffs. This creates a scenario where the teams in the Western Conference will have an easier path to the playoffs with fewer teams in their respective conference. This is a key point which has been made on sites such as espn.com, cbssports.com, nbcsports.com, and the Bleacher Report site.
The realignment plan passed by both the NHL Board of Governors and the players union is organized in the following conference and divisional format:
Atlantic Division: NY Rangers, NY Islanders, NJ Devils, Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers, Washington Capitals, Columbus Blue Jackets, and Carolina Hurricanes.
Central Division: Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators, Toronto Maple Leafs, Buffalo Sabres, Boston Bruins, Detroit Red Wings, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Florida Panthers.
Midwest Division: Winnipeg Jets, Minnesota Wild, Colorado Avalanche, Chicago Blackhawks, St. Louis Blues, Nashville Predators, and Dallas Stars.
Pacific Division: Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames, Vancouver Canucks, San Jose Sharks, L.A. Kings, Anaheim Ducks, and Phoenix Coyotes.
Changes and their Effects
The immediate changes are obvious, the Winnipeg Jets move to the Western Conference (they were in the East due to the relocation of the team from Atlanta) so that makes sense. The Detroit Red Wings and the Columbus Blue Jackets move from the Western Conference to the Eastern Conference, which both teams have been lobbying for years to switch conferences. It was very hard for the fans of those two teams to watch nearly every road game being played in a different time zone.
The way the playoff teams are selected is different also. In the new realigned format, the top three teams in each division get into the playoffs and then the remaining playoff positions in each conference go to the teams with the next best records in succession. This format means that one division could send up to five teams to the playoffs. In that scenario, all five teams would be reasonably close geographically. That could produce later round playoff series which have only regional appeal, not broad based national appeal, which could hurt TV ratings.
Effect on Rivalries
The effect on rivalries from this new realigned NHL is an issue with two distinct camps. The first camp believes that the breakup of the Original Six rivalry between Chicago and Detroit is a big mistake, and that the new format puts teams together in the same division with no real history between them. They believe that the realignment plan ruins the rivalries in the NHL.
The other camp believes that the new format will increase the rivalries due to the geographic closeness of most of the teams in the new 4 division format. This camp also believes that having five of the Original Six teams now in the East and playing against each other more often will increase those rivalries.
My view is somewhere in between these two camps. On the one hand, I think the Western Conference has some issues with building rivalries; and has more risk as far as selling tickets at the gate for some undesirable matchups than the East does at this point. I also believe that Chicago is the lone really good draw for a box office in the new Midwest division.
The Winnipeg franchise has no real history with anyone out in the Western Conference, though many insiders believe that the NHL is going to push a Winnipeg vs. Minnesota Wild rivalry in the future. I could see some of the Canadian teams in the west really developing some strong, competitive rivalries between them in the future.
In the east, I think that the move of Detroit is a great decision; I have been waiting for the NHL to do this for a long time. The Red Wings against teams such as Montreal, the Rangers, and the Boston Bruins are going to be very good games. The move of Columbus is going to be strange because they have always been in the west since joining the league, and it is going to be weird for fans in the east to see the Blue Jackets more often.
Another big potential issue being widely reported by sports media outlets is that the owners of both Florida franchises are not happy about being placed in the “Central” division. The travel costs associated for just the games played within their own division alone is going to be rather costly, to state nothing of the games against the teams in the west.
The Eastern Conference rivalries are going to be great between: the Rangers and the Capitals, the Devils and the Hurricanes. They have several geographic rivalries which will work well for them.
I also think that each team visiting every other arena in the league is a very positive development for hockey. It will be great for the fans in other markets out west to see Sidney Crosby and some of the other stars that they did not have the opportunity to see every year in the old format.
Expansion and the potential impact on this plan
It is no secret that the biggest issue in the lockout between the NHL players and owners was solely about money, and the subsequent split of the revenue pie. The rumors flying at the time were that the NHL was quietly testing the waters of expansion in order to generate more revenue for the “pie”.
The NHL is the fourth sport of the “Big 4”, but where the NHL is much different than the other leagues is it has a large presence in Canada, with very successful franchises up north as well. So, where other major American sports are not considering expansion based on the state of the economy, the NHL has an advantage with the option for Canadian expansion.
The league would probably expand by two teams to make it a 32 team league. The markets that are connected most often with expansion are Quebec City and Markham (or some other suburb of Toronto). The NHL has waited a long time to add a second team to Toronto, which is the largest hockey market in the world. The Quebec City bid for a team is strengthened by the fact that the government there approved, and is currently constructing a brand new arena in the hopes of getting an expansion or relocated NHL team.
The revenue injection from two additional teams plus their expansion fees would provide a big boost to the financial health of some of the established small market teams in the league.
However, that creates some problems with the new system because if both teams are added in eastern Canada, then the Eastern Conference would have 18 teams. So the league would have to potentially move teams back to the Western Conference to balance out the league and the scheduling.
Then, you have the whole mess which is the Phoenix Coyotes situation, and that ownership limbo that has been going on for over 4 years now. That franchise could get purchased and relocated as well, which creates a problem for the league and this new realignment program, if the team is moved somewhere in the east.
I read on CBS Sports.com today that a new potential ownership group is meeting with the NHL about buying and keeping the team in Phoenix. Unfortunately, the league has so many interested parties that cannot get the City of Glendale to provide them with a decent lease agreement on the arena. The team is losing money, and the arena lease deal is the key to getting that team back to a point where it can at least achieve break even status.
In the end, I think that the NHL realignment plan makes sense: from a geographic standpoint, to a TV ratings perspective, and for the fans of this wonderful sport. I look forward to seeing each team in the league at least twice per season, and I think the new rivalries will be fun to watch as well. I hope that the hockey fans out there, both casual and die hard, enjoyed this article and gained some useful information. I hope you enjoy the NHL Playoffs.