Getty ImagesNHL realignment is inevitable. It was just a matter of figuring out the playoff format, and which Western Conference teams would be super pissed about getting screwed over in the process. (But more on Nashville later.)
The 2011 realignment format approved by the NHL, but spiked by the Players Association, had four conferences – two with eight teams, two with seven. Carolina and Washington joined the Atlantic Division teams; Tampa Bay and Florida joined the Northeast Division teams; Dallas, Minnesota and Winnipeg joined the Central Division teams; and Colorado, Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver joined the Pacific Division teams.
This format didn’t soothe the ills of the Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets, two Eastern Time Zone teams in exile out west. Both wanted to shift to the Eastern Conference teams’ divisions; neither were realigned in that format.
Now, NHL is expected to announce its new realignment as early as this week, and CBC’s Elliotte Friedman offered a glimpse on Hockey Night In Canada on Saturday night.
Winnipeg, Detroit and Columbus move. But is this new format good for the NHL?
Here’s the new four-conference alignment the NHL is considering:
In the seven-team conferences, teams would play six times -- three home, three away. In the eight-team Conferences, teams would play either five or six times in a season on a rotating basis; three teams would play each other six times and four teams would play each other five times. This process would reverse each season: An eight-team Conference member that plays an opponent six times in one season would play it five times the following season.
Whatever the schedule, this is a huge win for Detroit, which was rumored to have been promised this realignment for several years.
The Wings are a perfect fit geographically here, and the NHL and its television partners must been swooning from the potential ratings for Detroit vs. Boston/Buffalo/Montreal/Toronto on a conference-rival basis. (This realignment means only good things for television -- especially if a "divisional playoff" format is adopted as well.)
It’s also a huge win for Columbus – hell, it’s a franchise game-changer. The Jackets will have Pittsburgh as a division rival, which is an enormous boon; not only because it brings a premiere franchise from the same time zone to town, but because Penguins fan invasions for those games already have created a kinetic atmosphere in the arena.
But most of all, Jackets fans won't have to stay up to the wee hours just to see their team face conference rivals.
Tampa Bay and Florida will now be in the same division as the snowbird fans that fill their seats every winter. Washington returns to its old Patrick Division friends, ending the days of Southeast Division “rivalries” that never came to fruition.
In the “West”, the Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars and Minnesota Wild are the big winners, both in geography and rivalry. (Let’s get that Minnesota/Winnipeg feud going already.)
One loser: The Nashville Predators, who wanted to be realigned to the East but whose Central Time Zone kept them in the “West.” Plus they lose those visits from the Red Wings.
Another consideration: Expansion and relocation. The “Eastern Conference” now has the eight-team conferences, which is a change from the previous format that seemed tailor-made for the addition of two teams in the East, i.e. Quebec and a second Toronto team. What now?
That said, this realignment, by and large, makes sense. The real issue is going to be with the playoffs, given the unbalanced conferences.
The original concept: The Stanley Cup Playoffs will begin inside each conference, with the top four teams squaring off in divisional playoffs. The four conference champions will advance to face each other for the right to play for the Cup, potentially without geographic restrictions (i.e. they’re re-seeded).
So, in other words, the New York Rangers and the Boston Bruins could play for the Stanley Cup. Which is really cool.
The wrinkle, as Friedman reported, is that the NHL is discussing a “wild card” option for those 8-team conferences.
The wild cards may end up being some variation of the “play-in” game or series that was floated earlier this year. So you’d take the No. 4 and No. 5 seeds on an 8-team conference, have them square off, and then the winner faces the regular-season conference champion. But that was just one theory.
Are you happy with the realignment model? What playoff format would you like to see? And, overall:
Pass or Fail: The NHL’s new realignment format.