As you've no doubt heard, the NHL Board of Lockout Endorsers has approved the new realignment plan that will see a return to four divisions, a return to divisional playoff seeds, and a return to imbalanced divisions.
Yes, a return.
For many years the NHL had 21 teams and we poor, poor Patrick Division dwellers had to deal with four of six teams making the playoffs while other divisions had four of five. Somehow, the hockey was still entertaining in each division -- just ask an increasingly older fan to tell you tales of Adams wars, Smythe wars, or "Chuck" Norris wars. Good teams still made the playoffs.
In some circles, including many of our vocal readers here, there is outrage that the two Eastern Conference divisions "are screwed," that they will have a harder time making the playoffs because only four of eight will make it (well with the wild card it could be five of eight and three of eight) while the Western divisions only have seven teams each.
But is this really that big of a deal? In the current system, the "Southleast" regularly gets a token top seed and, arguably, one undeserving playoff entrant because of a softer schedule. There's no perfect setup. Teams on the bubble will always be able to point to a scenario where they are screwed. Forgive me for not finding the injustice in teams having a purely theoretical 50 percent chance of making the playoffs (wild card excluded) instead of a purely theoretical 57 percent (wild card excluded) chance.
(I'm reminded of Major League Baseball's 26-team era, where the American League had two seven-team divisions and the National League had two six-team divisions.)
For me, the new setup doesn't seem unfair -- and I'd even argue it is a small leveler considering Western teams, from a franchise health perspective, suffer from much longer travel and much lesser media exposure.
Meanwhile, a universal truth remains: Be a good team, and you'll make it. Be an average team, and you're subject to the bounce of the puck. Be a good team that somehow draws the Kings as an eighth seed, and you're screwed.
I'm worried about the Islanders under realignment because they've been in the latter group in their best years over the past 20 years. But that worry existed in the old Atlantic, and it won't change when they have to beat out Columbus, Carolina and a couple of old Patrick foes to make the postseason. At least now if they are the fifth-best team in the "Atlantic," they have a shot of making the playoffs.
But I am open to swaying to your outrage. By all means, let the argument continue.
As was leaked a few weeks ago -- and to the dismay of Kim Jung-un -- the alignment is as follows:
|Western Conference||Eastern Conference|
|Division A||Division B||Division C||Division D|
|Los Angeles||Minnesota||Florida||NY Islanders|
|San Jose||St. Louis||Ottawa||Philadelphia|
And the geographical map looks like this.
Thankfully, the NHL is thinking twice about division names. An earlier leak suggested Division C -- which contains exactly one team from the current Central and all teams from the current Northeast -- would be renamed the "Central." That would be disorienting, so hopefully they're reconsidering.
More complicated is the schedule matrix, which will create uneven numbers of games against divisional opponents and uneven numbers of home-and-homes.
Eastern Conference (8-Team Divisions)
Within Conference (Division): 30 games
- 5 games vs. two teams (3 Home/2 Away vs. one team, 2 Home/3 Away vs. one team) AND 4 games vs. five teams (2 Home/2 Away). Teams rotated on a yearly basis.
- 5 X 2 =10 games
- 4 X 5 = 20 games
Within Conference (Non-Division): 24 games
- 3 games vs. each team (2 Home/1 Away vs. four teams, 1 Home/2 Away vs. four teams). Teams rotated on a yearly basis.
- 3 X 8 = 24 games
Non-Conference: 28 games
- 2 games vs. each team (1 Home/1 Away)
- 2 X 14 = 28 games
For reference, this season the lockout created an imbalance where the Islanders play the Penguins five times (two home, three away) and Devils five times (three home, two away) but play the Rangers and Flyers only twice each.
Benefits: Much more time zone parity for teams like Dallas, Winnipeg, Detroit and Columbus. Teams face every other team in the league. Larger divisions have the potential to create lots of interesting overlapping rivalries and games with playoff implications.
Cons Not Mentioned Above: More opportunities for teams at the bottom of divisions to realize at an earlier date that they are hopelessly out of the playoff picture, regardless of what superficial hope the NHL's part-time three-point game regime creates.
So with the scheduling format and divisions now formalized, what about you? Are you feeling "screwed"? Or is this an interesting new day for you as an NHL fan?