NHL Realignment: 5 Divisions and 0 Conferences, an Outside-the-Box Possibility

Russell FrancisContributor IIINovember 17, 2011

NHL Realignment: 5 Divisions and 0 Conferences, an Outside-the-Box Possibility

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    Welcome to the fourth installment of my NHL Realignment series.

    From the first time, recall that NHL Realignment is on the horizon for the 2012-13 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, we're going to really stretch it this way: no East, no West, no Wales, no Campbell's. We won't have anymore conferences; we will only have divisions.

    The NHL has 30 teams, which is a difficult number to divide evenly. The only numbers that divide 30 evenly are two, three, five, six, ten, and fifteen. Currently we have six divisions of five, last time I suggested three conferences of ten and this time we will look at the other option, five divisions of six teams each.

Western Division

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    Anaheim Ducks

    Calgary Flames

    Edmonton Oilers

    Los Angeles Kings

    San Jose Sharks

    Vancouver Canucks

    This division makes a lot of sense geographically and feels like a no-brainer. The three Western-most Canadian teams can to keep their rivalry going, as do the three California teams.

    Also, four out of six teams are in the Pacific Time Zone, with Edmonton and Calgary being an hour behind.

    The two teams obviously missing are the new and old Jets. The Phoenix Coyotes are very close to California, and the Winnipeg Jets would clearly like the extra games against the other Western-Canadian teams.

    But this is far and away the best way to keep these two trios together, problems be darned!

Central Division

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    Colorado Avalanche

    Chicago Blackhawks

    Minnesota Wild

    Phoenix Coyotes

    St. Louis Blues

    Winnipeg Jets

    Most of this division seems fine. That is until you get down to Phoenix. They don't really seem to fit in geographically with the concept of Central. However, they share a time zone with Colorado which is only an hour before Central.

    Of course the distance between Phoenix and Winnipeg would add to both teams' travel costs, but they do have a built-in rivalry based on history.

    If Phoenix really doesn't fit, then we could trade the Coyotes and Avalanche to the Western Division for the two Alberta teams, but that would of course cause some other problems.

    Chicago would, of course, protest the loss of Detroit, but that may just be inevitable at this point. They do get to share a division with St. Louis, with whom they have shared a division since 1970. They also get reunited with Minnesota and Winnipeg, just like the old Norris Division.

Northern Division

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    Boston Bruins

    Buffalo Sabres

    Detroit Red Wings

    Montreal Canadiens

    Ottawa Senators

    Toronto Maple Leafs

    This gives the Red Wings what they want, does it not? They have been good foot soldiers for the league and were promised the next move East after Toronto's wish was granted in 1998. The Wings would be reunited with their old rival in Toronto, plus the other Original Six teams in Montreal and Boston.

    The rivalry-rich Northeast Division stays together and gets an added boost. I considered adding Columbus in place of the Red Wings, but that sets off a whole other host of things, as the Red Wings don't really belong in the new Central division with Colorado and Phoenix.

    As an added bonus, all six teams are in the Eastern Time Zone and fairly close to one another. This makes travel and television much better.

Eastern Division

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    New Jersey Devils

    New York Islanders

    New York Rangers

    Pittsburgh Penguins

    Philadelphia Flyers

    Washington Capitals

    Fans old enough to remember the Patrick Division would jump for joy at this one! This division basically forgets that the past 18 years ever happened.

    What more recent fans seem to forget is that the Washington Capitals made a very large sacrifice by leaving the New York and Pennsylvania teams to create the Southeast Division with four non-traditional markets. Sure, they have had a competitive advantage for most of the time there, but from a television and attendance perspective they have definitely suffered in the past 13 years with this current alignment.

    The easy thing to love about this division is that all six teams have legitimate historical rivalries with one another. Time zones are obviously not an issue, and the travel distances are minimal. The one problem is that this division—along with the Northern Division—is obviously stacked when compared with the others. This could give the NHL some good marquee games and battles, but it could hurt the gates of the other teams.

    If there is too big of a concern, then we could easily switch Washington with Columbus, which brings us to...

Southern Division

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    Carolina Hurricanes

    Columbus Blue Jackets

    Dallas Stars

    Florida Panthers

    Nashville Predators

    Tampa Bay Lightning

    It's tempting to look at this as the forgotten bunch of the league, but geographically they sort of fit together.

    Tampa, Florida, Carolina and Nashville are logically very close together. Columbus and Nashville are about the same distance apart as New York and DC, and Dallas is probably doomed to be isolated from every other team in their division, regardless of the layout, but at least they are not playing in the Pacific Division, despite their proximity to the Atlantic Ocean.

    Nashville and Dallas are both based in the Central Time Zone, which is only an hour behind the other four teams in this division and not that big of a concern.

    The obvious problem is the lack of a big drawing team here. Some could argue that the Tampa Bay Lightning could fit that bill, but I have my doubts about that. If this is too big of a concern, then Washington and Columbus could be switched to make it slightly more geographically equitable. 

    I also tried to put St. Louis in this division to make it a bit more of a Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico division, but that set off a whole other chain that made it so that either Detroit or Columbus had to go in the Central Division, and things fell apart after that. 

Schedule

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    The small size and equity of the divisions, plus the elimination of conferences makes scheduling pretty easy actually.

    Two games against the 24 teams not in your division for 48 games.

    Six games against the five teams in your division for 30 more games.

    Four flex games to be played against a team outside of your division that you share a rivalry of some kind with.

    This ensures that every team plays in every building every year, it keeps divisional rivalries strong and it provides some freedom to ensure that any rivalries that are cut, like Detroit and Chicago, or Winnipeg from the Western Canadian teams, can be nourished a bit with those extra games.

    The ease of scheduling is probably one of the biggest strengths of this alignment. The playoffs, on the other hand...

Playoffs

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    ...are a bit of a mess!

    Two or four conferences have a nice bit of symmetry, which allows us to have nice, clean brackets.

    In these alignments I have resisted a straight 1-16 seeding. I do think that it could be a lot of fun and lead to some fun matchups, but there really are some strong draw backs to this. For starters, there is really big potential for some bad travel. A team like Vancouver could play New York in the first round, Boston in the second and Washington in the third, before getting to the finals against a team that stayed entirely within its own time zone.

    Also, there is less of a chance to build rivalries. As we have seen from Vancouver and Chicago, rivalries come from seeing each other repeatedly in the playoffs, and a 1-16 seeding really limits the chances of that happening.

    That being said, though, there is no clear alternative with five divisions.

    So I have two ideas to suggest something of a compromise. It may seem complicated at first, but trust me, it is less convoluted than the "Wild Card Bracket" that I proposed last time.

Playoffs: Suggestion 1

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    The top two teams in each division, plus the next six highest teams, make the playoffs, with the division leaders getting ranked 1-5 and the next three highest teams getting the 6-8 spots.

    This gives us the following Higher Seeds, based on the 2010-11 standings

    1. Vancouver Canucks
    2. Washington Capitals
    3. Detroit Red Wings
    4. Tampa Bay Lightning
    5. Phoenix Coyotes
    6. Philadelphia Flyers
    7. Pittsburgh Penguins
    8. San Jose Sharks

    Obviously, the Flyers, Pens and Sharks had more points than Phoenix, but the Coyotes had the most points of any team in the Central Division, so they get the preferred seeding. This does happen all the time, with the most obvious recent example was the 2008 Washington Capitals getting the third seed despite having the same number of points as the eighth-seed Boston Bruins, due to the weakness of the Southeast Division that year.

    The next eight highest-ranking teams get thrown into a pool of sorts. So our lower pool would consist of the following four teams with their divisions.

    9. Boston Bruins (East)
    10. Anaheim Ducks (West)
    11. Nashville Predators (South)
    12. Los Angeles Kings (West)
    13. Chicago Blackhawks (Central)
    14. Montreal Canadiens (North)
    15. Buffalo Sabres (North)
    16. Dallas Stars (South)

    The top team, in this case Vancouver, starts at the bottom (with Dallas). They check to see if they are either in their division or a division next to them. To see which divisions are considered "next to," look at the picture with this slide show. West is considered next to Central. Central is next to West, and South. North is next to South and East. East is next to North and South, while South is next to East, North and Central.

    If the bottom team is NOT in either the top team's division or an adjacent division, they pass on them and move up a spot, checking again. This goes until they find a suitable opponent. For the sake of fairness, let's have the team stop after going five spots higher than they should. If they don't find anyone, then they take the lowest-seeded team and be done with this.

    Confused? Well, an example will help.

    Vancouver is looking for an opponent in either the Western Division or the Central Division. First check Dallas, they're in the South so ignore them, then Buffalo, who is in the North, same for Montreal. Finally they get to a team—Chicago—who is in one of those two divisions. So we're set with a first-round Vancouver-Chicago matchup.

    Next go to Washington. They are looking for someone in the East, North or South, they start at the bottom with Dallas, who is in the South. Done! Detroit is even easier since the lowest available team, Buffalo, is in their division.

    That leaves Tampa, the fourth seed, and the lowest team left is #14 Montreal who is in the North Division, which is adjacent to the South, so they are matched up.

    Anyway, hopefully you get the picture. If this continues, they matchups we would get would be:

    #1 Vancouver Canucks (W) vs. #13 Chicago Blackhawks (C)

    #2 Washington Capitals (E) vs. #16 Dallas Stars (S)

    #3 Detroit Red Wings (N) vs. #15 Buffalo Sabres (N)

    #4 Tampa Bay Lightning (S) vs. #14 Montreal Canadiens (N)

    #5 Phoenix Coyotes (C) vs. #12 Los Angeles Kings (W)

    #6 Philadelphia Flyers (E) vs. #11 Nashville Predators (S)

    #7 Pittsburgh Penguins (E) vs. #9 Boston Bruins (N)

    #8 San Jose Sharks (W) vs. #10 Anaheim Ducks (W)

     

    Obviously this is far from perfect, but it gives us some pretty solid first-round matchups. A straight 1-16 seeding would give us Tampa-LA and Anaheim-Philly in the first round, which would be difficult for travel and television.

    It seems unfair to the Penguins fans to get the Bruins in the first round. However, the Bruins had the exact same 103 point total that the Tampa Bay Lightning had, and they met the Pens in the first round this past spring.

    In the second and third rounds, teams can be reseeded until we get to a final.

    This setup puts a huge advantage on winning your division as you get to minimize travel. The farthest possible first-round matchup would be Winnipeg and Florida or Florida and Montreal, but both of those are possible this year.

    This also increases the chances of a divisional opponent in the first round which would no doubt help create and sustain rivalries. Also, it makes it possible to have two divisional opponents in the finals, to really up the tension. Come on, you know the league would go nuts for a Crosby-Ovechkin final.

    I like that this views divisions as a continuum instead of being strictly divided along the Ohio-Pennsylvania border like it is now. It may be slightly complicated, but all the different possibilities could really make some interesting dynamics in the final few weeks of the season. 

    Too much? Well the other option is...

Playoffs: Suggestion 2

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    That one's too complicated? Well here's one that is a little bit easier. But this time we'll go for more of a pre-94 bracket setup.

    The top two teams from each division, plus the next six, make the playoffs, just like the other suggestion. The top four division holders each get their own bracket, and any playoff-bound teams from their divisions join those brackets. The teams that are in the other divisions get sorted into the other brackets based on the standings of the division leader. Also, in the event of one division having more than four playoff teams, they too could be sorted in a similar process.

    Confused? Well, maybe an example could help.

    The top four division leaders in this set up are the Vancouver Canucks, Washington Capitals, Detroit Red Wings and Tampa Bay Lightning. So there will be a Western, Eastern, Northern and Southern Bracket. The Phoenix Coyotes and Chicago Blackhawks—the two teams that made it from the Central Division—get put into a different bracket.

    The Western and Northern Divisions both have four teams in the playoffs, so they are both set. The Washington Capitals had a better record than the Tampa Bay Lightning, so they get the Chicago Blackhawks in their bracket, as they had a lower point total than the Phoenix Coyotes, who then get placed in the Southern Bracket.

    Making it look like this:

    Western Bracket

    Vancouver Canucks vs. Los Angeles Kings

    San Jose Sharks vs. Anaheim Ducks

    Northern Bracket

    Detroit Red Wings vs. Buffalo Sabres

    Boston Bruins vs. Montreal Canadiens

    Eastern Bracket

    Washington Capitals vs. Chicago Blackhawks

    Philadelphia Flyers vs. Pittsburgh Penguins

    Southern Bracket

    Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars

    Nashville Predators vs. Phoenix Coyotes

    Phoenix is seeded third in this bracket as they had more points than Dallas, and less than Nashville

    The playoffs would stay in the division for the first two rounds, with the final four being reseeded on regular-season points total.

    I like this setup as a nice compromise; it lets the best teams into the playoffs, preserves rivalries and also gives the top teams a reason to keep trying until the end. They wouldn't want another division leader to pass them, after all.

Verdict?

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    Pros:

    - Pretty much every rivalry is preserved, except for Detroit-Chicago

    - Either playoff format is fair and makes an effort to preserve rivalries in the first round

    - Very little changes need to happen to the schedule

    - No division has more than two time zones

    - The Eastern and Northern Divisions are both pretty great, aren't they?

     

    Cons:

    - The split of Detroit-Chicago is a pretty big deal

    - There is not a lot of room for changes if Phoenix, or another team, has to relocate to Quebec or Hamilton

    - The Central Division has big travel issues, with the Southern Division still not good

    - Columbus sort of gets lost. They could probably fit into any of four divisions, with the Southern one as the biggest stretch

    - The Southern Division is lacking any star power, outside of Steven Stamkos in Tampa

    - The slightly complicated playoff system could turn off casual fans.

     

    All in all, I actually really like this idea. It's easy from a lot of different perspectives, as well as most travel and rivalry concerns. The schedule is very balanced, and only one major set of rivals is split. I think that this one has some potential at the end of the day.

    How about you? Do you like a Five Division approach?

Other Realignment 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

    Six Divisions, Zero Conferences (Coming Soon!)