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NHL Realignment: Conference Solutions and Possibilities Outside the Box

Russell FrancisContributor IIINovember 12, 2011

NHL Realignment: Conference Solutions and Possibilities Outside the Box

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    Welcome to the third installment of my NHL Realignment series.

    From the first 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 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 team's time zone 
    4. Games against traditional rivals

    I will be posting slightly outside the box possibilities for NHL realignment. In some way, these all stretch the paradigm in some way.

    As you can probably surmise from the title, I'll be going with three conferences this time.

    Instead of the current two-conference or proposed four-conference idea, we are going to go with something that doesn't exist in North American Pro Sports—three Conferences, each consisting of ten teams.

Western Conference

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    Anaheim Ducks

    Calgary Flames

    Colorado Avalanche

    Edmonton Oilers

    Los Angeles Kings

    Minnesota Wild

    Phoenix Coyotes

    San Jose Sharks

    Vancouver Canucks

    Winnipeg Jets

    This is essentially the eight-team Pacific Conference with Winnipeg and Minnesota thrown into the mix. While these two teams are much more Central than they are Western, it is sort of a necessity to put these two in this conference, despite the time zone challenges they may face.

    I considered putting Dallas in this division in place of Minnesota, but that would leave Winnipeg very isolated geographically, and Dallas has done enough time with a bad travel and time zone schedule.

Eastern Conference

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    Carolina Hurricanes

    Columbus Blue Jackets

    Dallas Stars

    Florida Panthers

    Nashville Predators

    Pittsburgh Penguins

    Philadelphia Flyers

    St. Louis Blues

    Tampa Bay Lightning

    Washington Capitals

    This conference is a bit of a mixed bag. There are struggling teams in Florida, Columbus, Dallas, Nashville, but also the NHL's three most dynamic players and a huge national draw in the Flyers.

    The Washington-Pittsburgh-Philadelphia rivalries are kept together. Nashville and Columbus get to join teams they are close to geographically.

    St. Louis and Dallas are slight stretches for joining this division, but they don't really fit anywhere else. Also, they don't leave Nashville isolated in the Central Time Zone.

Northern Conference

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    Boston Bruins

    Buffalo Sabres

    Chicago Blackhawks

    Detroit Red Wings

    Montreal Candiens

    New Jersey Devils

    New York Islanders

    New York Rangers

    Ottawa Senators

    Toronto Maple Leafs

    Now this is a conference, am I right?

    This includes all original six teams, plus other big name or traditional hockey markets.

    Chicago is the one team outside of the Eastern Time Zone, but I have a feeling Boston and the New York metro teams wouldn't mind that slight inconvenience in order to have such a marquee division.

    I wanted to include the Pennsylvania teams in here, but that would have set off a few too many dominoes to work out neatly.

    Depending on the playoff format (which I'll get to soon), you could be guaranteed to have one of these big name teams make it deep, which would most certainly be a treat.  

Schedule

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    Having nine opponents in the same conference makes scheduling difficult. It is tempting to go with the following model:

    • Four games against nine opponents in the same conference for 36
    • Two games against the 20 opponents in different conferences for 40
    • Six other games against either conference or non-conference opponents

    While this is a very balanced and fair schedule, it doesn't seem to allow much for building or sustaining rivalries. So, I'm going to suggest the following schedule:

    • Six games against nine opponents in the same conference for 54
    • One game against non-conference opponents, alternating home and away every year for 20
    • Eight other games against non-conference opponents, keeping traditional rivalries where possible

    While there are certainly people who want to ensure every team plays in every building every year, it seems unnecessary to me. While the owners in Phoenix want Crosby and Ovechkin to come to town every year, do they really want the Florida Panthers or Columbus Blue Jackets to show up all the time?

    They can easily make it so the Western Conference visits the Northern in year one, while the Northern visits the Eastern and the Eastern visits the Western.

    The next year, they would just switch the order so the North visits the West, West visits East, and East visits North.

Playoffs

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    Here is where things get difficult as far as I'm concerned.

    Simple logic would dictate a No. 1-16 seeding and just deal with it. But this really isn't fair to teams that would have to travel great distances, and it is not really conducive to television times.

    So let's try something a little weird.

    The top five teams in each conference make the playoffs, and so does the highest sixth place team.

    The teams will be broken into four brackets—a Western, Eastern, Northern, and Wild Card bracket. The teams play the first two rounds inside that bracket and the final four get re-seeded based on the regular season.

    The Wild Card bracket will be a little strange. It will consist of the best two second place teams, the fourth place team from the conference that is not being represented with either second place team and the fifth place team from the conference that has six teams in the playoffs.

    This is certainly convoluted, but it does ensure the teams at the top of the conference don't get punished with huge travel distances.

    It makes certain every good team gets a relatively easy first round opponent, gives three quarters of the league an easier travel schedule for three rounds and makes the end of the season very unpredictable.

    Here is what it would look like based on the 2010-11 standings.

     

    Western Bracket

    Vancouver Canucks (W1) vs. Los Angeles Kings (W5)

    Anaheim Ducks (W3) vs. Phoenix Coyotes (W4)

     

    Eastern Bracket

    Washington Capitals (E1) vs. Dallas Stars (E6)

    Pittsburgh Penguins (E3) vs. Tampa Bay Lightning (E4)

     

    Northern Bracket

    Detroit Red Wings (N1) vs. Buffalo Sabres (N5)

    Boston Bruins (N2) vs. Chicago Blackhawks (N4)

     

    Wild Card Bracket

    Philadelphia Flyers (E2) vs. Montreal Canadiens (N4)

    San Jose Sharks (W2) vs. Nashville Predators (E5)

    This actually works pretty well, all things considered. The Flyers and their 106 points are good enough for first seed in the Wild Card bracket followed by the Sharks and their 105 points.

    The Bruins, the other second place team, stay in their own conference but it pushes the fourth place Habs into the Wild Card bracket.

    Since the Dallas Stars were the best team not in the top five, they edge the Predators out of their own bracket. This guarantees Washington gets the easiest first round opponent possible and keeps everything in groups of four.

    Obviously, the second place teams that get bumped would see this as a double-edged sword. Philadelphia and San Jose would hate to travel across the continent in the second round, but this way they get to avoid the big dogs in their conference in Washington and Vancouver, respectively.

    Maybe for that bracket only, they could switch to a 2-3-2 format to minimize travel.

    The other advantage of this set up is that it keeps strong divisional rivalries in the first two rounds of the playoffs, yet gives us the chance of divisional opponents meeting in the finals.

    Philadelphia-Pittsburgh finals anyone?

Verdict?

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    Pluses

    - The very large conferences enable the preservation of most rivalries and can keep some geographic sense.

    - The playoff format is able to balance rivalries with equity surprisingly well.

    - The Northern Conference is pretty amazing, isn't it?

    - This would be an alignment very unique to the NHL, and not just a rehash of what the NBA is doing.

     

    Minus

    - There are no big drawing teams in the Western Conference.

    - The playoff format is very hard to understand for casual fans.

    - The teams in the Wild Card bracket are at a disadvantage when it comes to the final four.

    - It is impractical to have every team play in every building every year, something that would hurt Western Canadian teams.

    - The symmetry of three 10-team conferences does not give a lot of room for changes from expansion or relocation. What if Phoenix moved to Quebec? Who would move West? We would probably have to start from scratch.

    - What, no Southern Conference?

    All in all, I think that this is a unique and interesting possibility for the NHL, and I feel they should give it a try. Of course there are limits to this, but it is still an interesting and balanced approach.

    What do you think that of a three-conference NHL?

Other Realignment Possibilities...

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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

    Six Divisions, Zero Conferences (Coming Soon!)

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