by RGM81 aka Richard McAdam

Late in the evening on December 5th, the National Hockey League’s Board of Governors announced its plan for what it calls “radical realignment.” The East/West Conference alignment we have known for the past several years will fall by the wayside after the 2011-12 season once the new plan is formally approved by the Board, the NHL, and the NHL Players Association. Instead of two conferences divided by geography, we will see next year four conferences. They are as follows:

Conference A: Anaheim Ducks, Calgary Flames, Colorado Avalanche, Edmonton Oilers, Los Angeles Kings, Phoenix Coyotes, San Jose Sharks, Vancouver Canucks

Conference B: Chicago Blackhawks, Columbus Blue Jackets, Dallas Stars, Detroit Red Wings, Minnesota Wild, Nashville Predators, St. Louis Blues, Winnipeg Jets

Conference C: Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres, Florida Panthers, Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators, Tampa Bay Lightning, Toronto Maple Leafs

Conference D: Carolina Hurricanes, New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals

As you can see, these new arrangements are largely geographically based. Teams in the Eastern time zone are lumped together, while teams in the Central time zone (plus Detroit) are in another conference, and the western teams comprise the other. We heard quite a bit of noise in recent months about Detroit wanting to move into the Eastern Conference to reduce its perceived unfair travel schedule. The new format addresses that concern by totally eliminating the notion of East/West conferences. Because of the new scheduling, they do not have to make numerous trips to California any longer. The teams in the present Northeast Division will have some additional travel, as they will have to go down to Florida one more time per season as well as have guaranteed trips out west. It is heavily rumoured that Montreal owner Geoff Molson voted against the realignment citing the heightened travel mileage his club will face beginning next season.

The schedule has been adjusted to accommodate these new conferences as well. Every team will face off at least twice per season, one home and one away game. This means that every NHL city will get to see each team come to town once per season, which is key to growing the game. The conferences comprised of seven teams will see the squads face off six times per season. The conferences that have eight teams will have a rotational basis: some years a team will play an opponent five times, while in
other years, six. This is a notable change: presently division rivals square off six times per season, facing intra-conference teams four times, and some teams from the opposing conference once or not at all.

It is in the playoffs that we will see the most notable changes. Presently, the conference system allows for considerable variation in determining playoffs opponents. With three divisions and eight teams qualifying per conference, a team may not face a division rival at all in the first three rounds. The new format alters that completely. The first two rounds will feature divisional matchups that will certainly develop and enhance regional rivalries. The top four teams in each conference will qualify for the playoffs, with the 1st seed taking on the 4th seed, and the 2nd seed facing the 3rd seed, in the first round. The winners will then face off in Round Two. It is in Round Three that things get interesting and jump outside the box. The conference winners will be seeded 1-4 based on points, not geography, again with 1 facing 4 and 2 facing 3. Hypothetically, this could mean Vancouver facing Montreal in the third round in one semi-final while the Rangers play Phoenix in the other. The Stanley Cup Finals will no longer be a guaranteed East v. West affair – in the scenario above, you could see Montreal vs. New York or Vancouver vs. Phoenix competing for the Stanley Cup. The format for the last two rounds has not yet been finalized, and remains to be determined by the NHL’s General Managers, but this is the format being advertised for the time being.

Looking at the new conference format and schedule, some things immediately jump out at the reader and will be the centrepieces for many discussions:

  • The two Florida teams being added to the present Northeast Division is at first a head-scratcher; however, consider that there is a large population of Canadians that go south every winter and Florida is a prime destination. These “snowbirds” will be relied upon to buy tickets to the games and generate higher revenues from the Sunshine State.
  • Winnipeg is the only Canadian team in its division. It would have been nice for the Jets to be given the opportunity to establish a rivalry against a fellow Canadian squad.
  • A very good team that finishes 5th in an 8-team conference could miss the playoffs despite having more points than the 4th place team in a weaker 7-team conference.
  • The imbalance along geographic lines (16 west and 14 east) makes you think that the NHL suspects the Phoenix situation will be resolved by relocation to a more eastern location.
  • The All-Star Game format will have to be re-considered.
  • The playoffs will definitely heighten existing rivalries. MTL-BOS, NYR-NJ, PIT-WSH, DET-CHI, SJ-LA, and DAL-MIN could all be nearly annual events. It’s too bad that they all happen in the early rounds.
  • An all-East or all-West Stanley Cup Finals would be an interesting sight, but would also allow historic rivals to potentially square off for the first time in a long time with the Cup on the line.

So that is your primer for the NHL’s realignment for the 2012-12 season. There are likely to be many questions arising in the coming weeks, so be sure to participate in the discussion around the boards!