Six months ago, the Thrashers pulled up stakes in Atlanta, Georgia, setting up shop smack in the middle of
Monday, with an hour’s businesslike discussion, the NHL’s council of most high-powered executives agreed to divide the teams according to a map that at first seems more like the clever invention of a nostalgic (and nutty) hockey blogger. Such creativity seems more the brainchild of Brendan Shanahan than Gary Bettman. It was, after all Shanahan, who brought us the joyful spontaneity of the NHL's All-Star Draft, as a warm-up to his tweeted well-crafted Rule 48 suspension videos.
For now, everyone from San Jose to Dallas to Raleigh seems to be getting on board the new format, enumerating what they like about the new scheme. Not that there aren’t problems, but that the problems seem to be evenly distributed – at least in theory, it's shared sacrifice.
The former Western conference teams no longer have ridiculous travel and late night starts, but they do have 8-team conferences making it statistically tougher to reach the post season. The teams in the old Eastern Conference have more travel, but between the more favorable playoff odds (4-in-7) and seeing the established rivalries amped up further, the trade-off seems acceptable.
A few rivalries will be diminished in the new format. I'm thinking of Boston/ Philadelphia, Buffalo/Carolina, Detroit/Colorado, Chicago/Vancouver in which four games per season allowed animosities born in playoff series to re-kindle during the regular season. The number of those matches are cut in half with just the home-and-homes schedule, but otherwise these teams won’t possibly meet until the third round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Oh well.
From all I’ve read the last 48 hours, this predictability of the early playoff rounds is the most cited problem going forward. The six-division two-conference system made for all kinds of high-stakes crazy from about February on, each and every year. In gaining the passionate rivalries that prove that “familiarity breeds contempt”, we also may find that what is new is old, and soon enough, boring, again. Some predict that certain conferences, like the neo-Patrick group, means the perennial high-dollar powerhouses of the Penguins, Flyers, Devils and Capitals and maybe Rangers, will squeeze out struggling budget franchises like the Hurricanes and Islanders.
But I’m not so sure that this is actually a case where history will be repeating itself. A very familiar principle guiding so much of what happens in today’s NHL didn't exist back in the 70s and 80s: The Salary Cap.
While it’s true the new format has many similarities to the years when it seemed every season produced the same few teams duking it out, in the same sequence, there is a whole new set of rules governing the League's business now in place. When the NHL last operated on this four division structure, teams and rosters weren’t constrained by the strict Salary Cap and associated floor that came out of the 2005 CBA.
Before, dynasties were easier to maintain when success on the ice meant higher revenues and unlimited resources to pay top dollar throughout the lineup. Parity in the League was the goal of the latest CBA, and watching how it’s played out the last six seasons, it seems that has indeed been achieved.
We've seen that with expert drafting, coaching changes and thoughtful salary cap management, teams can and do move quickly from basement to penthouse - and back again if they fail too often in these front office exercises.
There’s a new CBA negotiation coming up – and knowing this is the new divisional structure, one might expect the League to address any loopholes [see Redden, Wade] that linger and unfairly favor wealthy teams over those on a budget. The League as a whole succeeds when every team has a shot.
For now, I say let’s not fret that from here on, successfully identifying playoff match-ups will be an annual rite completed by November. Let's hold off on the obituaries of the NHL “Cinderella” or fresh and unexpected storylines.
It's possible the vote in Pebble Beach last Monday means the 2012-13 NHL season, from October to June, will be exactly all hockey fans could hope for, full of blood-feuds and the joy of the underdog, and will continue to evolve and improve for another twenty years of great hockey.
Photo credit: Getty Images