Give Gary Bettman some credit.
The league he governs is crawling its way back from obscurity on the American sports landscape after the canceled season of 2004-2005.
While the lucrative offers of the Russian Kontinental Hockey League continues to entice some players, the outward flow of talent has been temporarily abated. The annual outdoor Winter Classic game has been become a staple of the New Year’s Day (Jan. 2, in this year’s case) sports menu, a resounding fan and commercial success.
Three Original Six franchises—in Chicago, Detroit and Boston—have recently won Stanley Cups. In New York and Toronto signs of renewed competitive fire are apparent. And despite their current struggles, Montreal remains the league’s strongest market and its spiritual home.
The newer markets in Nashville, Carolina and Winnipeg (again) appear committed to long and passionate relationships with their respective clubs. So it shouldn't have been so surprising after all when Commissioner Bettman announced a proposed league realignment to be effective as soon as next season. I joined the opinion of many observers that the realignment proposal was innovative, rather equitable to all teams and respectful of historical and geographical rivalries.
In short, the new-look league would consist of:
Two with eight teams each-
- San Jose, Los Angeles, Anaheim, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Colorado, Phoenix
- Detroit, Columbus, Nashville, St. Louis, Chicago, Minnesota, Dallas and Winnipeg
Two with seven teams each-
- New Jersey, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, New York Rangers, New York Islanders, Washington, Carolina
- Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Boston, Buffalo, Tampa Bay and the Florida Panthers
- Each team would play a home-and-home series with every team from the other three conferences while filling the remainder of their schedule with intraconference games.
- The best four teams from each conference at the end of the regular season then qualify for the post season. The first two rounds of the playoffs would consist of only intraconference matchups.
However, the league’s player’s association shot down the proposal at their most recent meeting on Jan. 6. The full text of their statement can be accessed here. According to the players, the league could not provide them with sufficient assurances that the realignment would result in less overall travel, particularly for teams already geographically stretched by their divisional placement (i.e. Dallas, Detroit, Nashville, Columbus). While this disagreement between league and players hints at larger labor issues simmering below the surface, the need to realign should remain a top issue for the very near future of the NHL.
To take the league’s proposal one step further, I think going to two 15-team conferences wouldn't be a bad idea.
It could look like this:
|New York Rangers||Calgary|
|New York Islanders||Edmonton|
- Each team would play its conference opponents four times in total (2 home, 2 away) — 56 games
- While playing 14 teams from the other conference once (7 road games, 7 home games) — 14 games
- And playing one team from the other conference (an annual rival) in a home-and-home series — 2 games
That would be a total of 72 games, a reduction of 10 from the current format, a move that would be welcome from players already taxed by a gruelingly long season. I wouldn't alter the playoffs from their current format, and such a conference alignment eliminates the seeding of divisional winners higher than teams with a better record.
This is just one idea in what portends to be a drawn-out affair between the league, its owners and the players. However, if the sport wants to continue to experience its rebirth, it must display the same inventiveness behind some of the NHL All-Star Game changes, for example, to find a solution to this current dilemma.