For the first time since the end of the 1997-98 season, the National Hockey League will feature only four divisions, and for the first time in 15 years, every team is guaranteed to play in the arena of every other team thanks to the new plan approved by the league’s Board of Governors on Thursday.
“This goes into the good news category,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said Thursday. “We can begin the process of preparing next year’s schedule.”
Here’s a quick and easy infographic from NHL.com explaining the situation:
Last week, the NHL reported that the divisions would be called Atlantic, Central, Midwest and Pacific, but that has not been finalized. The NHLPA has consented to the new configuration, but only for two years with the need for review following the 2015-16 campaign.
About the glaring geographic disparity in Division C, Bettman said: “From a business standpoint, I think this is probably really good for both Florida teams. “Competitively they may have their own issues, travel-wise they may have issues, but based on where Florida is from a geographic standpoint whatever we did wasn’t going to be perfect. (Ed note: A dozen hypothetical proposals from others across North America, including Flyers Faithful staff members, managed to do a better job)
“But our commitment in that regard is when we’re doing the scheduling we’re going to try and do the best possible job of focusing on the travel needs of the two Florida clubs and with respect to the teams in their division and their travel to and from Florida.”
This new plan makes it unclear how relocation from the Western Conference to the East will proceed, but quite obviously leaves room for future expansion only in the West.
For the Flyers, who will reside in an eight-team grouping, their schedule breakdown goes as follows: Five games against two teams within the division and four games against the remaining five (30); three games against the other eight clubs in the opposite division (24); two games against each of the 12 franchises in the other conference (24).
Due to the unbalanced nature of in-conference play, the home-road configuration will be rotated on a yearly basis.
It wouldn’t take much gray matter to posit that the Flyers and Penguins will be playing the maximum five times per season for at least the first two seasons of the realignment plan — as it has become the most bankable rivalry in the league right now.
While we’ll never quite know what the Master Schedule has in store, those of us old enough to remember may once again see the re-emergence of New Year’s Eve games in Vancouver as part of the Orange and Black’s once-traditional Holiday road trip.
As for the playoffs, here’s a new wrinkle…the Stanley Cup Playoffs will still be comprised of 16 teams, eight in each conference, but it will be division-based and a wild-card system has been added:
“The top three teams in each division will make-up the first 12 teams in the playoffs. The remaining four spots will be filled by the next two highest-placed finishers in each conference, based on regular-season points and regardless of division. It will be possible, then, for one division to send five teams to the postseason while the other sends three.
The seeding of the wild-card teams within each divisional playoff will be determined on the basis of regular-season points. The division winner with the most points in the conference will be matched against the wild-card team with the lowest number of points; the division winner with the second-most points in the conference will play the wild-card team with the second fewest points.
The teams finishing second and third in each division will play in the first round of the playoffs. The winners of each series will play for berths in the Conference Championship series.
The two divisional champions in each conference will then play in the conference finals to advance to the Stanley Cup Final.”
The NHL created the four-division system prior to the 1974-75 season after it expanded to 18 teams by accepting the Washington Capitals and Kansas City Scouts. Back then, the “classic names” of Patrick, Adams, Norris and Smythe were used, but the teams save the Patrick were not grouped in strict geographic format. In addition, the Patrick and Smythe comprised the Campbell Conference while the Adams and Norris made up the Wales Conference.
Playoffs were broken down into 1-4 seeds being the division winners and seeds 5-12 the next eight teams with the best record.
In 1981, two years after the last major expansion which brought in the four clubs from the World Hockey Association, the divisions were aligned along geographic lines, placing the Patrick and Adams in the Wales, with the Norris and the Smythe in the Campbell Conference. That year, the introduction of intra-division playoffs for the first two rounds was formalized, and would not be altered for another 12 seasons.
For the 1980 and ’81, postseasons, as clubs played a totally balanced schedule (each team playing the other four times for a total of 80), playoff rankings were 1 through 16 based on record, with the provision that a division winner was guaranteed to make it even if it had a worse mark than the 16th best franchise. From 1982 through 1993, seeding was 1-4 based on in-division standing.
Gary Bettman’s ascension to the post of NHL Commissioner in 1993 saw the first radical change in division alignment and playoff structure. Gone were the division and conference names honoring the architects of the league, and a new system based totally on geography was born, including the adoption of the 1-8 playoff system regardless of division featured in the NBA.
With the proposed growth of the league to Nashville, Atlanta, Minnesota and Columbus on the horizon, the NHL made a move to the six-division format we know today, which allowed for such expansion 15 years ago.