The National Hockey League announced the newest set of plans for league realignment. The plan would see the league reduced to four divisions from six and introduced a divisional playoff format instead of the current conference system. The Atlantic and Central divisions would be in the East, while the Midwest and Pacific divisions would be in the West.
The plan needs approval from the National Hockey League Players’ Association and the NHL Board of Governors.
Here is the good, bad and ugly of the proposed re-alignment:
Under realignment the Winnipeg Jets would move to the Western Conference, while both the Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets move to the Eastern Conference. The move seems to be a natural fit. Both Detroit and Columbus are in the eastern time zones, yet their current position in the Western Conference finds them playing most of their road games during later time periods. The majority of road games are starting after 10pm, making TV audiences low. Also, the travel is onerous.
The same holds true for the Winnipeg Jets positioned in the mid-west of Canada, who play a majority of games in the east. Also, the move to the Western Conference will allow Winnipeg to renew old rivalries with the Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks. Travel will also be slightly reduced for the Jets.
Perhaps the biggest losers in the new realignment plan are the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Florida Panthers. Both Florida clubs will now be put in a division with Boston, Ottawa, Montreal, Toronto, Buffalo and Detroit. None of these teams are a natural rival for the two teams, and the realignment has meant an increase in travel for the 2 teams. More trips will be made to Canadian cities and less to places like Carolina and New York which are much closer.
If there is one saving grace, it’s that attendance during the spring months can increase as the population in Florida almost doubles in the months of February and March when snowbirds travel south. Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Detroit and Boston always draw well in Tampa during the later winter months.
The shuffling of the 3 NHL clubs will give the conferences an unbalanced alignment, with 16 teams in the Eastern Conference and 14 teams in the Western Conference. This will surely not sit well with fans of Eastern Conference teams who now see their teams having less of a chance to make the playoffs and thus win the Stanley Cup.
The new alignment will also cause an unbalanced schedule with teams in seven team divisions playing five of the six intradivisional foes five times per season while eight team divisions would see teams play intradivisional foes four of five times per season on a rotating basis. The rotation could mean that some teams play an extra game against a more talented division foe while another plays a weaker one.
Due to the unbalanced conferences, the League has proposed introducing a wild-card element to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Under the proposed system the top three teams in each of the two conference divisions and the next two best teams would qualify for the playoffs. In theory, five teams from one division could make the playoffs.