The NHL announced Monday that the Board of Governors had approved a radical realignment plan that would see the current two-conference, six-division system transition to a four-conference system with no divisions. The key to understanding this change isn’t travel: as pointed out by Bourne yesterday, travel in the NHL isn’t as much of an issue for players as it’s made out to be.
No, the big issue at stake was time zones, and the main reason it was an issue is television. Under the current format, Detroit and Columbus, teams in the Eastern time zone, play 16 regular season games in the Mountain or Pacific time zones, losing a lot of potential viewers in the process. That’s clearly a bigger issue for Columbus than Detroit, but it still can’t be ignored. More importantly, in my opinion, are playoff games. A matchup against a team in the Pacific time zone means half the games potentially starting at 10:00 at night for fans of Detroit or Columbus.
Don’t laugh, Columbus might still make the playoffs. It’s a mathematical possibility. Statistical improbability, yes, but still a possibility.
The problem works the other way as well, as a game starting at 7:00 PM in the Eastern time zone starts at 4:00 PM for a team on the west coast, an issue for those with 9-to-5 jobs, aka. a whole bunch of hockey fans.
The NHL have tried to mitigate this issue in the playoffs through creative scheduling: in the playoff series last season between the Red Wings and Sharks, one of the games in San Jose was scheduled as an afternoon game on a Sunday, with another starting at 5:00 PM the following Sunday and a third starting at 6:00 PM on a Thursday. Two of the games in Detroit were started an hour later at 8:00 PM to help out the west coasters trying to get home from work in time. It would be preferable to avoid these kinds of schedule gymnastics for as long as possible, but under the current system they can occur in every round.
The realignment means teams will be, at most, one time zone away from all of the teams in their respective conferences and will play other teams outside their conference twice in the regular season, once at home and once away. This will cut the regular season games in the Mountain or Pacific time zone in half for Detroit and Columbus.
More importantly, teams will stay within their conference for the first two rounds of the playoffs and fans won’t need to stay up past midnight to watch a playoff game, at least until the third round and Stanley Cup Final, at which point I suspect fans won’t mind quite as much. No decision has been made in regards to what will happen in these last two rounds of the playoffs and what the fate of the current Conference championship trophies, the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl and the Prince of Wales Trophy. Of course, given how loathe players are to touch these trophies, I’m not sure they’d be missed all that much.
The bigger concern for me is the imbalance in the conferences. It turns out that 30 does not divide evenly into 4, which means that two of the conferences will have 8 teams and two will have 7. The silly solution would be expansion (hello Quebec City and Hamilton) to even things out, but until that happens teams in the two easternmost conferences will have an easier path to the playoffs. The top four teams in each conference will make the playoffs, which means only three teams from each easternmost conference will miss the playoffs.
Going by the standings from last season, only one team would miss the playoffs under the new system, the LA Kings. Their point total, however, was higher than five teams that would have made the playoffs under the new system. The Kings finished the regular season with 98 points and absolutely deserved to be in the playoffs, while the Blackhawks had 97 points, the Sabres and Canadiens had 96, the Stars had 95, and the Rangers squeaked into the playoffs with 93 points.
This is a far cry from ideal, but it does make regular season games within the conference that much more important. A potential solution would be to borrow the model from the Canadian Football League. In the CFL, 6 of the 8 teams in the league make the playoffs, normally the top 3 from the East and West Divisions. They also, however, have the crossover rule, which comes into play when the fourth place team in one division has a better record than the third place team in the other.
Thus, with the NHL’s new system, if the fifth place team in one or more conferences has a better record than the fourth place team in another conference, they could cross over and play in the first two rounds of the playoffs in that conference. While this would ensure that the NHL’s best teams make the playoffs (correcting even the current system’s imbalances between the Eastern and Western Conferences) it has the unfortunate side effect of removing the main benefit of the realignment, as teams would potentially have playoff matchups in unfriendly time zones.
Another alternative would be to borrow from Major League Baseball and have the top three teams in each Conference guaranteed a spot in the playoffs with the next four teams with the best records making up the balance of the sixteen teams. Again, while an elegant solution that ensures the best teams are in the playoffs, it removes the benefit of playoff teams remaining within one time zone of each other through the first two rounds.
It will be interesting to see how the NHL seeks solutions to the playoff issues raised by the realignment over the coming months and whether ideas similar to this will be considered to mitigate the different number of teams in each conference. While there are certainly a number of issues that will need to be ironed out, this realignment scenario seems to be the best possible solution.
But so help me, if they try to call the conference with Tampa Bay and Florida in it the “Northeast Conference” I will flip out.