Realignment A Long Time Coming
The NHL is moving forward by returning to its not-so-distant past.
Last week the NHL board of governors approved a realignment plan that would return the league to the four-division format it employed prior to the 1997-1998 season, while creating more geographically-friendly zones of competition.
What these new divisions will be called is anyone’s guess. Reverting back to the Patrick, Adams, Norris, Smythe divisions is unlikely as most fans have no idea who these people were.
As it is, the NHL has the unenviable task of getting people excited about the ill-named Vezina (best goalie), Norris (best defenseman) and Lady Bing (most sportsmanlike) trophies. The Stanley Cup obviously goes to the league champion, but the memory of Lord Stanley has been mostly lost to history.
Under working titles of the A, B, C, D divisions – which is still better than the Big Ten’s Legends and Leaders – the new alignment solves most of the travel problems that have dogged the NHL, while maintaining most of the traditional rivalries.
The Western Conference has been split into the A’s (Anaheim, Calgary, Edmonton, L.A., Phoenix, San Jose and Vancouver) and the B’s (Chicago, Colorado, Dallas, Minnesota, Nashville, St. Louis and Winnipeg).
The Eastern Conference C’s include Boston, Buffalo, Detroit, Florida, Montreal, Ottawa, Tampa and Toronto, while the D’s consist of Carolina, Columbus, New Jersey, the Rangers, Islanders, Philly, Pittsburgh and Washington.
The biggest winners in the realignment sweepstakes are the Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Bluejackets. Travel was a nightmare for the Eastern Time Zone teams, whose hometown fans had to endure bedtime beginnings during the teams’ frequent west coast trips.
Leading off the loser’s bracket are the Blackhawks and the entire Eastern Conference. Chicago will be the only Original Six team in the Western Conference.
Chicago owner Rocky Wirtz has put a positive spin on the change – realignment rules require all teams to play each other – but he can’t be happy with only occasional visits by the league’s most popular teams. The change also removes long-time rival Detroit and geographic neighbor Minnesota from its list of conference foes.
By virtue of the unbalanced conference membership, Western teams have a 7 percent greater chance of making the playoffs than their eastern counterparts. This is a necessary evil that can only be fixed by keeping the current six division configuration. However, such a move would have made time zone realignment considerably more difficult as most teams still reside east of the Mississippi River.
Another negative impact from realignment is the further removal of Original Six teams from the Western Conference. The NHL is unique in that these teams (Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Montreal, New York Rangers and Toronto) still command the biggest share of the TV and turnstile revenue.
With all but one of the founders huddled in the East, marquee matchups in the west will become fewer.
The unbalanced distribution of star power is good news for NBC and the Canadian Broadcast Company that want to sell primetime Eastern Time Zone contests. It’s less than good news for those in a westerly region.
Playoff changes also will occur. The NHL will maintain its current 16-team playoff format, but the top three in each division will qualify plus two wildcard teams chosen on regular season point totals.
Now, the league just needs to stop rewarding teams that lose.