My Winners and Losers of NHL Realignment

It’s a topic that has instigated debate, criticism, and joy from many across the league. In an attempt to accommodate travel and local start times, the NHL put forth its latest plan, which would begin next season in 2013-2014. Some players did not like it (some Devils feel the current system was fine the way it was), which brought up fear the Players Association might shoot it down.

Well last week the NHLPA signed off on the league’s plan, as long as there is a re-evaluation following the 2014-2015. This week the NHL Board of Governors voted in favor by a 26-4 majority, thus approving the new system. It will be installed for two years before a decision is made how it worked.

Here’s a look at the new divisions, courtesy of NHL.com:

So the Eastern Conference will host 16 teams while the Western Conference houses 14 teams. Geographical realignment acts as the guideline for the divisions. Detroit and Columbus swap places with Winnipeg now properly in the West.

The playoff system will also change, bringing back divisional match-ups and a wild card system along with it. TSN explains how it all works:

The playoff format calls for the top three teams in each division to earn post-season berths. The remaining four spots would go to wild-card teams, the top two records remaining in each conference. That means there’s a possibility five teams make it from one division and only three from another.

It would be divisional playoffs, not conference playoffs, so 1 vs. 4, 2 vs 3 in the first round. The two fourth seeds would be made up of the wild-card teams. The top division winner based on regular-season points in the standings would face off against the lower-ranked wild-card team. The other division winner would play the higher-ranked wild-card.

First-round winners then meet in second round in the division championship; Third round sees Pacific winner vs. Mid-West winner in Western Conference finals; Central winner versus Atlantic winner in Eastern Conference finals; Eastern and Western Conference champions meet in Stanley Cup finals.

So who benefits and staggers from the upcoming change?

WINNER- Detroit and Columbus             

It’s no secret the Red Wings have sought to move back to their time zone. As an Original Six team, they are one of the league’s top drawers in attendance, revenue and viewership. Now situated in the Eastern Conference (and Division/Conference 2), the Red Wings travel is simplified. I’m anticipating some hilarious passport shenanigans as they visit their North of the Border rivals (more on that later).

Since they came into the league, Columbus has not fit in the west. With terrible local times to catch the game at night (along with struggles with the team itself) the fan base has not been able to develop. Blue Jackets fans are passionate, but it’s hard to sell a fan to wait until 10pm to catch their hockey team play the Calgary Flames or San Jose Sharks.

Now in the Eastern Conference, it opens up the door for the Pittsburgh rivalry to develop (for those unaware, Ohio and the Western Pennsylvania area are not the best of friends), along with their eastern time zone (wonder how he homecoming for Rick Nash will go). Fans and local business will now get to catch games at a manageable 7pm start time against teams that they can hate. The NHL should be applauded for this. They have effectively saved the Columbus franchise.

LOSER- Florida and Tampa Bay

The two teams in the state of Florida were left with the check at the table. Both the Lightning and Panthers will have to travel over the new Atlantic division to get to their in-division “rivals”. This will add an extra frequent flier miles to their travel arrangements. At his press conference to announce realignment, Gary Bettman countered that both Florida teams will be beneficiaries of extra revenue from the snowbird fans (Canadian and Northern teams traveling down to the Sunshine State) that travel to see them play. Still, staying competitive in a division with Detroit, Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Buffalo and Boston is going to be tough. Don’t forget the extra travel may complicate practice and off-days for the Lightning and Panthers. Meanwhile, the Western Conference is laughing maniacally at their plight. Speaking of which…

WINNER- The Western Conference

Yes, losing Detroit is going to sting because Chicago remains the only Original Six team in the West. However, in the past 10-15 years, there have been some great rivalries that have developed. With less travel and more geographical teams (and fans) invading the home, the arenas are likely to be more packed and sold out. The realignment of geographical division itself is a win for the Western Conference teams that have struggled with humungous big travel budgets. Don’ forget that every team plays each other at least once, so Sidney Crosby, Steve Stamkos and Ryan Miller get to battle Gabriel Landeskog, Drew Doughty, Jonathan Quick and the best of the west in promoted Matinee Events.

WINNER- Rivalries

It’s going to stink we won’t see a lot of Detroit-Chicago or Detroit-St. Louis match-ups. Yet nobody is going to miss those Winnipeg-Capitals or Jets-Panthers games. Realignment puts the focus on division games to another level. Claiming superiority in your area (like the NY metropolitan area or Ontario/Quebec) makes for good story lines and heated competition. NBC did good promoting Wednesday Night Rivalry Night, which is sure to continue doing well under the new system.

LOSER-Sacrificial Lambs (Loss of Parity)

What makes hockey so good is the parity that exists. Any team can beat anyone on any given night. With the new groupings, the current bubble teams are going to have a harder time making the post season, even with the wild card system.

Let’s go back to the Florida teams for a second. They fought the Capitals, Hurricanes and Thrashers/Jets for the Southeast Division crown. In the new Division C, they’ll have to fight for postseason spots amongst the likes of Detroit, Boston, Montreal and the rest of the competitive Northeast teams. What about the Islanders and Columbus? Both teams are improving, but the challenge to reach the playoffs just ante upped as Division D feature the battle tested Atlantic division, plus Washington and Carolina.

Out west, Division A will probably be a five team race until Edmonton and Calgary turn the corner from mediocre to consistent. As for Division B, it could become the stingiest pool of teams fighting for a spot. To me, Chicago, Nashville and St. Louis have a leg up here.

TO BE DECIDED: New Playoff Format

I like that we will see divisional playoffs return. The intensity, fan base animosity, and general interest will be there. Sure it’s good for business, but nobody hates playing your bitter rival to prove how superior you are to them. Imagine if the Rangers finish first in the east, but fall to the Islanders in the first round; or Columbus makes a surprising run and knocks off Pittsburgh along the way. Rivalries will bring us closer together…before we smash each others faces in.

With that being said, I don’t like that the change overall. The current system is entertaining and fair. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The current system features parity and that unpredictability factor that makes the NHL playoffs the best postseason in sports. Parity could falter as the more skilled teams may have an easier path to a deep playoff run. At the same time, playing your rival could change all of that (the Penguins-Flyers games remind us of of river hockey with extra nastiness added).

We will have to find out how this unfolds. If it works, then hey, we have competitive playoffs with some extra bad blood thrown in. Still, if the new format crashes and burns, at least the league has the chance to fix it in a few years.

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About the Author: Sports Reporter by day, puck stopper between the pipes at night. I was the Locker Room Reporter for the Islanders for WRHU-FM. Currently, I cover the New Jersey Devils on HockeyIndependent.com and Metro Area Hockey on BrooklynFans.com Follow me on Twitter @John_A_Iadevaia

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