Realignment continues to be a hot topic in the NHL as the league has reportedly put together a new four-conference format that could be used in the 2013-14 season, according to Elliotte Friedman of Hockey Night in Canada.
The latest setup has not been voted on, and more changes could be made, but it's probably the best layout that the owners and players can come up with.
The following charts are the most recent realignment proposals. Table 1 is the newest layout (per Friedman) and Table 2 is the plan that was rejected by the NHLPA in January of 2012.
|Conference 1||Conference 2||Conference 3||Conference 4|
|Carolina Hurricanes||Boston Bruins||Chicago Blackhawks||Anaheim Ducks|
|Columbus Blue Jackets||Toronto Maple Leafs||Dallas Stars||Calgary Flames|
|New Jersey Devils||Montreal Canadiens||Colorado Avalanche||Edmonton Oilers|
|Philadelphia Flyers||Detroit Red Wings||Minnesota Wild||Los Angeles Kings|
|New York Rangers||Ottawa Senators||Nashville Predators||Phoenix Coyotes|
|New York Islanders||Buffalo Sabres||St. Louis Blues||San Jose Sharks|
|Pittsburgh Penguins||Tampa Bay Lightning||Winnipeg Jets||Vancouver Canucks|
|Washington Capitals||Florida Panthers||OPEN SPOT ||OPEN SPOT |
|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 Islanders|
|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||OPEN SPOT||OPEN SPOT|
What are the differences between the two plans?
- The "Open Spots" are now in the two West conferences, which would allow the Phoenix Coyotes to relocate north to Seattle (if needed) and still remain in the same conference.
- The Red Wings and Blue Jackets are finally grouped with East teams (both clubs want less travel as a result of realignment).
- Columbus, Detroit and Colorado are the only three teams that changed conferences in the latest plan.
- The possible "expansion slots" that were in the Eastern conferences under the 2011 setup (Table B above) are now gone. Is this bad news for Quebec City? Where is a Quebec team going to play if there's no room in the East conferences?
Breakdown of Latest Four-Conference Format
Time Zone and Travel Observations
The league needed to find a way for the Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets to play East teams on a regular basis since both of these franchises are located in the Eastern time zone. In the new format, the Red Wings are paired with the current Northeast Division teams, while the Blue Jackets are grouped with the Atlantic Division squads.
After being in the Western Conference since the East/West format began in the 1993-94 season, the league owed Detroit a favorable outcome in realignment. There's no reason a team in the Eastern time zone should play the majority of its schedule against West teams for nearly two decades.
As expected, the league wasn't able to put every team in a conference that allows for the ideal amount of travel and keeps rivalries intact.
Winnipeg would not have to play divisional games against Southeast Division teams in the new format, but the Jets are not in the same conference as the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers, which could prevent some great Canadian rivalries from forming in the near future.
The two Florida teams will still play Eastern time zone opponents regularly, but they would have to make long trips up the East coast on a regular basis to play the Northeast Division teams under the new format. It would have been extremely difficult to keep certain rivalries intact and not put the Lightning and Panthers in Conference 2.
The only major rivalry that was broken up is Blackhawks vs. Red Wings, but since all 30 teams will play each other at least twice every season (once at home and on the road, via Friedman), splitting up these Original Six rivals isn't a huge deal.
The new format isn't perfect in regard to travel, geography, rivalry and time zone concerns, but it's probably as close to perfect as the league will get.
The following teams greatly benefit from the new plan compared to the current East/West format:
- Dallas Stars: Fewer games against the Pacific coast teams.
- Winnipeg Jets: No more trips to Florida for divisional games.
- Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets: Majority of games will be against teams in Eastern time zone.
- Washington Capitals: Fewer trips to Florida and more games against teams closer to Washington, D.C. (Flyers, Rangers, Devils, Islanders).
No team is in a horrible situation in the new plan, so it's hard to imagine any more tweaks being made if four conferences is the direction that both the NHL and NHLPA decide to take.
NBC and CBC Are Big Winners of the Latest Plan
Executives at NBC Sports and CBC probably took one look at the new plan and jumped for joy at the sight of four Original Six teams in huge television markets together in Conference 2.
With the Red Wings joining the Northeast Division teams, hockey fans would have a great opportunity to see more Original Six matchups each season, which is great for everyone.
It's important for the league to have as many Original Six teams in the same conference as possible because these are the rivalries that drive the league's popularity and television ratings.
This is also a huge win for the television networks because these cities have huge fanbases that help create incredibly high ratings for regular-season and playoff games.
Reuniting the teams that made up the old Patrick (Devils, Rangers, Islanders, Penguins, Flyers and Capitals) and Adams (Bruins, Canadiens, Senators, Sabres) divisions is a great move by the owners, and it should allow the league's television ratings and revenue to grow even higher.
Regardless of how the league determines its playoff format (more on that below), the possible first-round matchups in all conferences are exciting to think about.
Having the Flyers and Penguins and the Canadiens and Bruins battling in the playoffs on a regular basis would be a huge win for the league and NBC/CBC. There are also a few playoff matchups that we could see quite often under the new format that haven't happened in a long time.
|Playoff Matchup||Most Recent Meeting|
|Bruins vs. Red Wings||1957 (Boston won 4-1)|
|Maple Leafs vs. Red Wings||1993 (Toronto won 4-3)|
|Blues vs. Blackhawks||2002 (St. Louis won 4-1)|
How Would the Playoffs Work?
UPDATE: Tuesday, February 26 at 12:07 p.m. ET by Nicholas Goss
TSN's Bob McKenzie has provided an update on how the playoffs could work if the latest realignment plan is adopted.
Bob McKenzie @TSNBobMcKenzie
Top 3 teams in each of two 8-team East conferences make the playoffs. Two wild cards from remaining 10 East teams also make the playoffs.2013-2-26 16:56:36
Bob McKenzie @TSNBobMcKenzie
Top 3 teams in each of two 7-team West conferences make playoffs. Two wild cards from remaining 8 West teams also make the playoffs.2013-2-26 16:57:28
Bob McKenzie @TSNBobMcKenzie
Playoff format remains old divisional style, 1 vs. 4, 2 vs. 3 though it remains to be seen how the wild cards are slotted for first-round.2013-2-26 16:58:41
---End of Update---
There is no official word from the league on what kind of playoff system would be used in the new realignment plan, but the logical idea is to use the divisional playoff format that was in place prior to the existing East/West Conference setup that began in 1994.
Finding a fair way to give teams in all four conferences the same chance to make the playoffs has to be a priority for the league since the two Western conferences have eight teams and the Eastern conferences have seven.
If four teams from each conference are going to make the playoffs (which seems extremely likely), the teams in the Eastern conferences have an unfair advantage because there are only six opponents to battle for playoff position.
What's the solution?
Friedman reported that a "wild card" is a possibility. The NHL could use something similar to Major League Baseball's wild-card format and have the No. 4 and No. 5 seeds in both Western conferences play in a single matchup (or maybe a small three-game series for more revenue) to earn a spot in the first round of the playoffs.
In any case, as MLB exhibited this past season, changes to playoff formatting can often yield excitement. And considering NHL would be reformatting entire conferences as well, realignment could be just the way for the league to get fans invigorated once again.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter. He was a credentialed reporter at the 2011 Stanley Cup Final and 2012 NHL playoffs.