Yesterday, the NHL’s Board of Governors approved a measure to restructure the league in 2012-13, moving from a two-conference, six-division format to a straightforward four-conference league.
Along with unveiling the plan, the Board split the league’s 30 teams into two eight-team conferences and two seven-team conferences, primarily based upon geography.
The new structure has come in response to recent developments, including the relocation of the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg (where the team was renamed the Jets) and increasing pressure from the Detroit Red Wings to be allowed to play in the Eastern Conference, where they would see financial benefits from playing more rivalry games and ratings benefits from playing more games in the Eastern Time Zone.
As a result of the new look, the NHL will be the only major North American sport not structured around a two-conference format. The NBA, NFL, MLB and MLS each have two conferences, and the champions of the opposing conferences meet in the title series at season’s end.
For hockey, the top four teams in each conference will play for the conference’s title, and the four remaining teams will compete for the Stanley Cup.
The NHL did a number of things right in the new plan. They made it a priority to keep traditional and budding rivalries intact.
Conference A includes Edmonton and Calgary, longtime Alberta foes, while Conference D is home to Pittsburgh and Washington, the hot new rivalry in the NHL.
The Leafs have the Canadiens, the Red Wings have the Blackhawks, the Devils, Rangers and Flyers all have each other.
Will the new structure benefit the NHL?
There won’t be many unfamiliar faces when conference foes prepare to square off.
The league also kept the 16-team playoff format that has provided so much excitement over the years, including Stanley Cup appearances for the seventh-seeded Flyers in 2009 and the eighth-seeded Oilers in 2006.
Lastly, the geography makes sense for most teams, making the league a bit fairer.
In the past, teams in the Atlantic and Northeast Divisions have had extremely easy travel schedules, as no team in the division was located more than an eight-hour car ride from any other team. Conversely, Dallas had to travel nearly 1,700 miles to play its divisional games against San Jose, and Minnesota topped out at nearly 1,800 for games against Vancouver, despite being only 400 miles from a more natural rival like Chicago.
While true travel parity is unattainable, this schedule will be a bit easier on teams in the West and a little more challenging for teams in the East.
These benefits make realignment seem appealing, and the majority of hockey fans will likely find the new system to be highly entertaining.
However, the radical nature of the new plan—breaking with tradition, defying the structure of most North American sports, and intentionally increasing travel time for some teams—begs the question: was this all necessary?
The NHL has dealt with relocation before—Hartford to Carolina, Minnesota to Dallas, Quebec City to Colorado—without needing to revamp the entire structure of the League. What about Winnipeg made it too complicated to simply restructure the current divisions?
For Tampa Bay and Florida, Winnipeg’s gain seems to be their losses. If Winnipeg was moved because of the travel demands of playing 12 divisional road games at least 1,500 miles away, why have these two teams been left in a division that will require them to play 15 conference road games at least 1,000 miles north?
Furthermore, if indeed Detroit’s desire to be realigned with more Original Six opponents was a factor, why have they wound up in a conference with only one former Eastern Conference team: Winnipeg? The Red Wings will still be playing teams primarily outside of the Eastern Time Zone, with the only real win being a guarantee to play all non-conference teams at least twice.
Fans of franchises in the eight-team conferences will no doubt point out that the teams in the seven-team conferences have a statistical advantage when it comes to making the playoffs. In addition, the teams in larger conferences may only play each other five times per season instead of six, giving some teams a “home ice advantage” that did not exist in systems that split divisional foes into head-to-head matchups that included three home and three away games.
The new plan can be summed up in two opposing words—creative and flawed.
The league deserves kudos for thinking outside the box and being willing to adopt an unorthodox format that defies the template of North American sports culture.
At the same time, the system is not perfect and will require a new mindset for many teams, players and fans.
The imperfect nature of this solution begs the question: What was the problem in the first place?
Is this really the sort of situation that could not be solved by an easy reworking of the divisions? Is the current structure so flawed that it became necessary to take a step back and come up with a whole new design? Or is this simply the NHL’s equivalent of, say, rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic?
That’s certainly not to say the NHL is sinking; the league has come to thrive since the lockout, and with another Winter Classic and the birth of the NBC Sports Network on the horizon, the coolest game on Earth will continue to grow.
By no means is realignment bad for hockey. It is simply puzzling.