So the NHL and NHLPA are finally going to go forward with a plan to change the configuration of the league, from having two 15-team conferences each with three five-team divisions to two conferences, one of which has two eight-team divisions and the other with with two seven-team divisions. Logistically, this is bad and stupid, as are most things the NHL decides these days.
But in terms of the actual way in which they’re going about this — mostly moving Detroit and Columbus into the Eastern Conference and replacing them only with Winnipeg — at least makes geographical sense and, as has been pointed out by just about everyone since the plan was unveiled last Saturday, will really make the league and its televisions partners happy. To say nothing of the fans who are sick of hearing the Red Wings complain about their travel every few months. All of this, it should be noted, has only reached the “proposal” stages but most people who would know about this sort of stuff are talking like it’s going to be a thing in real life sooner than later, so let’s just go with this.
The idea that Western Conference teams — in what Pierre LeBrun says will be the “Pacific” and “Midwest” Divisions (RIP Directional Divisions; the Central is moving East to be with the Atlantic) — would have fewer divisional opponents than their Eastern counterparts makes a lot of sense. It cuts down on all that travel, for one thing; it never made a whole lot of sense that Vancouver, for instance, should have to play divisional games against a team literally halfway across a continent while the farthest the New York Rangers had to travel to do the same was on the other side of Pennsylvania, but not even all the way to the end of it. This sorts all of that out. Most teams in the East, save for those moving over from the West, will have slightly longer trips for divisional games, and those in the West get their load lightened ever so slightly. As has often been pointed out, these divisions are now divided up by time zones, too, so that makes it easier for fans who don’t want to stay up until all hours of the night watching their teams get clobbered by the Canucks or whatever.
The only objection anyone can logically have is unavoidable until the league adds two more teams, as is clearly its plan. Having two seven-team divisions and two eight-team divisions is inherently unfair, but there’s nothing to be done about it, really. Not in a league with only 30 teams. So you add Seattle and Kansas City or whatever over the next five years and you’re back to where you need to be. At least in theory, because that’s far easier said than done. And also Phoenix can’t move. Which seems impossible.
It should be said that I, along with most people in a very informal survey of my memory of the time, was very much opposed to the non-sensical garbage realignment plan being pushed last year, which was summarily and correctly rejected by the NHLPA on the grounds that it was terrible. It seemed to exist solely to mollify the colicky cries of executives in the front offices at Joe Louis Arena (as did a Winter Classic being held in Michigan, if we’re being honest) and generally served to screw over the left-behind Western Conference teams who would likely have had to travel a lot more than they already did.
But with those unbalanced-by-necessity divisions comes the NHL once again bringing back divisional playoffs, which in and of itself isn’t necessarily bad. Bob McKenzie explains:
1. Top 3 teams in each of two 8-team East conferences make the playoffs. Two wild cards from remaining 10 East teams also make the playoffs.
2. Top 3 teams in each of two 7-team West conferences make playoffs. Two wild cards from remaining 8 West teams also make the playoffs.
3. Playoff format remains old divisional style, 1 vs. 4, 2 vs. 3 though it remains to be seen how the wild cards are slotted for first-round.
4. For playoffs, East or West, wild card team with fewest points gets seeded 4th vs division winner with highest points.
5. Wild card team with most points would be 4th seed in division vs the second-ranked division winner. 2 vs 3 within division is constant.
Obviously, therefore, it will be easier for teams in the West to make the playoffs than in the East. I took a look at last year’s standings just to see where things got us (and obviously the results of teams’ season point totals would be very different without Detroit in the West, but bear with me here). Overall I would say the East also got tougher to play in, given that it’s adding Detroit, and I figure that on the whole, swapping Winnipeg for Columbus is more or less a wash in terms of easy Ws.
Under these rules and this conference alignment, the playoffs would have looked like this:
1. Rangers (109 points)
2. Penguins (108)
3. Flyers (103)
1. Bruins (102)
2. Red Wings (102)
3. Florida (94)
1. Devils (102)
2. Capitals (92)
As you can see, the shift of the Red Wings to the East bumps Ottawa out of a playoff spot, and also once again guarantees preferential seeding to Florida, which had 94 points but was the three-seed in the East by virtue of its having won the Southeast. That’s awful. The point of the regular should be giving the best teams the best chance to win in the playoffs, which was always something division winners getting top seeds didn’t allow.
Now let’s look at the West, which is even dumber.
1. Blues (109)
2. Nashville (104)
3. Blackhawks (101)
1. Canucks (111)
2. Coyotes (97)
3. Sharks (96)
1. Los Angeles (95)
2. Calgary (90)
It goes without saying, I think, that any playoff format that allows last year’s Calgary Flames to make a postseason tournament of any kind that isn’t the IIHF World Championships should be buried like toxic waste and never heard from again. The quality of the West certainly suffers without Detroit, and if you have four teams between 90 and 97 points making the playoffs, well, I guess that makes the West the new East in terms of bad teams squeezing in.
We’ve been told that this plan will encourage more rivalries between divisional rivals. Sure, okay, I can’t wait to be hyped for Bruins/Panthers games or whatever. But basically what’s going to happen is the first two rounds of the playoffs are going to be the same every single year for some time, because the Canucks couldn’t play the Blackhawks, for instance, until at least the third round of the playoffs. I don’t see how that’s smart at all.