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What the NHL will lose in four-conference realignment

The NHL Board of Governors are meeting in lovely Pebble Beach this week so that traveling hockey writers can consume copious amounts of In-N-Out burgers and the NHL can figure out realignment for the 2012-13 season.

As we discussed over the weekend, the NHL is presenting two proposals: a straight one-for-one shot with the Winnipeg Jets moving to the Central Division for either the Detroit Red Wings or Columbus Blue Jackets; or the radical realignment that would group teams into four conferences. (UPDATE: NHL has approved radical four-conference realignment)

Under that second proposal, the NHL will move to a balanced schedule in the regular season featuring home-and-home series for every team and five or six games against conference foes.

It will also return the Stanley Cup Playoffs to the "divisional" format that was scrapped in 1993 when the League moved to six divisions and conference seeding. The top four teams in each conference square off in the first two rounds; the winners advance and are re-seeded (we imagine) for a four-team mini-tournament for the Stanley Cup.

In other words, we could have a Bruins/Flyers Stanley Cup Final.

What the NHL will lose in four-conference realignment

As Leahy wrote, the pros outweigh the cons in this proposal. Rivalries are preserved; travel is reduced for current Western Conference teams like the Red Wings and Blue Jackets; and the divisional playoff format is an incubator for hatred and dramatically intense series.

But we'll lose something rather significant in this format that's thrilled us for years in the NHL.

On March 30, 2011, the NHL's 2010-11 season was nearing the finish line with the majority of its playoff seedings still in play.

The Eastern Conference had seven teams that were mathematically alive for three playoff spots. The Western Conference was much more chaotic: Nine teams, all mathematically alive, and five playoff spots that were in play for home ice advantage, playoff matchups and/or a place in the postseason.

The last weekend of that season saw the New York Rangers and Carolina Hurricanes play games that determined their playoff fate; as did the Anaheim Ducks, Dallas Stars and the Chicago Blackhawks as they vied for the final two playoff spots in the West. These matters weren't settled until the final game of the regular season, in which a Dallas Stars' loss cost them a playoff appearance.

Had the proposed playoff system been in place, the "West" would have looked like this:

Conference One Conference Two
Vancouver — 117 pts. Detroit — 104 pts.
San Jose — 105 Nashville — 99
Anaheim - 99 Chicago - 97
Phoenix - 99 Dallas — 95
Los Angeles - 98 St. Louis - 87
Calgary - 94 Minnesota - 86
Colorado - 68 Columbus  - 81
Edmonton - 62 (No Winnipeg yet, but the Thrashers had 80 points)

When the NHL adjusted its playoff format in 1993, it was celebrated for offering teams that might be left out of the playoff picture within their divisions a chance to qualify in a conference format. (Keep in mind we have several years of four divisions and conference seeding, before the NHL realigned into six divisions in 1998-99.)

As Michel Goulet said back in 1993: "It puts the best teams in the playoffs."

Had this been the format last season, the Los Angeles Kings would have missed the playoffs despite having more points than Chicago and Dallas. The same story would play out every year in this format: It's not as if a team falls short of the playoffs because of their record, it's that they're screwed by the divisional seeding.

The divisional playoff format has been romanticized to the point where we've forgotten its flaws: Inequity and predictability.

[ Related: 'Miss Congeniality' charged in Stanley Cup riot ]

The St. Louis Blues played the Chicago Blackhawks five times in six years from 1988-1993. The Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers played five times in six years from 1982-87. From 1983-87 the Capitals played seven playoff series; six were either against the Rangers or the Islanders.

Granted, the Capitals have seen Pittsburgh six times since the playoff format changed in 1993, but that's the luck of the draw. But they've also seen the Flyers, Lightning, Bruins, Senators, Sabres, Canadiens and Rangers, some multiple times.

The trap a divisional playoff format presents: Repetition. The same teams, for five or six years, battling in the same divisional playoff rounds. On one hand, it'll make for intense rivalry; on the other hand, it's like a cafeteria that only serves hamburgers and pizza.

There are going to be some teams that look at the current track for certain franchises and cringe at having a one-in-three chance at the playoffs because of them each season. For example: The Pittsburgh Penguins. They could make the playoffs even year for the next decade. As Frank Seravalli notes, that really cuts down on the options for a team like the Flyers:

The Flyers have been very public in their stance about continuing their rivalry with Pittsburgh in a schedule that would feature six games against conference opponents and a home-and-home series with the league's remaining teams.

Flyers president Peter Luukko has said it would be "unacceptable" to play without the Penguins. But if I'm reading the tea leaves correctly, the Flyers' public stance isn't the same as their private thought. Knowing that Sidney Crosby(notes) and the Penguins have a solid foundation to continue on-ice success for years to come, the Flyers aren't exactly jumping up and down to face Pittsburgh four extra times a season.

The four-conference realignment has gotten widespread support from puckheads, and the divisional playoff format is a big reason for that. We're jacked about it too, having grown up watching first and second round wars between rivals.

But let's not forget what we're missing out on here: The utter chaos of a dozen teams scrambling for playoff spots in the last two weeks of the season, each with their own crazy math for getting into the postseason; and, in the end, the best teams in the NHL getting into the postseason rather than becoming the victims of their own division's dominance.

And as our colleague Nick Cotsonika mentioned today: Say goodbye to the 1 vs. 8 upset, too. Cinderella leaves the ball.

But hey, it's realignment. Someone's going to get screwed. But probably not Mike Illitch.

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