Thursday, December 08, 2011

Change It

This piece originally ran in Cold as Ice, the hockey column I write for Popblerd.

Just last month, theories and rumors were flying about the impending change on the NHL horizon in regards to realignment of the league’s conferences. Spurred on by the move of the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg, most observers expected a slight adjustment of teams in the East and West conferences.

Instead, the NHL Board of Governors this week approved a plan to radically revamp the league, dividing it into four conferences (instead of the current system that features two conferences with three divisions each) and completely changing the playoff format. It’s a bold choice from a league that doesn’t usually make such moves, and the ramifications are still being sorted out. Whatever the case, the new look of the NHL starts with the 2012-13 season. The NHL Players’ Association still must sign off on the plan.

The four as-yet unnamed conferences (divisions have been done away with altogether) will look like this, essentially arranged in geographical groupings from West to East:

Conference A: Anaheim, Calgary, Colorado, Edmonton, Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Jose, Vancouver

Conference B: Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Detroit, Minnesota, Nashville, St. Louis, Winnipeg

Conference C: Boston, Buffalo, Florida, Montreal, Ottawa, Tampa Bay, Toronto

Conference D: Carolina, New Jersey, NY Islanders, NY Rangers, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Washington

Benefits of the new alignment:

· Boosting rivalries. The new system harks back to the one used by the NHL from 1982-1993, in which the top four teams in each division played the first two playoff rounds within their own division. So you’ll see a lot of those old divisional rivalries rekindled (Washington is back in the same grouping with its old Patrick Division foes Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, the Rangers and Islanders) and new ones emerge (Florida and Tampa have essentially been moved into the current Northeast division). The full playoff format has yet to be revealed, so we don’t know whether teams are re-seeded after the second round. Whatever happens, it’s a big change from the current 1-8 conference rankings (similar to the NBA).

· A balanced schedule. One of the biggest complaints with the existing system was the unfairness of the schedule for teams in the West in terms of increased air travel, later start times and an uneven schedule that meant certain marquee teams rarely came to visit. Under the new system, every NHL team will play in every city at least once per season and more games against regional rivals means more “normal” start times for road games.

· More flexibility. As it stands, there will be two seven-team and two eight-team conferences, which means if teams have to move to new locations (Phoenix, Columbus, Florida, the Islanders and New Jersey have all been struggling financially) or if new franchises are awarded, only minor changes would be necessary to place them properly. Don’t think franchise-hungry Canadians in western Ontario and Quebec City haven’t noticed.

Cons of the realignment include:

· Playoff repetition. The return to the 1980s playoff format means teams will see the same rivals each year, at least for the first two rounds. As much as folks have praised the rivalry aspect, others have bemoaned it. You also won’t see huge playoff upsets, such as an 8 seed knocking off a 1 seed, like you did in the past (Detroit fans can remember several such painful episodes). Also, teams with good records in tough conferences may find themselves out of the playoffs while teams with lesser records get in.

· Florida teams hit the road. By becoming part of the Northeast-based conference, the Panthers and Lightning will see their frequent flier mileage grow exponentially. Although they may also see increased business at home games with more visits from Original Six teams like Montreal, Boston and Toronto.

· Disappointed Canadians. The shakeup has six of the seven Canadian teams in two conferences, which means fewer playoff spots available for those clubs and more than likely fewer Canadian teams playing for the Stanley Cup each spring. That won’t go over well in the Great White North.

It remains to be seen how this whole realignment will shake out next season, but it’s sure to be an interesting ride.

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