Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Realignment Thoughts

So the NHL has brought realignment up again. They plan to go to four divisions next season even though it will mean unbalanced divisions and conferences. I think it's dumb and have a better plan! Please read on after the jump.

The NHL last had four divisions in the 1997-98 season, the last season before the most recent expansion (the Predators entered the league the next year, followed by Atlanta in '99, and the Wild and Blue Jackets in 2000). At that time there were 13 teams in each conference. The Pacific and Atlantic Divisions each had 7 teams, while the Northeast and Central had 6 apiece.

The last time the conferences were unbalanced was 1994-95, er 1995 (Lockout 1 wiped out the 1994 portion of that season) when the East had 14 and the West had 12. The only reason the conferences were balanced out the following season was that the Nordiques moved to Denver. That unbalanced system had only been in place for two years after Bettman took over and killed the classic division names we all knew and many still love.

Ever since the Blue Jackets and Wild came into the league 13 years ago the NHL has been broken up into six divisions of 30 teams. There have been some quirks. The Stars are hardly in the Pacific region, but they've been playing in the Pacific Division since the 1998 announcement of new teams in Nashville and Columbus overcrowded the Central. The Canucks are the only northwestern team in the division of that name, but the league's footprint and simple demographics have always been such that they are a difficult team to fit with anybody else.

But Dallas and Vancouver being one to two time zones from most of their division rivals is not the impetus behind this re-alignment. Nope, it's the Winnipeg Jets being the only Eastern Conference squad playing its home games outside the Eastern Time Zone. What a travesty that Eastern teams have to leave their own time zone a handful more times a season than they did previously! I can't even imagine what that is like for them!

In some ways this new alignment harkens back to the Smythe-Norris-Patrick-Adams days of the past. The Kings and Sharks would be joined in this new Pacific Division by old Smythe rivals Vancouver, Calgary, and Edmonton. The Patrick Division of the early '90s would be reunited with the three New York area teams, Washington, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia. And the old Adams Division would be largely in tact with Montreal, Boston, Buffalo, and Ottawa. The only division of old that would be broken up is the Norris which loses its chief rivalry between the Red Wings and Blackhawks.

But I think the NHL is making a big mistake in reviving the four-division system. Having 7-8 teams in each division is unwieldy. It was too many when they had 6-7 in the late '90s. Moving Detroit east might make travel easier for them, but it doesn't help teams like the Kings who will still have to go East to play Chicago, St. Louis, and Winnipeg twice a season and all of the Eastern Conference teams once. It also kills one of the greatest rivalries in the game as the Wings and Hawks will play each other only twice a year. Remember in the '90s how Montreal and Toronto only met twice a season and the fans hated it? It will be just as bad, maybe even worse since Chicago-Detroit is America's premier hockey rivalry.

Some people say that the league has to go to 4 divisions because expansion is coming and it has to be ready. Well, expansion may be coming, but we don't know that, and it certainly isn't coming soon enough that we should have to tolerate unbalanced divisions for who knows how long. A six-division league has worked quite well these past 13 years and with just minor changes it can continue to serve the league well. Move four teams and you can go from having a league where two of its divisions cross 3 time zones while two other have no teams more than 500 miles or so away from each other to one in which four of the six divisions cross two time zones and none cross a third.

The city of Vancouver sits on the Pacific Ocean and the Canucks are the only Northwest Division team in the Pacific Time Zone, so why not move them into the Pacific Division?

Now, the Pacific has too many teams, but as noted before, Dallas is nowhere near the Pacific, so why not move them somewhere more appropriate, like their old home, the Central Division? Now the Pacific has 4 teams in the Pacific Time Zone and one, Phoenix, that spends part of the year in the Pacific and part in the Mountain, which is a lot better than having 3 in the Pacific, 1 in Mountain, and 1 in Central!

Oh, but now the Central has too many teams. I know the Red Wings and Blue Jackets both want out, but they fit too darn nicely in there! And if you move one, you have to move both. Since the league's footprint is so heavy in the northeast, there really isn't any way around the fact that they have to stay in the Central and keep it a two-time zone division (like almost all the others will now be). Instead, let's take the Predators and move them into the Southwest Division. Nashville is the home of country music, one of the defining features of the South, so this is where they belong!

That brings us to those pesky Winnipeg Jets, the team that started this whole cluster… – oh sorry, this is a family-friendly blog – this whole mess. The Jets go fill the hole Vancouver has left in the Northwest Division along with their natural rivals, the Flames, Oilers, and Wild. The Northwest (and even though you lose the only truly northwestern city, Vancouver, I think it's fine to keep the name; it's not like Northwestern University is where it sounds like it should be!) would, like the Pacific, shrink from its current three-time zone girth down to two, the Mountain (Edmonton, Calgary, Colorado) and the Central (Minnesota and Winnipeg).

And we're done!

It's obviously not expansion-proof but it does allow the Coyotes to move to Seattle and stay in the same division. And if the Panthers move (it's possible) to Quebec City or Toronto you simply move them into the Northeast, take Boston and put them in the Atlantic, and the Devils go to the Southeast. Voila!

Oh, and if travel to the west coast a couple times a year is really so awful for the Wings and Jackets, perhaps they can get a special exemption to only go play those teams once (and the West Coast teams would likewise only come in once) and instead, they can all play geographic rivals a little more frequently or something.

Of course this plan just makes too much sense to actually be used though.

Please sound off in the comments!

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