How Will Conference Realignment Affect the NHL?

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How Will Conference Realignment Affect the NHL?

The NHL is getting a makeover for the 2013-14 season and there are plenty of reasons for hockey fans to be excited.

The new realignment plan has resulted in the league undergoing some major changes, including multiple teams switching conferences, having four total divisions instead of six, and a new postseason format similar to the old divisional setup.

According to NHL.com's Dan Rosen, the Western Conference divisions are named Pacific and Central, while the Eastern Conference divisions are called Atlantic and Metropolitan.

Let's take a look how realignment will impact rivalries, divisions, future expansion/relocation, and the Stanley Cup playoffs.

 

Teams Moving, Divisions Changing, Rivalries

Elsa/Getty Images

Here's a look at the compete conference setup with realignment.

East, Metropolitan Division East, Atlantic Division West, Central Division West, Pacific Division
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

The most notable change to the East is the addition of the Detroit Red Wings. Despite being located in the Eastern time zone, Detroit has played in the Western Conference since 1993-94.

As one of the most successful franchises in the history of the league, the Red Wings' move to the Atlantic Division, where they will play with three other Original Six teams, is a great change for the league. This will allow the Red Wings to re-establish old rivalries with other historic franchises, including the Leafs, Rangers, Bruins and Canadiens.

Wayne Gretzky shared his thoughts on the impact realignment will have on rivalries in a March interview with Sportsnet 590:

The other side of it is I think it’s going to create strong and bigger rivalries. With teams like Detroit and Toronto in the same division, the same conference, it’s just a positive for the National Hockey League.

Detroit's move to the East also leaves the West with just one Original Six team (Chicago). This will weaken the Red Wings' rivalry with the Blackhawks, which has been one of the NHL's best for over 50 years.

But the two clubs will still play each other at least twice per season because for the first time since 1997-98, every franchise will play the other 29 teams at home and away at least once, which will gives fans in each city an opportunity to watch their favorite stars. 

Other than Detroit and Chicago, most of the West rivalries, including the Battle of Alberta, were maintained in realignment.

 

Time Zones and Travel

Reducing the amount of travel between time zones was a huge goal in the realignment process, and most teams' needs have been satisfied with the new plan.

The only two teams that should be more concerned about travel than before are the Florida teams, but playing in a division with four Original Six teams should benefit them financially, which makes the change tolerable.

Winnipeg finally gets out of the Southeast Division under the new format, which will substantially reduce its travel and allow the team to form geographical rivalries. The Stars won't have to be in a division with Pacific teams anymore. Instead, Dallas will play more Central Time Zone teams and travel far less than before.

Television ratings and interest among fans could rise at a steady rate because of some teams playing more games against opponents in the same time zone. It's not something a lot of fans think about, but this change could have a profound impact on the league's growth.

Gretzky spoke to Sportsnet 590 about this topic in March:

People often forget that part of the issue for a team like Detroit is not so much the people of Detroit going to their games, but the fact that a lot of their road games wouldn’t start until 10:00 or 10:30 p.m. Detroit time and it’s hard to get more and more young kids following your team because you can never come out and market your team or the sport enough.

Now, with Detroit and Columbus moving to the East, they’re going to get a lot more opportunity to play a lot of 7-7:30 games on TV when they play on the road and I think that’s great for those franchises.

Less travel should give players more energy throughout the season, which could increase the quality of the on-ice product. The earlier start times also benefit the fans, especially young kids with early bedtimes.

 

Expansion

Phillip MacCallum/Getty Images

The interesting part of the East setup is the lack of open spots in both divisions for possible relocation or expansion. Quebec City has started to build an NHL-capable arena and is a strong candidate for a team in the near future, but giving the city a franchise would require some changes to the current setup.

The possibility of a second Toronto-area team has also been speculated on, with Markham being a possible destination. Like Quebec City, the GTA option isn't possible in the East under the new format unless a team relocates within the conference or larger changes are made.

The Western Conference has two open spots for expansion/relocation. Seattle is often discussed as a good hockey market for the NHL, while Portland is another possible destination because the Rose Garden (home of the NBA's Trail Blazers) would be a good arena for hockey.

If the Coyotes' new ownership in Glendale doesn't work out, the league will be able to keep the team in its current division by relocating it to one of these two western cities.

 

Stanley Cup Playoffs

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The postseason should be even more exciting thanks to the new realignment format. Here's how the postseason system will work, per TSN's Bob McKenzie:

The actual playoff bracket will use a system similar to the old divisional style. This change will create a higher probability of rivalry matchups in the playoffs, such as Bruins vs. Canadiens and Penguins vs. Flyers, which is great for fans and the television networks hoping for strong ratings.

Per ESPN's Craig Custance, we will have at least three years of the new playoff system.

The Stanley Cup Final will still feature an East/West matchup, but the higher probability of rivalries becoming a bigger factor in the playoffs is a positive change to an already amazing NHL postseason.

 

Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. He was also a credentialed writer at the 2011 and 2013 Stanley Cup Final, as well as the 2013 NHL draft.  Realignment map photo via @phoenixcoyotes.

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