On Monday night, the NHL announced its Board of Governors had adopted a radical realignment plan that does away with the current two-conference, six-division system in favor of a new four-conference setup. Although the plan does do some good — it gets Winnipeg out of the Southeast Division and moves Dallas into a grouping with teams that aren’t two time zones away — it ultimately goes overboard and makes wholesale changes when minor tweaks would’ve sufficed. It replaces the engine when the car only needed an oil change.
The biggest problem with this four-conference system is that it diminishes some very good rivalries. The Bruins and Flyers, for example, have a rivalry that dates back to the ’70s and has been reignited with a pair of playoff meetings in the last two years. Under the new plan, though, they’ll play each other just twice a season and will never face off in the playoffs any earlier than the third round. Same goes for the Canucks and Blackhawks, who have a budding rivalry of their own after meeting in the playoffs each of the last three years. The Wild and Stars are now both in a conference that makes more sense geographically than their current divisions, but neither one of them will face any of their current divisional rivals more than twice a season moving forward.
Under the current setup, teams play divisional foes six times a season and other conference opponents four times apiece. They also play every out-of-conference team at least once, and three of them twice. With the new setup, though, teams will play everyone in their conference six times (or some five times in the eight-team conferences) and everyone else twice.
The upside to this is that fans get to see every team in the NHL at their home arena every season. Western teams get to see the Penguins every year and eastern teams get to see the Red Wings every year. But what is a gain for some teams is a loss for others. Fans in the Northeast only get to see natural rivals like the Rangers, Flyers and Penguins come to their building once instead of twice. Panthers and Lightning fans go from seeing division rival Washington three times a year to just once. Fans on the West Coast only get to see the Red Wings and Blackhawks once now.
You can play the “now we get to see Team X instead of Team Y” game all day, but in the end everything’s a wash. For every “good game” your team gains, you also get one against a team you don’t care about. For every “bad game” your team gets rid of, you also lose one against a conference power.
The new system also forces rivalries that it’s hard to see fans getting too excited about. Are Canadiens and Maple Leafs fans going to be looking forward to six meetings apiece with the Panthers and Lightning? Nope. And how thrilled are Flames and Oilers fans going to be about “rivalries” with the Coyotes and Ducks? Not very.
Of course, not every team has good rivalries with everyone in its current division. But what’s great about the current setup is that you can also build rivalries with teams outside your division (see the Bruins-Flyers and Canucks-Blackhawks examples mentioned at the top). That won’t happen with the new plan. You’re not going to spark a rivalry by playing someone twice a year and seeing them once every five to 10 years in the playoffs.
Another point of contention with the four-conference system is that teams in the two eight-team conferences aren’t on a level playing field as teams in the seven-team conferences. Gary Bettman said Monday night that competitive balance isn’t an issue, but it is. Plain and simple. Do the math. Four teams from each conference will make the playoffs, so if you’re in a seven-team conference, you have a 57.1-percent chance of making it. If you’re in an eight-team conference, you only have a 50-percent chance. Those two numbers aren’t equal, Mr. Bettman. With the current two-conference setup, everyone has a 53.3-percent chance.
So what do I propose instead of this radical realignment? One of two things. You could keep the current six-division format and the current scheduling, but just make a few changes for the sake of travel. Send Winnipeg from the Southeast to the Northwest, where it can still form a natural rivalry with Minnesota. Send Nashville from the Central to the Southeast since neither Detroit nor Columbus would make sense in the Southeast. Send Dallas from the Pacific to the Central so it can get away from all those ridiculous west-coast division trips it’s had to make for the last decade. And send Vancouver from the Northwest to the Pacific because it fits there better than Dallas.
Or you could go to four divisions (because it’s easiest, we’ll just make the four divisions the same as the four new “conferences”), but keep an Eastern and Western conference. So new Conferences A and B would be the two Western divisions and new Conferences C and D would be the two Eastern divisions. Then you would just have to move one Western team (Detroit, Columbus or Nashville) to the East so each conference would have 15 teams. As for scheduling in this scenario, you could do five or six games against teams in your division (depending on whether you’re in a seven- or eight-team division), four games against everyone else in your conference, and then you’d be left with 19 games against the other conference — one more than you have now.
Both of those options take care of the current geography and travel problems just as well as the radical realignment, and both of them also preserve conference rivalries, something the new system does not do.