Weighing the New NHL Realignment

Steve ThompsonAnalyst IIIDecember 6, 2011

Did the NHL really realign or did it just shuffle the deck a little better?

In fact, with the exception of Winnipeg moving to a different division, nobody is playing anybody else more often than they did before.

The NHL did away with its nearly meaningless divisions, renamed its sections' conferences, tried to bring back the old divisional rivalries of the past, and gave everybody a chance to see everybody else at least twice.

Before getting into the intimate details of the new structure,  the new NHL will look like this: Two eastern conferences of seven teams and two western conferences of eight teams.


Toronto Philadelphia Chicago Los Angeles
Montreal Pittsburgh Detroit Anaheim
Ottawa New York I. Winnipeg San Jose
Buffalo New York R. St Louis Calgary
Boston New Jersey Minnesota Edmonton
Tampa Bay Washington Dallas Vancouver
Florida Carolina Nashville Phoenix
    Columbus Colorado




As with anything this complicated, there are both winners and losers.  Before sorting out who won or who lost, it is important to recognize what the changes were based on.

There seems to be four principles upon which the great change was made.

1.  The principle of television revenue.  Most of the dissatisfied teams were complaining that they were having to play in time zones that hurt television ratings and revenue, which in turn hurt their fan base.  In some cases the NHL succeeded in removing this grievance.  In others only partially or not at all.

2.  The principle of time zones.  As noted above, one of the main grievances was time zones.  The ideal for the NHL would have been having every team in each conference come from the same time zone.  As can be seen from the above structure, the NHL only partially succeeded in its aims.

3.  The principle of no other team except Phoenix will be relocated.  The NHL better hope this is true.

4.  The principle of providing an escape hatch so that Phoenix can now move to Quebec without causing any realignment problems.

As it can been seen from the new structure, not much has really changed except that Winnipeg is now playing the regional teams it is geographically suited for.

The real change is not at the geographic level, but at the who-plays-who-how-often level.

Each team will now play a home and away game with each team outside its own conference and play the rest of its games within its own conference.



The big winners with this change are teams in the central time zone, plus Detroit and Columbus who now only have to play a west coast team out west only once a year.

In the playoffs, the top four teams of each conference will play each other first to determine a conference champion, thus bringing back the old divisional rivalries.  

The other new wrinkle is that it is now possible for an east-east or west-west Stanley Cup Final.

Now, let's get into more specifics of who won and who lost.

Dallas, Winner:Dallas was the big winner of television time zone principles.  All their conference games will now be within their own time zone.  Still, it's a shorter flight to Anaheim, Los Angeles, and Phoenix (assuming there still will be a Phoenix) than it is to Winnipeg, Minnesota, and Detroit.

Phoenix, Loser: Phoenix has been isolated.  It's either find a new owner who wants to keep the team there or move somewhere else.  If the NHL sees the shovels enter Quebec soil to build a new arena, the Coyotes will belong to Quebec and could become the Nordiques.

Detroit & Columbus,Part winner and part losers: These teams are getting a break in that they only have to travel to Mountain time and Pacific time zone teams once a year. However, they didn't get what they really wanted, being in a conference of all eastern time zone teams.  Most of their away games will now be in the central time zone.  Had the NHL made the eastern conferences the ones with the eight teams, Detroit and Columbus would have gotten what they wanted, but the NHL wanted an escape hatch for Phoenix to move to Quebec.



Conference Rivalries, Loser: The new divisions (disguised as conferences) will be good for building rivalries, but what about conference rivalries that have built up from before?  Goodbye Vancouver-Chicago, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh versus Boston and Montreal, etc. You'll only see each twice a year now.

Quebec, Winner: You're coming back into the NHL with either the Phoenix Coyotes or an expansion team.  All the NHL wants to see are shovels in the ground for the new arena to show you really mean business.

Kansas City and other non-NHL western cities, Loser:  Better grab the Coyotes quick because that might be your only chance at getting an NHL team.  By making the western conferences the ones with eight teams, there will be no other way of getting a team unless Phoenix is grabbed by Quebec or another eastern city which will open up an expansion spot.

Ottawa, Buffalo, Boston, Montreal, and Toronto, Losers: Somebody had to take the two orphan southern teams of Tampa Bay and Florida.  But how they become conference rivals with the other five teams is going to take circumstances like those that made the Dallas Cowboys the rivals of far away Philadelphia, Washington, and New York instead of New Orleans, St. Louis, and Arizona. Now, Tampa Bay and Florida will play their closest geographical rivals Washington, Nashville, and Carolina only twice a year.

The players from the northern cities might like going down to the warm south in mid-winter, but nobody is going to like the frequent long flights.  Moving the two New York teams into that conference would have made the most sense, but the NHL is committed to New Jersey, despite the fact that they've won three recent Stanley Cups and are still only the third wheel in the New York region.  Move this team to Hamilton, Hartford, or Baltimore where they might finally be appreciated.


Hamilton & Toronto, Potential Winners: If the Coyotes remain in Phoenix or get shifted to a western city, either Hamilton or Toronto would be the perfect partner for Quebec to get back into the NHL as an expansion team. However, they would have to figure out suitable compensation for the Leafs and Sabres.

Long-term NHL growth, Loser:  Until the mortgage meltdown/credit freeze occurred, it seemed for certain that all four major professional sports leagues were headed to a 40 team/two conferences/four divisions of five teams structure like the NFL was poised to do. I recently wrote an article of my idealized NHL and found ample cities of good hockey markets to bring the league up to 40 teams. Besides Quebec, Hartford wants its team back.

In Canada, there are five locations in southern Ontario that could have a team, a second Montreal franchise, plus Saskatoon if it grew enough.  In the Northern United States, Seattle, Portland and Milwaukee would make fine franchises.  And we can't forget Houston, Kansas City and Oklahoma City who have tried to get teams in the past.  The way the NHL is now restructured, it can only accommodate two more teams.

Sorry NHL, you should have realigned yourself like the NFL.  Now if more than two cities want a hockey franchise, you're going to have to realign yourself all over again.


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