How can the NHL make realignment workable? It is a debate that has raged on and on...often with little to show in the way of productive results.
While I am certain that there are many people at the NHL head office who are taking this matter extremely seriously, I happen to have my own opinion on how the NHL should work realignment for the benefit of everyone.
I started by examining what I see as the major issues affecting NHL franchises and where their games are played. The two largest of which are the regular-season travel schedule of Western teams vs. their Eastern counterparts and the fact that there are Western Conference franchises struggling because they are non-traditional hockey markets which end up playing a lot of their road games at hours which are too late for their fans.
If you look closely, you will see that the second issue is almost an extension of the first one. When you consider that you have a lineup of franchises dying to get out of the Western Conference and into the Eastern Conference (most notably Detroit) it only highlights what I see to be the real issue with the NHL alignment issue.
The real issue is that the NHL is trying to balance the eastern teams against the western teams when that balance does not exist. So, why do they persist? Well, because of time zones. We all know that.
But, when more than half of your franchises exist in one time zone while the rest are scattered over several others, the balance simply is not there. No matter how hard you try to convince yourself that it is!
So what is the solution? Well, its politics. You have not done your job right until you make everyone equally unhappy. For the NHL, this means scrapping the Eastern and Western conferences and creating the Northern and Southern conferences.
This way, everyone gets to have the same crappy travel schedule, not just the teams in one conference.
It takes a bit of getting used to the concept, but for all of the complaints it would generate, I think that if people want to take a step back to examine it, they will see that it really does correct most of the bigger flaws that realignment seems to keep bumping up against.
So how would the new conferences and divisions work? Well, here it goes:
Northern Conference – Northwest Division: Vancouver Canucks, Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames, Winnipeg Jets and Minnesota Wild.
Cons: Minnesota does not want to be the ONLY American team in the division. Still a fairly large division geographically.
Pros: Minnesota gets a better travel schedule than they currently have right now.
Northern Conference – North Division: Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings, Buffalo Sabres, Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators
Cons: Toronto would love to keep Montreal as a divisional rival.
Pros: Detroit and Chicago move into a division that better suits their needs.
Northern Conference – Northeast Division: Montreal Canadiens, Boston Bruins, New York Islanders, New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils
Cons: Montreal probably does not like losing Ottawa or Toronto as division rivals
Pros: Only really three cities in this division, tidy.
Southern Conference – Southwest Division: Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks, San Jose Sharks, Phoenix Coyotes and Colorado Avalanche
Cons: There are not really any draws in the division. Do the Coyotes suffer even more?
Pros: Geographically, this division is fairly travel-friendly for teams out west.
Southern Conference – South Division: Dallas Stars, St. Louis Blues, Nashville Predators, Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning.
Cons: These are all struggling teams, could the division fold as a unit?
Pros: Stars, Blues and Predators move into a more realistic time zone. Could stop the struggles.
Southern Conference – Southeast Division: Columbus Blue Jackets, Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers, Washington Capitals and Carolina Hurricanes.
Cons: Its not southeast at all! Its more like east-central!
Pros: A division like this could probably make Columbus a hockey town.
And there you have it. Realignment is done! Working out how many times you play divisional rivals, conference rivals and teams in the other conference could still be tinkered with.
But everyone is now in a division which is reasonable geographically speaking, and everyone has the same balance of east to west travel in their own conference. It is equally unfair to everyone!
But in all seriousness, I think that this would take a huge step forward into helping many of the struggling franchises, most notably teams in the eastern half of the western conference which just seem to struggle constantly.
Fans of teams like Columbus, Nashville, Dallas and St. Louis could actually look forward to watching games on TV before they are going to bed. Keeping teams like those strong and healthy can only lead to making the league as a whole that much viable as a business.
Because, despite us fans being primarily concerned about our own hometown team, a healthy NHL will continue to be better for everyone involved.