League executives have revealed that NHL President Gary Bettman has issued a proposal to return to four divisions.
What are the Four Divisions?
With all of the hulla-baloo concerning the Thrashers' relocation to Winnipeg and questions of if Detroit, Columbus, or Nashville would move to the Eastern Conference, it appears that the NHL will abandon the notion of conferences for the regular season.
Bettman's plan would have teams placed into four divisions preliminarily given the names Pacific, Midwest, East, and South. Teams in separate divisions would play each other twice, once at home and once away. Teams in the same division would play six games against each other (see diagram).
Who is in Each Division?
One of the driving reasons behind the switch to four divisions is splitting up the teams in the Northeastern portion of the continent. Detroit draws the largest crowds of any team in the Western Conference while playing on the road. Moving the Redwings to the Eastern Conference would further turn the Eastern Conference into a conference of haves, while the Western Conference becomes the conference of the have-nots.
Notable in Bettman's proposal is the fact that instead of using the traditional division names of "Central" and "Northeast," Bettman is using "South" and "Midwest." This means that some Central teams, like Dallas and Nashville, will be in the new South Division, while some Northeast teams, like Toronto and Buffalo, will be in the new Midwest Division.
What is Happening to Conferences?
Bettman's plan is to save conferences for the second round of the playoffs. Because the schedule is highly focused on divisional play, the first round of the playoffs will feature the Top 4 teams from each division, pairing off against each other.
After the first round, the four winners from two divisions will be reseeded together. Although not mentioned in the release, it is likely that the Pacific and Midwest divisions will be paired as will the South and East divisions.
This means that if anyone objects to a team as far east as Toronto being placed in the "Western Conference" that the only time Toronto will function as a "Western Conference" team is if they make it past the First Round of the playoffs.
Who are the big winners in this scenario?
Almost everyone. The far-western teams will have more concentrated travel. Teams like Dallas and Minnesota (and potentially Winnipeg as well) will play a whole lot less games against those far-western teams. Detroit and Columbus will be playing in eastern divisions. And every team will play in every arena every year.
Who are the big losers in this scenario?
With some difficulty, 7 or 8 teams must be carved out of the highly concentrated Northeast to make up the "East" Division. Montreal will likely lose either Toronto or Boston. One of Pittsburgh, Columbus, and Washington won't be able to squeeze into the East Division. Rivalries that are stranded across division lines will see a drop to only two games per year.
The South Division may suffer a bit from being cutoff from most traditional hockey markets. This will likely be balanced by giving them a smaller division, with a greater chance of witnessing playoff hockey.
Is four playoff teams per division the way to go?
With the division-heavy schedule, there is some warrant for disallowing a strong 5th place team from one division from replacing a weaker 4th place team from another division.
"Conferences" already play a minimal role in this new structure, however, so if mixing divisions (the new, true rivalry structure) in the second round is tenable, then doing so in the first round should also be allowable.
Loosening playoff participation to between three and five teams could work easily, and also provide a way to smooth out the uneven competition of having two seven-team divisions and two eight-team divisions.
Should we start revving up for new rivalries?
This is still only a plan. The NHL Board of Governors would have to work out division participants and a stronger playoff structure. That being said, the NHL floated a return to the 90s style of four-divisions a few years ago.
The return to four divisions obviously has strong support among the owners. The main difference this time around is instead of a Central Division with teams from Dallas to Winnipeg to Detroit, the three non-western divisions will be given a more geographical alignment, and "conferences" will play a diminished role (both improvements for non-western teams).
One of the advantages this proposal holds is that the NHL does not need to wait for a resolution of the Coyotes' ownership situation before moving forward. This idea can be further tweaked through the course of this next season, as the issues with Phoenix are worked out concurrently.
While it is this writer's opinion that the East/West Conference structure should not play a role in the playoffs, Gary Bettman's desire to continue matching the Clarence Campbell Champion against the Prince of Wales Champion in the Stanley Cup Finals for the sake of history and tradition is understood.