NHL Realignment, Good and Bad

Leigh Ramsden December 8, 2011 2
Richard Drew – ASSOCIATED PRESS

The NHL recently approved realignment into four discrete “conferences”, as was reported two days ago by Dean Eastman on this blog.

Personally, I have some problems with the way the NHL currently has its teams accumulate points and seeds its teams for the playoffs.  Obviously, some of these issues had to do with the six-division format and the scheduling around it.  Let’s investigate these issues and see if the realignment will help or hurt these problems.

CURRENT SITUATION

The biggest problems I have with the way things work now are primarily twofold:  a) some games are “worth” three points, while others are “worth” only two, which is theoretically silly and rewards teams that tend to play “close” games requiring overtime or a shootout; and b) the teams qualify for and are seeded based on their conference standing, however, the teams don’t currently play a balanced conference-based schedule – therefore, a team in a “worse” division would have an easier time accumulating points than would a team in a more “difficult” division.

I have always had my mind set at ease that the NHL’s quirky points system doesn’t alter the playoff landscape too significantly.  I analysed the final standings last year, 2010-2011, and found that changing the points system to award 3 points for a regulation win wouldn’t have changed the teams that qualified for the playoffs – which is a nice start.  In the East, the top three and bottom two playoff teams would have had different placements, and in the West, it was the teams in the 4-5-6 positions which would have been rearranged.  I won’t bother analysing what the new matchups would have been and what that might have meant for all the teams involved, since it’s all academic anyway.  The biggest thing that jumped out at me though was how good the Canucks were last year – if this points system would have been followed, they would have won the President’s Trophy by a whopping 16 points – they won by 11 in the old system.  It also illustrates that Boston was actually better than I had given them credit for – they had the second most regulation wins (43 to Vancouver’s 46); and Washington’s early playoff exit could have been predicted, seeing they only had 34 regulation wins (along with 14 OT/SO victories, which inflates their point totals somewhat).

The bigger issue in my mind is the uneven scheduling within the conference, but playoff seeds being based on conference standings.  Currently, a team plays six games with each team in its division, and four games against all other teams within its conference.

Last year, for instance, the Canucks piled up points when they played their weak Northwest Division compatriots, all of whom missed the playoffs.  Points were relatively easy to come by for Vancouver, especially as compared to a team in the Pacific Division, which delivered four teams to the playoffs with the fifth one finishing ninth, two points out of a playoff spot.  The situation in the East was more even, with no one division having more than three or less than two teams in the Stanley Cup tournament.  Still – I can imagine that if I were a Dallas Stars fan – I’d be very upset with how that worked last year, given how tough those Pacific Division foes were to play against six times per year.

This, of course, leads us to consider the realignment recently approved by the NHL and how it will impact the second issue above.

REALIGNMENT – THE POSITIVES

The league has proposed that the teams be reorganized into four discrete “conferences”, with each conference delivering four teams to the playoffs.  Teams will play only two games with each non-conference team in the league, leaving them to play five or six games in-conference.

However, as the playoff seedings are based on conference standings, the issue of an unbalanced schedule no longer exists.  Every team within a conference plays exactly the same number of non-conference games against exactly the same teams.  Clearly, this system is preferable as it eliminates concerns as they pertain to the current unbalanced scheduling within a conference, and the relative strength/weakness of a team’s division within that conference.

Of course, in isolation, the issue surrounding the relative strength/weakness of a conference is still a concern, as outlined below.

I think the biggest positive with the new scheduling is that a fan sees every team (and every player, injuries notwithstanding) in their building at least once per year.  Also, selfishly, I’m happy because the conference the Canucks have been slotted into has a number of teams I like watching that I will get to see more often (San Jose, L.A., Anaheim).  It also provides a more consistent opportunity to visit a road arena to watch a game – as compared to the teams in the east, the west is much more isolated and this is normally a difficult thing to do (especially when the team is playing divisional games halfway across the continent in Minnesota, for instance).  The ease of getting to California, as well as its attractive locale, will make a cottage industry of Canuck fans following their team on the road (well, even more than they do now).  This isn’t just a Canuck phenomenon – the geographic clusters of the new conferences should make this consistent throughout the league.

NEGATIVES

I have seen some discussion that it’s now “more difficult” for teams to make the playoffs.  I don’t believe this is the case; on the face of it, it should be of equal difficulty to qualify in one of four spots (out of seven or eight) as compared to one of eight spots out of 15.  However, there remains the problem of the “relative” strength or weakness of a conference.  If a team plays in a strong conference with many good teams, it will be more difficult to accumulate points as compared to another team in a weak conference.  While one team won’t be “compared” to a team from another conference to determine playoff eligibility, it may be more difficult to qualify if you are in a tough conference.  From this perspective, this “conference heavy” scheduling could definitely hurt (or help) certain teams.  That said, there’s no way around this issue any time you have any sort of unbalanced scheduling.

I am also going to join the ranks of those who are clamouring for a change in terminology.  “Conferences” just doesn’t sound right – shouldn’t there only really be two conferences?  What leagues have more than two conferences?  I think they should go with divisions.  Further, I’d love to see a return to the old nomenclature, going with Smythe, Norris, Adams, and Patrick.

Finally, a key consideration in this realignment is the notion that playing more frequent regular season games increases “rivalries” with these regional teams.  I actually couldn’t disagree more.  Since I’ve been watching the Canucks since the early 1980’s, the Canucks have had a few rivals – but all were rooted in playoff meetings.  Calgary in the late 80’s, early 90’s, and mid 2000’s; Detroit, Colorado and Minnesota in the early and mid 2000’s; and most recently Chicago; are all rivalries based on playoff meetings.

On the flip side, after the most recent lockout, we saw the NHL, in its infinite wisdom, schedule eight games per season with each other team in the division – which has since been reduced to six.  This frequency, in my opinion, is too high.  If my team loses a game to one of its divisional foes, I seem to have the attitude of “Oh well, we play them again in 2 or 3 weeks – we’ll get them next time.”  The higher frequency of these games lessens each game’s importance.  Maybe I have had to sit through too many Calgary/Edmonton/Minnesota/Colorado games, but I really couldn’t care much to watch them anymore.  I would currently count Vancouver’s biggest rival as Chicago, primarily as a result of meeting them in each of the last three playoffs.  The Canucks and Blackhawks currently play four times each season.  In my opinion, this is a perfect number of games – nicely spaced out, not too infrequent so issues can carry over, but not so common that the games lose importance.

As a result of these negative points, I think it would have been nice to see the NHL have a more balanced overall schedule.

OTHER ISSUES

The league has yet to determine what will happen with each team that emerges from each conference.  There was some rumbling about re-seeding based on total points; again I think this is unfair based on relative conference strength.  As well, I would hate to see two teams based in the west or the east play for the Stanley Cup.  So, let’s go with two conferences, four divisions, and keep the east/west split.

I have to admit – while overall, I think I’m OK with the proposed changes, one thing that does eat at me is the reasoning behind them.  There are a number of (primarily) eastern-US seaboard teams that have long complained about the scheduling, as certain teams don’t typically draw well on their home dates (“certain” teams being ones based on Canada or in small, unimportant, US markets).  Also, they didn’t like the fact that they had to travel out west for road trips – their teams not performing as well with 10 p.m. EST start times.  Of course, this travel also cost significant sums of money, and decreased their local TV revenue with games starting too late to draw much of an audience.

Of course for those of us based in the west, extensive travel and increased cost for the teams is just the way it is, so no sympathy here.  Also, as a fan of hockey in general, and not merely one team, I think it’s brutal if those teams are intentionally depriving their fans of seeing a higher variety of visiting teams (both in person and on the road) in order to save costs.

But once again, we are seeing King Bettman (perhaps the most snively, weasely excuse for a business executive) merely cow-tow to the “power” franchises based in the east – Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, and to a lesser extent, Toronto and Montreal.  Whatever they want, they seem to get.  Luckily, for the rest of the league, these changes benefit everyone, not just them (oh wait – except for Florida and Tampa Bay… but that’s a story for another day).