Realignment appears inevitable for the NHL. What the league doesn’t realize is that changing the landscape would hurt the game in more ways than not.
In December 2011, the league took its first crack at realignment.
According to Yahoo!Sports, the initial proposal would have created four conferences based geographical time zones—two with eight teams and two with seven. The top four teams in each conference would make the playoffs with the first two rounds played within the conference.
But the Players’ Association balked, and did so for good reason. The odds of making the playoffs were drastically unjust, with 50 percent of the teams in the two eight-team conferences making the playoffs, and 57 percent of the teams in the two seven-team conferences making the playoffs.
So the league went back to the drawing board, and tweaked its original proposal, which was announced late last month, according to NHL.com.
The new proposal would create two conferences with four divisions based on time zones. Detroit and Columbus would switch to the East, while Winnipeg would move to the West. The West would feature 14 clubs, with the East holding 16. The top three teams in each division would make the playoffs, and the final two spots in each respective conference would be wild cards.
So, what exactly did the league “tweak” from its last proposal? The possibility of adding two wild-card teams to the playoffs in the Western Conference to even the odds of making the playoffs?
Fascinating. Problems solved.
Not so fast.
This isn’t rocket science. This is the NHL, where the most sophisticated occurrences unfold. Realignment is the latest rotten apple to fall from league headquarters.
Aside from moving Detroit, Columbus and Winnipeg, and the likelihood of adding two extra playoff spots for the two eight-team conferences, the league’s second proposal differs little from its first, and a number of the same flaws still persist.
The playoff odds remain unequal, with eight teams making the playoffs, 57 percent of the teams in West and 50 percent of those in the East.
It doesn’t take a mathematician to calculate the odds. Obviously the league didn’t think this one through. Sure, there's the possibility of expansion, which would allow two teams to join the West to even the playing field. But does the league plan to do so by the start of next season? If that's the case, there's not much time.
What’s more, the weakest wild card would square off against the strongest division winner, according to Yahoo!Sports. On paper, it’s similar to the current playoff format with the eighth seed playing the one seed. However, under the new format, crossing different time zones wouldn’t be a problem for teams in the East. Though, in the West, it would prove both burdensome and ludicrous.
What about travel? Wasn’t this proposal supposed to solve that mystery? According to Yahoo!Sports, It would do so for the second and third seeds in each division who would battle each other in the first round of the playoffs. But what about the other playoff teams? In the West, travel proves to be a bigger factor than the overall matchup, according to Detroit head coach Mike Babcock.
Say Vancouver is the highest seed in the West playing a wild-card team such as Nashville. Vancouver's bonus for a spectacular season would be horrendous travel. The same could be said for the top teams in the East, where Boston could be dealt the gruesome task of traveling to Tampa Bay.
Under the new proposal, Florida and Tampa Bay—members of the new Central Division—would lose out by having to tack on additional air mileage than before. Instead of flying to Washington, Winnipeg and Carolina, Florida and Tampa Bay would now travel to Ottawa, Montreal, Toronto, Buffalo and Boston.
It doesn’t make sense from a mileage standpoint, let alone a common sense standpoint.
Another downfall of this new proposal is the loss of true rivalries. No longer would Chicago and Detroit—two Original Six teams—battle it out six times every season. Nor would St. Louis and Detroit, another storied rivalry.
I’m sure Blues fans would rather pay top dollar to see the Red Wings come to town three times every season than the Jets. The same can be said for Blackhawks fans.
There are some aspects of this new proposal that make sense. Detroit and Columbus—two Western Conference teams currently situated in the Eastern time zone—would switch to the Eastern Conference, making travel accommodations much smoother.
The city of Seattle—a potential home of an NHL team—would also win, unless the glaring problems in Phoenix would drastically improve in the coming months.
Chicago, St. Louis and Nashville would also play in a weaker division than before with the loss of Detroit.
Television markets would benefit by having multiple contests between Pittsburgh, Washington, Detroit, Boston, Toronto and Montreal.
And four of the Original Six teams would be paired in the new Central Division—Boston, Detroit, Montreal and Toronto.
But these are just a few perks that sugarcoat the numerous drawbacks. The aforementioned blemishes remain unsolved, and the league needs to rethink this platform before putting it to use.
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