December 6, 2011

The pros and cons of NHL realignment

by Dan Bilicki In: Ice Hockey

After the Atlanta Thrashers moved to Winnipeg to become the second incarnation of the Jets, it was fairly obvious that something to change with alignment of the six divisions and two conferences. Having one of the northern-most cities in the entire league play in the Southeast Division was something that simply couldn’t work for logistical and common sense reasons.

So now, we’ll be getting a newly approved overhaul of the league: Four new “conferences,” a redo of the playoff format and a tweaked schedule. So, what are positives and negatives that we can take away this decision made Monday at the NHL GM meetings.

Pro: Winnipeg is no longer in a division with a bunch of teams in the southeastern states. This may cost players and beat writers thousands of frequent flyer miles and more than their fair share of days on the beach between games on a road trip, but it will certainly alleviate a lot of stress.

Con: Calling the team groupings “conferences” instead of “divisions.” It’s just a small thing, but it would make things a lot simpler. Especially when you consider that every year teams will meet in de facto Eastern and Western Conference finals to decide who goes to the Stanley Cup final.

Pro: Every team will now face each non-conference opponent twice – home and away. It never made sense to me to begin with that you don’t visit every city every year or play each team twice. Why shouldn’t western fans get to see Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin visit their town once a year? Why can’t the Sedin twins travel to each east coast city? And why do you need to face your division opponents eight times each per season? Fostering rivalries is fine, but that was overkill.

Con: There are two eight team conferences and two with seven. While it’s impossible to split things up evenly since they are 30 teams in the league (and we’re surprisingly more likely to see expansion than contraction), why are the two western conferences the ones with eight teams each? It would have been easy enough to move one of Nashville, Detroit and Columbus east.

Pro: Conference playoffs will bring out some intense rivalry games. Having an increased chance for a classic matchup like Detroit-Chicago, Toronto-Montreal, Philadelphia-Pittsburgh or Calgary-Edmonton playoff series every year can only be a good thing. Sure, it might hurt expanding new rivalries, but there’s more money in the old-school stuff.

Con: Conference playoffs will ensure that some good teams don’t make it into the post-season. Look at the standings right now and look who would be in with the current system and who would be out next year. Four of the top teams in the current Western Conference will be in the same division next year. Sure would suck to be those other four squads stuck with them. It’s no better in the current East, where five of the top eight teams will be division foes next year. So, to say the least, the competitive balance is a little screwy.

Pro: There’s room for future realignment, if you know what I mean. With all kinds of talk, substantiated or not, we could either see more teams more or the league expand. With this new conference setup a team that moves from, say, Phoenix to Quebec City could simply just leave one conference and join another with very few ramifications.

Pro: We’re still – reportedly – guaranteed an East-West Stanley Cup final.

Con: That East-West final could still be Detroit facing Toronto, about four and a half hours apart driving. Or even better (and even more unlikely) Pittsburgh could face Columbus, which is a mere three hours away.

I have a few minor pros and cons that aren’t really big enough to break out, but heck, let’s go over them anyway.

-East teams that play in the West get some travel relief. Looking your way Detroit, Columbus, Nashville and Dallas.
-Less travel overall means less tired players. That means higher quality of play.

-The Islanders are essentially screwed. I wouldn’t bet on them making the playoffs in the near future.
-The season is still too long. Hopefully they can either shorten the schedule completely or think of something to end the final before June comes.
-Tampa and Florida are grouped in with the former Northeast division? I mean, come on. Where’s the geographical relevance there other than what time zone they’re in?

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