On “Radical” Realignment

By now, we all know about the weird situation that exists with Atlanta’s move to Winnipeg and the Jets remaining in the Southeast Division for one more year. This temporary geographical unacceptability harkens back to 1980-81, when the Flames departed Atlanta for Calgary, or when the Norris Division contained Montreal and Los Angeles

With the hot rumors swirling about the National Hockey League’s plans to realign the divisions after the upcoming season, why not examine some of the possibilities?

As we have reported before, the Red Wings have had an informal deal in place since the last major re-alignment in 1998, that they could choose to move into the Eastern Conference if they wished. Such are the perils of being a major market and successful franchise that is the second-Eastern-most in the Western Conference.

But can that actually be a reality? Can the NHL radically align itself solely along “time zones” as ESPN reported late last night, given that 17 of its 30 clubs exist in the Eastern Time Zone? 

If the league chooses to stay the course and take a more sensible and logical approach, the divisions might look something like this:

ATLANTIC
Flyers
Rangers
Devils
Islanders
Penguins

NORTHEAST
Bruins
Sabres
Canadiens
Senators
Maple Leafs

SOUTHEAST
Capitals
Hurricanes
Predators
Lightning
Panthers

CENTRAL
Red Wings
Blue Jackets
Blues
Blackhawks
Stars

NORTHWEST
Avalanche
Flames
Oilers
Wild
Jets

PACIFIC
Canucks
Kings
Sharks
Ducks
Coyotes

The teams in italics are the ones who will be relocated. In the original plan, the balance of power in the West between the Wings, Avalanche and Stars dictated that each be placed in a separate division. But that never really looked right since Dallas is located in the Central Time Zone, and Vancouver is plainly a Pacific Ocean locale. With the Avs and Stars rebuilding and the Canucks having a resurgence, it’s easier to group those teams now with better geographic fits.

In the Southeast Division, though, Nashville is a Central Time Zone club a little further removed from the Eastern seaboard than even Atlanta was. Plus, we haven’t solved the issue of Washington, DC being no less than 300 miles from their nearest competition despite being 130 miles from the Capitals’ closest neighbor in Atlantic denizen Philadelphia.

And…both Detroit and Columbus still get the shaft.

So that means, the NHL might have to fold up two of its divisions and go back to a crowded four-division format like it had from 1974 through the end of the 1997-98 season. If that’s the case, maybe things will look a little like this:

ATLANTIC
New Jersey
NY Rangers
Philadelphia
NY Islanders
Washington
Carolina
Tampa Bay
Florida

NORTHERN
Boston
Buffalo
Montreal
Ottawa
Toronto
Pittsburgh
Columbus

CENTRAL
Detroit
Chicago
Nashville
Dallas
St. Louis
Minnesota
Winnipeg
Colorado

PACIFIC
Vancouver
San Jose
Los Angeles
Anaheim
Calgary
Edmonton
Phoenix

As you can see, this kind of alignment means that each division cuts a wide swath of territory across North America. If the Players’ Association, general managers and head coaches complained in the past about the travel, well, what do they expect if the four-division system is reborn?

With 30 teams now instead of 26, there will be matchups, specifically inter-conference battles, which will obviously be short-changed in favor of a high volume of intra-division and conference play. This is really no different than whatever the NHL has cooked up since the expansions at the turn of the Millennium.

And…Detroit gets the shaft here once again.

Unless…the NHL decides to take a page out of Major League Baseball and switches to a four-division set-up with an uneven amount of clubs within each conference. This grouping occurred from 1993 to 1995, but even then, there was the possibility of growth in the West via an expansion franchise or a relocation. That’s exactly what happened prior to the 1995-96 season as Quebec moved to Denver and balanced the conferences at 13 teams each.

If that’s the case, refer to the alignment above and you can see how Detroit fits into the erstwhile Northern grouping, giving the Eastern Conference 16 teams and leaving 14 in the West. If there’s any other quibbles about the layout, maybe Colorado, the lone U.S. franchise in the Mountain Time Zone, moves into the Pacific.

Unlike my Polish brother who’s set up shop over at Yahoo! Sports, I want nothing to do with any monkeying around with the playoff format — specifically regarding the addition of teams to the postseason and creating more rounds. 

For the love of Brooksie and Doug Wilson’s hairpiece, don’t do it.

What would I like to see? How about this — if the six-division format wins out, there should be no automatic bids based on who wins a division. One through eight should be ranked according to point totals in the overall conference standings with a re-seed based on which of the higher seeds wins in each successive round. If you’re tops in a weak division, tough toast.

If a four-division format is agreed upon, let’s spice up the playoffs because we’re going to be short-changed on the inter-conference matchups. Go to a 1-16 seeding regardless of conference. Best-of-five opening round. Best of seven the last three rounds.

This kind of league-wide pairing was done in the two seasons immediately following the WHA absorptions and led to the funky clash between the Flyers and Islanders (who both resided in the Patrick Division) for the 1980 Cup.

Also, let the teams choose between a 2-3-2 or 2-2-1-1-1 format in later rounds depending on mileage. Teams in the West were granted this option in the mid 90s, and it’s just a decent thing to revive in the interest of keeping teams fresh.

If all this conjecture doesn’t seem so radical, gold star for you. That’s why the “radical” is in quotation marks. The fact is, the NHL is controlled by some decidedly old-school minds who will frankly be afraid to take huge leaps as a whole.

There will always be new blood pushing for a unique angle, and some of the old guard may agree, but good luck trying to convince yourself that 30 men hellbent on protecting their own interests (read: $$$) are going to collectively sign off on something that tears up the fabric of reality.

Not to say that it’s not a nice mental exercise every so often, but don’t mistake the ability of certain sources or websites to fashion a rumor into subjective reality for something close to the truth.

If anything is certain, the NHL’s plan for the 2012-13 season will be closer to the KISS rule than Murphy’s Law.