The NHL lockout may be over, but there are still more challenges for the league's owners and the NHLPA to work out before next season.
Realignment is the biggest issue that the two sides have to figure out for the 2013-14 season. According to Gary Lawless of the Winnipeg Free Press, there won't be any changes to the NHL's current two-conference, six-division setup in the lockout-shortened season.
gary lawless (@garylawless) January 6, 2013
The NHL owners agreed to a substantial realignment plan that broke the league down to four conferences—two with eight teams and two with seven teams in December of 2011. The plan was rejected by the NHLPA, but it's possible that the four-conference idea could resurface this summer.
Relocation and expansion have created some difficult circumstances for many teams because there are several clubs that travel way too much.
Teams shouldn't have to travel through multiple time zones just to play divisional opponents. This amount of travel causes fatigue, and is very inconvenient.
Here's a small list of teams that need to be moved from their current division and why.
- Dallas Stars: Since they are in the Pacific Division, the Stars have to travel two time zones to play three of their four division rivals, which are the three California teams. If the NHL keeps its current alignment for next season and just moves some teams around, Dallas should go to the Central Division.
- Minnesota Wild: All of Minnesota's division opponents are in different time zones, including the Vancouver Canucks, who are two time zones away. The Wild should be in the Central Division or whatever future division/conference that includes the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks.
- Winnipeg Jets: The Jets are in the worst situation regarding travel because they are in Manitoba and have to travel to Florida, North Carolina and Washington D.C. just for their division games. Winnipeg should be moved to the Northwest Division and establish rivalries with the Wild, the Edmonton Oilers and the Calgary Flames.
- Detroit Red Wings: Despite being in the eastern time zone, the Red Wings have been in the Western Conference since the current format began in 1994. Detroit have to travel three time zones to play a lot of their out-of-division opponents in the Western Conference.
The problem with realignment using Western and Eastern Conferences is that there are too many teams that need to play Eastern teams. There are currently 17 teams in the eastern time zone.
What number of conferences is better for the NHL?
There are more teams who should move to the Eastern Conference to cut down on travel than teams who need to move to the Western Conference. It wouldn't be wise for the league to have one conference with three or more teams than the other.
To ensure that each team is in the best location possible for travel concerns and maintaining rivalries, the league should resurrect its four-conference plan from last year. In case you forgot how the teams were divided in that format, take a look at the chart below.
|Conference A||Conference B||Conference C||Conference D|
|Vancouver Canucks||St. Louis Blues||Boston Bruins||Pittsburgh Penguins|
|San Jose Sharks||Winnipeg Jets||Toronto Maple Leafs||New York Rangers|
|Phoenix Coyotes||Chicago Blackhawks||Montreal Canadiens||New York Rangers|
|Anaheim Ducks||Nashville Predators||Ottawa Senators||New Jersey Devils|
|Edmonton Oilers||Detroit Red Wings||Buffalo Sabres||Washington Capitals|
|Colorado Avalanche||Dallas Stars||Tampa Bay Lightning||Philadelphia Flyers|
|Calgary Flames||Minnesota Wild||Florida Panthers||Carolina Hurricanes|
|Los Angeles Kings||Columbus Blue Jackets|
This is the best plan for the league. You cannot please every team and solve all the travel problems, but the above format does a nice job helping as many teams as possible while making sure that historic rivalries are allowed to continue. There's also a spot open in Conference C for a possible Quebec City franchise.
Realignment has to happen for 2013-14 because too many teams are facing travel challenges. There are also some really cool rivalries that could be born from realignment, such as Wild versus Jets.
The league needs teams all over the United States in order to have a "national footprint," which helps the NHL negotiate huge television deals like the one it currently has with NBC Sports. With that said, relocation isn't the answer to the league's alignment issues.
The answer is changing the current format to have four conferences, where teams play as many in-conference opponents in the same time zone as possible.
The lockout is over and we finally have a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) for the next 8-10 years, but challenges remain for NHL owners and the NHLPA in the immediate future. Realignment should be at the top of the list.