Rethinking the NHL's Proposed Re-alignment Plan

Bruce Bennett

The NHL's Board of Governors is set to vote via fax on a proposed plan to re-align the league on Monday. This plan has been met with some initial enthusiasm, but perhaps there are some unseen problems.

Bookmark this article. Go ahead. Do it now.

It’s not because this article is particularly informative about the proposed NHL re-alignmnet or that it is destined to win a Pulitzer Prize. There is, as yet, no category for loud mouth blogger. It’s because I’m going to change my mind in the future and if you go ahead and book mark it now it will save you time in the future. You won’t have to search for it. It will be right there and you can have the dynamite reply.

For some historical precedence, look at the shoot-out. I was firmly in the negative camp. I said frequently "why should a skills competition determine who gets in to the playoffs". Then I followed that up with "what’s so wrong with a tie anyway? I think it adds something unique to hockey". That lasted all of two Canes games in to the 2005-06 season when Cam Ward in his first NHL start stonewalled the Pittsburgh Penguins in a shoot-out during the Canes home opener. I immediately changed my mind. It was so fast in fact that Mrs. Leaguer still gives me guff about it to this very day, and rightly so.

For something more recent look to the Jay Harrison Contract extension. When it happened I questioned the logic of locking up a player like Harrison for four years (Harrison had one year left on his deal when he was awarded his three year extension). The fact is that Harrison is outplaying not only his current deal but his extension that is set to kick in next season. It is contracts like the one given to Jay Harrison that is going to allow the Canes to maintain some depth on the blue line and be able to retain Alex Semin in the future. I wasn’t just wrong about it I was absolutely dead wrong.

Given my track record, I have to admit that there is a possibility that I will change my stance on re-alignment. As it stands right now though, I’m firmly opposed to the proposed NHL re-alignment that the NHL Board of Governors is set to vote on via fax on Monday.

Let me run you through the reasons why I dislike the proposal. First, and perhaps most glaring as far as I’m concerned is the unbalanced nature of the playoffs. Right now there are 15 teams in each conference and 8 playoff spots for each conference. At the start of the season every team has the same shot of making the playoffs. Under the re-alignment plan there will be 14 teams in the western conference and 16 in the eastern, with 8 playoff spots in each league. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that teams in the west will have a better shot at making the playoffs than teams in the east.

To see how important competitive balance is to a sport, look to what has recently taken place in baseball. Starting this season the Houston Astros will begin playing in the American League West, leaving the National League Central. This will create three five team divisions in each league and give every team in baseball the same shot at making the postseason as every other team at the start of the season. To make this work MLB had to have a team shift leagues and they will have to schedule interleague play all season. I think it speaks volumes when a league that prides itself on continuity makes two major moves away from history solely for the purpose of competitive balance. If its good enough for baseball to make major moves it should be good enough for hockey.

The obvious fix to this is to expand the league by two teams in the western conference. When it comes to expansion though, do not count me as a proponent. The talent is simply not there to support two additional teams. I’m certain that there is talent out there to make two more groups of bottom six forwards and two more bottom 4 defensemen. There simply isn’t enough talent for two more legitimate top six forward groups and two more top pair defensemen. If the talent was there then teams like Columbus wouldn’t always struggle to score goals and Toronto wouldn’t still be looking for a first line center to play with Phil Kessel. To me, if the only way to get out of this issue with competitive balance is to expand then I just don’t see how this can work.

Another problem I have with the proposed re-alignment plan is the unbalanced schedules that will result. For Eastern Conference teams the teams will play 28 games against the Western Conference (a home and home with every team), 16 games against the other division (again, a home and home with each team) and then the remaining 38 games against divisional opponents. It’s clear to see that 38 isn’t evenly divisible by seven, which means unbalance scheduling. So, not only will competitive balance between the conferences be gone, but competitive balance within the division will be gone. In a league where only a few points separate making the playoffs and playing golf in April it seems unwise to move so far away from the balanced schedule that the NHL currently enjoys in full seasons.

I’m also not looking forward to divisional playoffs. One of the biggest problems that fans had with the schedule coming out of the lockout was how frequently you played the same small set of teams. Re-alignment will double down on that aspect by forcing teams to work through their own division in the playoffs before getting to the final four teams.

The thing that frightens me the most is that two teams in a division could effectively block a team from getting deep in the playoffs. Think of the American League East in baseball where the Yankees and the Red Sox generally dominate as they are able to spend unlimited funds of money. This means that the Blue Jays, Devil Rays, and Orioles start off the season with one strike against them for making the World Series or ALCS. Imagine now that after qualifying for the playoffs the Rays, Jays, or Orioles had no choice but to face the Yankees or Red Sox in the first round. It becomes obvious that very quickly a few teams can set up a significant road block to other teams in the division and for an extended period of time. The salary cap in hockey will help, but it will only help so much. In the Canes proposed division it isn’t hard to see two of the Penguins, Flyers, and Capitals developing a talent nucleus that makes everyone else in the division also rans.

Lastly, I would ask what is so broke that it needs fixing? It’s well established that the NHL playoffs are one of the best, if not the best, events in all of sports. They are so entertaining that even ESPN comes down off their mountain to cover them. Is it really worthwhile for the NHL to jeopardize what they have with the playoffs for what may be a more exciting couple of regular season games? Even if those games do become more exciting, something that isn’t set in stone based off of the regular season intensity in the seasons after the lockout, will the NHL see any additional media coverage? I personally doubt it. To me it seems that if the NHL wants more coverage on ESPN then the best way to go about that is to find some way to get actual NHL games on ESPN. We know that ESPN will promote the products that are on its network. Look at the way ESPN’s coverage of the NFL and the NBA have gone through the roof in the years since the NHL has moved off of ESPN. If the goal is more coverage of the regular season, which is why you set up "more intense" regular season games, then move some games to ESPN and don’t mess around with conference alignment.

I understand the position that the NHL is in. When Atlanta moved to Winnipeg it put the NHL in to a tough situation. You cannot play home games in the prairies of Canada and be in the southeast division. Even the NHL brass knows that. There are better ways to solve that problem than a massive conference re-alignment that necessitates the addition of two teams out west than what has been proposed. Moving Columbus or Nashville to the Eastern Conference and perhaps even the Southeast Division solves the NHL’s problem without turning the world upside down, or turning the clock back to reclaim a lost era. Instead of some backward thinking to recapture some bygone era the NHL should keep what is working well right now and find some way to kiss and make up with the Worldwide Leader. Lord knows I could stand for Buccigross and Melrose to be back doing NHL 2Night.

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