Reports have been scattered and contradictory since June, but last weekend, the CBC’s Elliotte Friedman spelled out more specifically one proposal that was on the table. After 13 years with 30 teams neatly and geographically arranged into 6 divisions of 5 apiece, the proposal to return to 4 larger conferences is continuing to garner support. Concerns of travel distance and time-zone compatibility for the TV audiences at home are at the top of the priority list for most of the Leagues’ owners. The only uncertainty in Friedman’s map is whether Columbus or Detroit would be moved to the East. Here’s what he was told might happen:
It didn’t take long for the hated rivals of Pennsylvania, the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Philadelphia Flyers, to unite against a common enemy to voice their objections to being separated in the plan as Friedman described it.
Beyond the maps, Friedman provided a glimpse at how regular season games would be scheduled, both within divisions and across both conferences. With 7 or 8 teams/division, each team would play the others within its division about 6 times per season and then all of the remaining 22 or 23 teams twice, home and away. That’s about 44 games outside the division, and 38 games against the 6 or 7 teams inside the division. I’m not sure how controversial it will be when the numbers are not neat and tidy integers, identical from team to team.
For those who are too young or too new to the sport to recall exactly how division rivalries were born more than 30 years ago, here’s how the NHL looked at one point when it had 4 divisions and there were just 21 teams. As Travis Hughes explained in a brief history of NHL alignment Tuesday, the 2-conference, 4-division structure began in 1974 when there were 18 teams. From 1982 to 1991, about the time many of the league’s current players were born, this was the NHL:
Comparing to the present, the Nordiques of Quebec City are now in Colorado, and 9 other teams, all in the south and west, were added during the 1990s, with the majority proving a hockey franchise can be successful at any latitude. Also, it’s interesting to recall that the Toronto Maple Leafs were part of the western (Campbell) conference for much of their history and their rivalry with the Detroit Red Wings was as potent as that between the Canadiens and Bruins.
In 1998, the current and now all too familiar format of 6 divisions, designated geographically, was put in place, and it’s been stagnant that way for 13 years, with no revision in that period of how the teams compete and reach the Stanley Cup Finals. I'd say we’re due.
With all the nostalgia hockey is tapping now, from the throwback jerseys to the Winter Classic, wouldn’t it be appropriate to re-visit the hockey heritage of the NHL in the 70s and 80s, as it expanded rapidly and became one of the top 4 major sports across North America? In deference to the Pennsylvania rivalry, and satisfying those in the Midwest bound by the Eastern time zone, maybe it’s time we consider something more like this.
If there is going to be further franchise movement, with Phoenix’s status still precarious, this structure is flexible enough to allow for some adjustment down the road (thinking they might end up in a locale that would be a natural fit in the Norris or Adams Divisions shown with 7 teams above). The “Original 6” teams are equally divided between the two conferences. Canadian teams are spread across three divisions.
If I had to guess, Nashville might object to moving away from all 4 of its current Central Division rivals, but the geographic void left when Atlanta moved north shows they might be able to build their fanbase more easily when most of their games are more convenient for fans in the East and Central timezones who live within driving distance of central Tennessee.
The ongoing problem I see in the four division format is the fairness of the playoff structure with unequal number of teams in each division. The AHL has a system in place for just this scenario. Friedman’s story included the provision that the first 2 rounds of the playoffs would be strictly within each division, producing only one winner who would advance to the Conference finals. That’s a big difference from what we’ve seen for nearly 15 years and will take some adjustment from general managers strategizing to reach those final rounds.
Finally, to put this is in the format we all look at daily, here are the Divisional standings, using this format, as of this morning. Don’t know about you, but I sure never thought it would be the Adams Division playing the part of the weak sister.
|CAMPBELL CONFERENCE||WALES CONFERENCE|
|26||ST LOUIS||11||5||6||0||10||28||NY ISLES||10||3||5||2||8|