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December 8, 2011
Zamboni Tracks
The Big Shakeup

by Ryan Wagman

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NHL

Announces major conference and divisional re-alignment set to begin in the 2012-13 season (December 5, 2011)

Let's not bury the lead. Faced with a decision of either moving one Western Conference team eastward to replace the former Atlanta Thrashers or starting from scratch, the NHL Board of Governors chose the radical and risky path of complete and utter realignment. Before even analyzing some of the likely ramifications, the Board deserves some credit for taking decisive action that was always likely to ruffle more than a few feathers. No matter the direction chosen, powerful people would be angry.

The two-day Board of Governors meetings, held Monday and Tuesday in opulent Pebble Beach, California, began with a bang Monday as the Board announced that a complete makeover would be underway. While some had suspected that, were a solution to be announced on the first day of the meeting, it would be of the simple, single-switch kind, the Board was remarkably quick in choosing the more elaborate path. Rumors abounded that the Red Wings had long been first in line were there an opportunity to shift a given team from the Western Conference to the Eastern. Others figured the lucky movers to be Columbus as beneficiaries of a move East, as long struggling to grow their market by allowing their small fan base to more comfortably watch Rick Nash and Co. on television if they replaced most of their West Coast games with more road games within their own time zone. Still others spoke of a potential move of either Nashville or Dallas eastbound and down, replacing the now Winnipeg Jets in the Southeast Division.

Each of the aforementioned four teams had legitimate gripes about being stuck in the West, whether due to travel considerations, hard-to-watch road games, lack of true rivalries or more. The status quo, with the Jets stuck in a division with the nearest opponent (Washington Capitals) over 1,500 miles away, was obviously a non-starter. Moving any one of the above-mentioned four teams would leave the remaining three embittered, while not solving any of the concerns of the truly West Coast teams, who begin too many road games at 4:00 pm local time, too early for their employed fans to watch them.

So instead of moving one team, the Board moved them all. When the dust cleared, the new alignment was shown to be altogether lacking in divisions, with the league being split into four conferences, with splits that are, on the surface at least, similar to the Eastern and Western Conferences we recognize of today. Two of the new, as yet unnamed, conferences will feature eight teams, while the remaining two (also coincidentally unnamed) conferences will see seven teams slugging it out. One may argue about the fairness in some teams needing to have better seasons than four conference rivals and others requiring only to top three others, but the decision, approved by 26 of 30 on the Board, holds a lot of benefit for the league.

And now, the new league, from West to East.

NHL's realignment for 2012-13

Conference A		Conference B
Anaheim Ducks		Chicago Blackhawks
Calgary Flames		Columbus Blue Jackets
Colorado Avalanche	Dallas Stars
Edmonton Oilers		Detroit Red Wings
Los Angeles Kings	Minnesota Wild	
Phoenix Coyotes		Nashville Predators
San Jose Sharks		St. Louis Blues
Vancouver Canucks	Winnipeg Jets

Conference C		Conference D
Boston Bruins		Carolina Hurricanes
Buffalo Sabres		New Jersey Devils
Florida Panthers	New York Islanders
Montreal Canadiens	New York Rangers
Ottawa Senators		Philadelphia Flyers
Tampa Bay Lightning	Pittsburgh Penguins
Toronto Maple Leafs	Washington Capitals

As part of the new setup, all teams will have home-and-away matches scheduled against each non-conference opponent with the balance of their schedule made up in-conference. So for teams in the eight-team conferences, they would each play 44 games out of conference and 38 within (five or six games against each in-conference opponent). For the teams in the shorter stacks, they will each play 46 games out of conference and 36 within, for an even six matchups against their closest rivals.

This new alignment clearly benefits the teams in Conference B, either situated in the Central time zone, or along the Western edge of the Eastern time zone (Columbus and Detroit). For a team like Detroit, who this year has to play 16 road games in cities at least two time zones away, halving those late nights is a clear advantage. The same, of course, holds true for the Blue Jackets.

The Pacific Rim teams (Anaheim, Los Angeles, San Jose, and Vancouver) do not show the same gains. Whereas a team like Anaheim now has 23 games at least two time zones East (with games starting while fans are still fighting traffic on their ways home from work or school), next year that number will be reduced to 22.

Moving East, the Bruins this year will play four road games against teams from Conference A, a number which will be doubled under the new plan, as next year they will need to visit each Western town once. Perhaps the oddest part of the new configuration is the presence of the two Florida teams, orphans of the old Southeast Division, that have been lumped with this year's Northeast Division, en masse. Sabres and Senators may not complain about the extra January golf dates, but Stamkos et al will now need to fly further for their supper (albeit without leaving their time zone).

Simply focusing on geography, we can see that those that lose, lose small, while the winners win big. For the league as a whole, that should be a plus. This is especially true when we remember that most of the teams in Conference B who sought a move East—the aforementioned Columbus, Dallas, and Nashville—are non-traditional hockey markets that stand to benefit a fair amount by making it easier on their fans to follow their icy heroes.

Therefore, at first glance, it may seem that the league simply moved Winnipeg to the Western Conference without shifting anyone back east in their stead. But when we look at the playoff structure, we can see that the change was far more drastic than conference size and scheduling. While we were used to the top eight teams from every conference gaining entry into the playoffs, the new structure calls for the four best of each new mini-conference playing past early April. Seeding is now purely in-conference. The conference winner will play their fourth best rival, a truer test of their strengths, as the two will now have played the same schedule.* With balanced schedules, we should have clearer expectations of the true differences between an 88-point team and one that racked up 107 points during the regular season. Similarly, the second- and third-best teams in a given conference will play one another in the first round of the playoffs. The second round, as could have been guess by this point, will remain in conference, with the winners of the first two rounds squaring off against one another.

*Barring the potential difference of three or four in-conference games for the teams in Conferences A and B.

And then we have a big mystery. The NHL has not yet announced how the four conference champions will play out to determine the Stanley Cup champions, although we can probably safely assume that the league will not resort to a round-robin style tournament. Many speculate that the semi-finals will see the top four teams re-seeded, perhaps in order of regular season points tallied, with the winners then playing for the Stanley Cup. In such a scenario, teams previously in the same Conference would be eligible to compete against one another in the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time. This could lead to exciting matchups previously only witnessed in the first three rounds, such as Vancouver squaring up against Chicago, or Pittsburgh against Boston. It could also mean that that the two best teams in the league could match up in the second round instead of no earlier than the third, as would be the case in the current set up.

On the downside of the new playoff structure, we may be forced to endure repeated matchups in the first two rounds as Conference opponents are forced to play one another ad nauseum. It may be hard to imagine now, but in a few years, we might feel a touch of tedium in the playoff's early rounds as we witness the fourth year in a row with the Oilers playing the Kings in the first round. Another potential issue is that the fifth-seeded team in one conference may very well have a better record than the third- or fourth-seeded team in another conference, and therefore miss out on a playoff spot. That can happen. But is that truly worse than the current set up, which last year saw both the Dallas Stars and the Calgary Flames end their seasons early even though they finished with more points the New York Rangers, who made the playoffs as the eighth seed of the East? Is it better than a system wherein a team will receive home ice advantage over a better team solely due to winning a poor division? Probably not, and besides, with better schedule balancing, such a scenario should henceforth be less likely to occur.

It would not be right to close this introduction to the new league hegemony without touching on its most contentious point, that being the disparity between teams in Conferences A and B and those in Conferences C and D, who have hurdles of varying heights to pass to reach the Promised Land. There is no getting around the fact that the preseason odds would be higher for the Coyotes to get into the playoffs than they would be for the Rangers, but this concern may only be temporary.

Part of the reason for the current imbalance is due to the uncertainty shrouding the future of those same Coyotes, as they, like the Jets last summer, could soon be on the move. Quebec City has long been thought to be on the path to an NHL reunion, with plans for a new arena build well under way. Kansas City built its own arena in 2007 and already hosted an NHL preseason game. It is indisputable that Southern Ontario could easily support a second NHL franchise, whether it be located in Hamilton, Markham, or share Toronto with the Maple Leafs. Keeping the imbalance for now would allow the Coyotes franchise to move to a more geographically pertinent Conference without incident should a transfer take place.

Finally, the imbalance creates a wide opening for the league to consider future expansion. Some may question that course of action with several franchises notably struggling to support themselves, with the league recently propping up both Dallas and Phoenix, prior to the former club being purchased by Tom Gaglardi. That all being true, it might be to the benefit of the owners to grow the league by two. For one thing, the new teams will bring in hefty expansion fees, very likely to far exceed the approximately $160 million brought into the league when the Minnesota Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets joined the fold at the turn of the century. A single team could now bring upwards of $200 million, figures similar to those previously bandied about as prospective owners sought to move existing teams to Hamilton.

Beyond the one-time expansion fees, the league could also use expansion and the lucrative carrot of 46 additional permanent NHL jobs as a carrot to help lower the salary cap, a point of contention in the upcoming CBA deliberations. New jobs would give the players added security, while the new teams would enable players to maintain their current salary levels (more or less) while adding in more cost-controlled youngsters to fill the extra spots. If played wisely, smart expansion—no more Sunbelt push—could be a gift that keeps on giving to NHL owners and a way to help balance out some of the distress felt by free agents who have priced themselves out of a 30-team market.

Realignment is bringing the NHL into the dawn of a new era, and more change will come. This is only the beginning.

Ryan Wagman is an author of Hockey Prospectus. You can contact Ryan by clicking here or click here to see Ryan's other articles.

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