Nobody seems to be talking about realignment right now but I'm going to re-spark the debate. I have two ideas, one far wackier than the other. I'll start with my most gonzo idea first.
The 15-Division NHL
The idea here is that breaking the NHL up by geographic region is very difficult because of the preponderance of teams in the Northeast and the Eastern Time Zone in particular. If the Jets were to switch into the Western Conference as things currently stand, the Red Wings, Blue Jackets, and Predators would all like to take their place in the East. Any of the three would make sense, especially Columbus and Detroit who are both located in the Eastern Time Zone, but one of them is going to be jilted. Heck, Winnipeg barely belongs in the "west."
Enter the 15-Division NHL, whereby teams are paired off with their nearest geographical neighbor and put in their own division. It actually works shockingly well with every team in the NHL having at least one team nearby. Here is how I would split the 30 teams up:
1) Los Angeles Kings-Anaheim Ducks
2) San Jose Sharks-Vancouver Canucks
3) Phoenix Coyotes-Colorado Avalanche
4) Calgary Flames-Edmonton Oilers
5) Dallas Stars-Nashville Predators
6) Winnipeg Jets-Minnesota Wild
7) St Louis Blues- Chicago Blackhawks
8) Detroit Red Wings-Columbus Blue Jackets
9) New York Islanders-New York Rangers
10) Washington Capitals-Carolina Hurricanes
11) Toronto Maple Leafs-Ottawa Senators
12) Boston Bruins-Montreal Canadiens
13) Buffalo Sabres-New Jersey Devils
14) Florida Panthers-Tampa Bay Lightning
15) Pittsburgh Penguins-Philadelphia Flyers
So how would this all work? Well, by all means, let me explain. Each team would play every other team in the league outside of its division twice (56 games), then play 15 random games against those teams, and 9 games against its division rivals for a total of 80 games (if they want to stick to the 82-game season, the 15 random games could be increased to 17). The 9 intradivisional games could be spaced out over the course of the season or, and I like this idea better, saved for the end as a sort of preliminary playoff round, adding extra drama to games between geographic rivals.
The team with the better overall record from each division would advance to the Stanley Cup Playoffs along with the division loser with the best record. The teams would be seeded 1-16 and re-seed after each round.
Every team would basically have a 50-50 shot at the playoffs every single season. And playoff travel would be spread out better so that both Western and Eastern teams would be forced to spend plenty of time away from home during the spring.
Okay, was that too far out for you? Then how about Option #2, the 5-Division NHL?
The 5-Division NHL
(When I originally posted this I inadvertently put Detroit, St. Louis, and Washington in the wrong divisions. Now that I have it right, the geographic layout makes a lot more sense.)
Everybody always wants to do an even number of divisions. When the NHL expanded in '67 there were two. When they expanded again in the '70s that number doubled to four. And upon the most recent expansion it went to six. Same goes for other sports: the NBA has four divisions, MLB has six, and the NFL has eight.
But the geographic footprint of the NHL just doesn't work very well to divide the teams this way. There have always been weird anomalies even before Winnipeg started playing in the Southeast Division. Seriously, Dallas in the Pacific? Minnesota in the Northwest? It just doesn't make sense.
But, with five groups of six teams, it actually works remarkably well.
Los Angeles Kings
San Jose Sharks
Tampa Bay Lightning
St. Louis Blues
Columbus Blue Jackets
Detroit Red Wings
Toronto Maple Leafs
New Jersey Devils
New York Islanders
New York Rangers
As you can see, it's still not perfect, but it is also not bad. That Midwest Division is still a little unwieldy, but it's no worse than the current Western Conference divisions that put Los Angeles and Dallas in the same division and Vancouver and Minnesota. Unfortunately, Calgary and Edmonton are kind of out of the way no matter where you're looking at them from.
As for playoffs, I'd give automatic spots to the top two teams in each division and then the other six to the next best teams in order, seeing the teams 1-16, just like in the other system. And if 1-16 seems crazy, remember that its basically how the NHL did things in the '70s, when it was a 1-12 playoff bracket, which is how the Kings played the Islanders a few times in the playoffs back in the day.
Anyway, those are my ideas. What do you think? Sound off in the comments.