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September 23, 2011
Angles and Caroms
Potential Realignment Scenarios

by Jonathan Willis

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With the NHL Board of Governors meeting on Tuesday to discuss, among other things, the potential for league realignment, the topic has been top-of-mind for many. Given the lack of consensus on the board and the need to make a decision in the near future, it is likely to stay that way for some time to come. As the league's official website put it:

"[T]he only consensus reached by the time the meeting broke in the early [afternoon] was that a decision on how the League will be realigned for next season needs to be reached by December in order for the scheduling process to begin on time."

That gives the league less than three months to settle an assortment of issues.

The catalyst for this particular firestorm is the relocation of the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg. The immediate and obvious solution is to move the Jets from the Southeast Division into the Northwest, bump Minnesota into the Central Division, and bump one of the Central Division teams into the Eastern Conference.

The problem is that the Eastern Conference is the place to be. Leaving aside the fact that the West has been the far tougher conference since the NHL Lockout—these things are cyclical, after all—the East has a lot going for it. The travel schedule is far lighter, reducing both fatigue on the players and damage to the pocketbook. More importantly, though, playing against Eastern teams would mean an earlier start most nights for clubs like Detroit, Columbus, or Nashville, making it easier for their fans to see the majority of games. Not surprisingly, there's a lot of jockeying for that one available Eastern Conference berth.

The advantages of the East represent an underlying problem, then—that geographically, a number of teams in the Central and Eastern United States are ill-served by the current alignment. Thus, the league is considering more than just tinkering with the current system. Again, from the NHL's official website:

"A number of realignment scenarios were laid out in front of the governors, including ideas to keep the current six-division format or move into a four-conference format, featuring two conferences of eight teams and two conferences of seven teams."

There are other scenarios imaginable beyond the two mentioned above (for instance, a three conference system that would allow five teams from each into the playoffs with one cross-over seed, as well as a myriad of other options), but given that the two above are most likely, let's consider them.

The Vancouver Province includes a map that suggests the following breakdown:

Pacific: Vancouver, San Jose, Los Angeles, Anaheim, Phoenix
Northwest: Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg, Colorado, Dallas
Central: Minnesota, Detroit, Chicago, Columbus, St. Louis
Northeast: Montreal, Ottawa, Boston, Toronto, Buffalo
Atlantic: N.Y. Rangers, N.Y. Islanders, New Jersey, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia
Southeast: Washington, Carolina, Nashville, Tampa Bay, Florida

An even simpler solution would see Columbus bumped to the Southeast and Winnipeg stuck in the Central Division.

The problem with this format is that no matter what, the Central Division will be playing in the Western Conference, something that hurts most of the teams in it. This is true no matter how the team alignments are tweaked. The idea of a move from East/West geography to North/South changes the equation somewhat and might help with travel, but is wildly impractical—the time zone problem would only get worse under that scenario.

Perhaps more promising is a four-division system, featuring two eight-team conferences and two seven-team conferences.

Before we consider the geographic implications of such a move, consider the potential for division rivalries, something the league has long viewed as a way to engage fans. During the season, divisional play could be heavily emphasized—both for the purpose of fostering rivalries and making travel less onerous and less expensive. The first round of the playoffs would see each division faceoff in a 1 vs. 4 and 2 vs. 3 seed format, with the winners playing each other for the division crown—currently, a regular season accomplishment that doesn't get a lot of attention, but something that would become a real goal under this potential format. Division winners would play for the conference title, while Conference champions would advance as they currently do to play for the Stanley Cup.

What would such a format look like? One possible alignment would be as follows:

Pacific: Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver, Colorado, San Jose, Los Angeles, Anaheim, Phoenix
Central: Winnipeg, Minnesota, Detroit, Chicago, Columbus, St. Louis, Dallas
Southern: Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Washington, Carolina, Nashville, Tampa Bay, Florida
Atlantic: Montreal, Ottawa, Boston, Toronto, Buffalo, N.Y. Rangers, N.Y. Islanders, New Jersey

Most of the real time zone problems would be alleviated greatly by such a setup. The really late time zone games would be in the Pacific Division, and no division would have more than an hour's difference between the western-most and eastern-most team. Because divisional play would be emphasized over conference play, travel to the other division in the conference would be less of a factor as well—right now, teams like Detroit regularly play in three different time zones, and that would be reduced under the new system.

What might the schedule look like? If the NHL is willing to continue the current practice of sacrificing a home-and-home between each team in the league (and given geography and the fact that would account for 58 games per team, it's a safe assumption that they would), then just 15 games would need to be played by each team against the opposing conference. This would ensure that every team played every other team at least once, and give home fans a chance to see every team at least once every two years.

Given the pain the current system is for Central teams, the league could also insist on just a single home-and-home series between the two divisions in each conference, something that would account for at least 16 more games. Assuming an 82-game season, that leaves 51 games, which could be largely given over to divisional play—perhaps as many as 48 divisional games (in seven-team divisions, this would mean eight games against every divisional opponent, while in eight-team divisions it would mean seven games against six opponents and six games against the remaining one). That would also leave the schedule-makers three games of wiggle room, likely to be filled with a conference opponent.

Such a scenario would be a boon to Western Conference teams, which currently have incredibly difficult travel schedules. It would intensify divisional rivalries. The primary cost would be the schedule's balance—something that the NHL currently sacrifices, and will undoubtedly continue to sacrifice in any future scenario.

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

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