Talking About Realignment

The somewhat inaccurate graphic above comes from the Toronto Star. Apparently no one bothered to check into the updated team logos. Is it the early 90s in St. Louis? The Buffaslug is back? Really?

Over the past few days, likely because it’s July and hockey people need something to discuss, everyone has been talking about NHL realignment. We’re no different.

Numerous plans have been discussed and, really, no one is happy. The most common scenario would see Detroit and Winnipeg swapping conferences. The Jets would go into the Central and, presumably, the Wings would head to the Southeast. That makes some sense from a geographical standpoint, but it also makes a lot of people angry.

First of all, moving Winnipeg to the Central would make that team the only Canadian franchise in that group. While Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary would have each other in the Northwest and Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa would be in the Northeast, Winnipeg would be stuck without a Canadian rival.

But the fans in Winnipeg aren’t the only people who are annoyed by this suggestion. Moving Detroit to the East would certainly help travel times, but it would also leave Chicago as the only Original Six team in the West while also splitting up the Wings and Hawks. This would possibly cool down their rivalry. While the Wings would find new natural rivals in Toronto, Montreal, Boston, Pittsburgh, etc. who would the Hawks’ new number one rival be? Vancouver? Too far.

The problem with realignment in the NHL is that in almost every instance, geography or traditional rivalries get in the way. Just like we’d all want Detroit and Chicago to stay in the same division, we also want to keep teams like Montreal and Boston together. The same with Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, the New York teams, the Western Canadian teams, Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa, and so on.

To make matters even more complicated, both Nashville and Columbus would like to move to the East. This also makes a great deal of sense from a travel standpoint, but it really can’t happen from a numbers perspective.

And then there’s the Phoenix Coyotes. To be honest, as long as they are teetering on the brink of relocation, the NHL likely won’t announce any realignment plans. If the Coyotes move, they will almost certainly go to an eastern market and cause a whole new set of problems.

There are 16 NHL teams in the Eastern time zone. The league could split the divisions by time zone exactly and end up with four divisions (Pacific, Mountain, Central and Eastern) but the number of teams in each division would not be even. That’s the difficulty you face when your sport is much more popular in Canada and the northeastern United States than anywhere else in the continent.

Whatever the NHL’s realignment plan turns out to be, it will be a long and messy process getting to the final goal.