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NHL Realignment: NFL Style Conferences, an Outside the Box Possibility

Russell FrancisContributor IIINovember 7, 2011

NHL Realignment: NFL Style Conferences, an Outside the Box Possibility

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    Welcome to the second part of my NHL Realignment series!

    From last time, recall that.

    NHL Realignment is on the horizon for the 2012-12 season. The Winnipeg Jets are most certainly leaving the Southeast Division and the dominoes will start to fall from there.

    The Nashville PredatorsDetroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets are aiming to move to the Eastern Conference to take the place of the former Atlanta Thrashers. But it doesn't take a Geographer to realize that the Detroit Red Wings simply do not belong in the Southeast Division.

    After reading the excellent NHL Realignment Project on Tomfulery, I was inspired to come up with some different possibilities.

    Any alignment needs the following four points to be considered:

    1. Travel Time 
    2. Schedule balance
    3. Games outside of a teams time zone 
    4. Games against traditional rivals

    I will be posting a series of posts detailing slightly Outside the Box possibilities for NHL Realignment. In some way, these all stretch the paradigm in some way.

    Today, we will switch from the East-West Alignment of the past 18 years, and instead we are going to return to the old Campbell and Prince of Wales Conference that we had in place before. Each conference is then divided into East, West, and Central Divisions. A number of rivalries are kept intentionally, but not surprisingly, it is not perfect.

Prince of Wales Conference: Western Division

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    Anaheim Ducks

    Calgary Flames

    Dallas Stars

    Edmonton Oilers

    San Jose Sharks

    This division makes sure to keep the Battle of Alberta together, two of the three California teams, and throws the Dallas Stars in for good measure. This keeps Dallas with their current Pacific Division rivals in Anaheim and San Jose, and gives us potential to revisit the Edmonton-Dallas rivalry of the late 90s and early 00s.

    While it may seem strange to separate Anaheim and Los Angeles, since they are cross-town rivals, there is some logic to this. Despite the proximity of their arenas, these two really are not rivals. They have never met in a playoff series, and I can't think of any memorable regular season moments between the two since the Ducks joined the NHL in 1993.

    One of the key designs of this alignment, if two teams are close and do not have an established rivalry, they should be separated. This allows more stars and teams to be exposed to more markets, something that Major League Baseball and the National Football League benefit from.

    For example, if you live in say, Ohio, and are a baseball fan, and you want to watch the New York Yankees, they come to Cleveland regularly and you should have no trouble watching them on local TV. Yet, if you want to watch the St. Louis Cardinals, they come to Cincinnati very often, and you get to watch them as well. A similar possibility exists in this setup if you live in the greater LA Area. 

Prince of Wales Conference: Central Division

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    Carolina Hurricanes

    Columbus Blue Jackets

    Nashville Predators

    St. Louis Blues

    Tampa Bay Lightning

     

    Of course, the naming here is a little strange, how could Tampa Bay and Carolina be considered "Central"? But this is more or less the leftover division after the other five have been divided up. But then again, if the NFL can consider Dallas to be East and St. Louis to be West, a little give needs to be added here.

    This lumps three teams from the current Central division, and two from the Southeast, which can be logically joined together since Nashville and Carolina are so close.

    This division does lack a big draw for home events, but I think that Tampa Bay could fill that roll if Steven Stamkos plays out his career in Florida.

    Also, Tampa Bay and Florida are separated for the same reasons that Anaheim and Los Angeles are. They are close to each other, but have never really had any sort of true rivalry with one another, and when in doubt, split them up.

Prince of Wales Conference: Eastern Division

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    Boston Bruins

    Montreal Canadiens

    New Jersey Devils

    New York Rangers

    Washington Capitals

    The Montreal-Boston rivalry was absolutely essential to stay intact, something that was missing in the North-South split last time. Similarly for the Devils-Rangers, who have long been fierce rivals. Washington is brought back with their old Patrick Division rivals in New York and New Jersey.

    The most obvious omission from this division is the New York Islanders, who are separated from the Rangers. This was done to maximize fan visibility in the continents largest market. Plus, it gives us a chance of having a Stanley Cup Subway Series – assuming the Islanders ever get an arena near public transit.

    If this is totally offensive, and I would understand if it was, the Devils can be switched out with the Islanders.

    The Capitals and Penguins were intentionally split, to provide maximum visibility for the two marquee stars. Of course, Crosby and Ovechkin are not guaranteed to stay on their current teams forever, but it is the best that can be done for the moment.

    But really, what is not to be loved about a division that has three Original Six teams?

Campbell's Conference: Western Division

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    Colorado Avalanche

    Los Angeles Kings

    Phoenix Coyotes

    Vancouver Canucks

    Winnipeg Jets

     

    There is, of course, a pretty big geographic region covered here, but such is life in the West.

    I kept the Canucks and Jets together to give them both a chance to build a Canadian rivalry. This is similar to the the reasoning with the Coyotes and the Kings in the Southwest. Colorado gets to keep their Northwest rivalry with Vancouver, and we get the Old Jets-New Jets rivalry for good measure.

    This division is blessed with a dearth of young talent that really should be fun to watch as the teams and players mature.

Campbell's Conference: Central Division

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    Chicago Blackhawks

    Detroit Red Wings

    Minnesota Wild

    Ottawa Senators

    Toronto Maple Leafs

     

    I guess this could be called a Northern Division instead of a Central one, but that is only semantics.

    This would probably be the marquee division of the NHL, containing three Original Six teams and two very strong traditional markets in Minnesota and Ottawa. This also preserves Detroit and Chicago as rivals, and reunites Toronto and Minnesota with them from the old Norris Division. Plus, it keeps the Battle of Ontario alive and well.

    The big losers of this strong division are Buffalo and St. Louis, who lose out on some long time rivals.

Campbell's Conference: Eastern Division

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    Buffalo Sabres

    Florida Panthers

    New York Islanders

    Pittsburgh Penguins

    Philadelphia Flyers

     

    As odd as it may be to see Florida in with so many Northeastern teams, there is some logic to it. For starters, the struggling Panthers would get a huge boost in attendance from games against the Penguins and Flyers.

    The other reason is the NFL. This division is very similar to the AFC East, which has a team from Buffalo, Miami and New York. The NHL would be wise to try to tap into those rivalries a bit more. If the Bills come to Miami on Sunday, why not have the Sabres come to town the night before?

    The Sabres would probably not like to lose games against the Leafs and Bruins, but more games against the Penguins and Flyers would no doubt make up for it.

Schedule

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    With a two-Conference, six-Division setup, the schedule doesn't need to change from its current format.

    • Six games against the four divisional opponents for 24
    • Four games against the remaining ten opponents in Conference for another 40.
    • 18 games against opponents in the other conference, with a guarantee of at least one against every team.

    The problem with this would be the inter-city splits that were made here in Los Angeles and New York. Would 2 Rangers-Islander or Kings-Ducks games be enough? Maybe they would need to have less Conference games and spread the games to other Conferences. Maybe something like this:

    • Five games against the four divisional opponents for 20
    • Three games against the remaining ten opponents in Conference for another 30
    • Four games against the five teams in the same division but other Conference (e.g. Campbell's East vs. Wales East) for another 20.
    • 12 games left for the remaining 10 teams

    This would probably lesson the concerns of the teams losing their geographic rivals. The odd number of games though would need to be sure to alternate from year to year and, of course, balance out the number of home and away games, which may make extra work for the schedule makers.

Playoffs

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    Since we have six divisions and three conferences, there is no real reason to change the current setup. Take the top eight teams per Conference with Division Leaders getting ranked 1-3. Based on the 2010-11 standings, we would end up with the following matchups:

     

    Prince of Wales Conference

    #1 Washington Capitals vs. #8 Dallas Stars

    #2 San Jose Sharks vs. #7 Montreal Canadiens

    #3 Tampa Bay Lightning vs. #6 Nashville Predators

    #4 Boston Bruins vs. #5 Anaheim Ducks

     

    Campbell's Conference

    #1 Vancouver Canucks vs. #8 Buffalo Sabres

    #2 Philadelphia Flyers vs. #7 Chicago Blackhawks

    #3 Detroit Red Wings vs. #6 Los Angeles Kings

    #4 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. #5 Phoenix Coyotes

     

    This is a pretty interesting bracketing to be honest. How cool would a Chicago-Philly series be in the first round? Also, a Tampa-Nashville series would be lots of fun.

    Obviously, the geographic burden is a big thing. How is it fair to have Montreal and San Jose travel that great of a distance in the first round?

    One potential solution could include a different playoff schedule. Currently, the NHL starts at home and goes in a 2-2-1-1-1 format which involved four trips. They could switch to an NBA Finals style 2-3-2, but that does give the potential for the lower seed to have more games if the series goes 5 games. Or they could do something a bit more out there, have the higher team start on the road and go 1-3-2-1, which would only involve three trips, allow the better team to relax on the road for the first game, and put a ton of pressure on the lower team to win on the road or risk going down 3-1.

    Another option would be to try to keep the divisions in mind with the playoff seedings. Obviously, this is very difficult with three divisions, but perhaps the first round seedings could go as follows: highest team in the conference is paired with the lowest playoff team in their division (should no such team exist, they get the lowest team in the adjacent division), same for the second and third teams. The fourth and fifth team are sort of left out in the cold. This puts a huge advantage on the division winners, which they probably should get. Plus, it would give us the following, strange matchups.

     

    Prince of Wales Conference

    #1 Washington Capitals vs. #7 Montreal Canadiens

    #2 San Jose Sharks vs. #5 Anaheim Ducks

    #3 Tampa Bay Lightning vs. #8 Dallas Stars

    #4 Boston Bruins vs. #6 Nashville Predators

     

    Campbell's Conference

    #1 Vancouver Canucks vs. #6 Los Angeles Kings

    #2 Philadelphia Flyers vs. #8 Buffalo Sabres

    #3 Detroit Red Wings vs. #7 Chicago Blackhawks

    #4 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. #5 Phoenix Coyotes

     

    ...yeah I hate that. There is no reason that the third-seeded team should benefit from a match against the eighth seed. It also really complicates things if we have two very strong teams in one division that make the playoffs with nobody else.

    I'd stick with the first option, and let the higher seeded team decide on the series format from a few different options. Major League Baseball deals with weird TV time in the first few rounds of the playoffs, and they seem to be doing just fine. 

Verdict?

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    When I started this idea, I thought I would hate it, but it turned out to be a bit of fun.

    Plus:

    1. Better exposure for big teams in different markets (similar to the MLB and NFL)
    2. Most important rivalries are preserved
    3. Little changes needed to the current scheduling matrix
    4. Most teams get to save on travel, especially Detroit, Nashville, Columbus, and Minnesota
    5. Seriously, what's not to love about a division with the Rangers, Devils, Bruins, Capitals, and Canadiens?
    6. The potential for an all-East Coast Final has to be exciting to the NHL and NBC

    Minus:

    1. Coast to Coast Playoff format is bad for television and travel
    2. Dallas, Winnipeg and Florida have difficult travel schedules
    3. Some rivalries needed to be broken up, like Pittsburgh-Washington and Rangers-Islanders
    4. A division with the Blues, Lightning, Predators, Hurricanes and Blue Jackets isn't particularly engaging
    5. The potential for an all-West Coast Final has to be troublesome to the NHL and NBC

    I actually kind of like this possibility, and I din't think that I would. The parallel conferences is a fun sort of idea, and it seems to be working out well for the NFL and MLB.

    The problem, of course, is that it will never happen. The NHL's geographic divisions are far too entrenched to be undone. Too many individuals have too much to lose with this setup. If the NHL wanted to do something like this, the time would have been 1979, when the WHA folded. They could have either taken in more teams or convinced 6-7 teams to join the World Hockey Conference and the rest stayed in the National Hockey Conference, or something to that effect. But, alas, here we are.

    Join me next time when I look at a 3 Conference solution, that may just work.

    What do you think of the NHL trying things out like the NFL?

Other Possibilites

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    Enjoy? Please read others in my ongoing series...

    North-South Conferences

    NFL Style

    Three Conference Solutions

    Five Divisions, Zero Conferences

    Premier League — European Soccer Style

    Alignment Based on Expansion (Coming Soon!)

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