Three Periods Special: The Right & Wrong of Realignment

Three Periods is a weekly column touching on hockey’s past, present and future.

In today’s edition of Three Periods, the normal format has been set aside to discuss one subject:  the NHL’s pending realignment.  As Elliotte Friedman of Hockey Night In Canada stated over the weekend, the NHL may very well look like this next season:

Conference 1:  CAR, CBJ, NJD, NYI, NYR, PHI, PIT, WSH

Conference 2:  BOS, BUF, DET, FLA, MTL, OTT, TBL, TOR

Conference 3:  CHI, COL, DAL, MIN, NSH, STL, WPG

Conference 4:  ANA, CGY, EDM, LAK, PHX, SJS, VAN

In a word, this proposed realignment is brilliant.  Not only does it move Columbus and Detroit back east, but it gets Dallas out of the Pacific Division.  As icing on the cake, these necessary changes are made without breaking up most longstanding rivalries (Chicago – Detroit being one notable exception).

Another major benefit of this change is the inherent flexibility of the new format.  With the ongoing uncertainty surrounding the Coyotes and talk of expansion in Quebec and the Greater Toronto area, any alignment is subject to change.  The proposed format seems well-equipped to handle such changes. Let’s walk through two scenarios:

1.  Coyotes relocate.  In this scenario, one consideration reigns above all others:  the Coyotes will NOT relocate to Canada.  Why not?  Because the NHL will have no trouble finding Canadian investors willing to pony up obscene expansion fees for clubs in Quebec and/or Markham, Ontario.  The same cannot be said for American cities at this time.  In addition, moving the Coyotes from Phoenix to Canada will shrink the NHL’s American footprint, decreasing the value of their (American) TV contract.  With that in mind, where might the Coyotes go?  Best bets are Seattle, Houston or Kansas City.

If the ‘Yotes move to Seattle, no conference change is necessary.  If either Houston or KC is their destination, they would move into Conference 3, with either Winnipeg or Colorado coming back to Conference 4.

2.  NHL expands to Quebec City and Markham.  This scenario gets a bit convoluted, but here’s what makes the most sense:  QUE and MKH go into Conference 2 with the other eastern Canadian clubs.  To make room for them, Florida and Tampa Bay move to Conference 1, with Washington coming back in return.  Detroit and Columbus would both go west again, shifting to Conference 3.  Last, but not least, either Winnipeg or Colorado would slide into Conference 4, giving the NHL four eight-team conferences.  In case that’s confusing, here’s what it would look like:

Conference 1:  CAR, FLA, NJD, NYI, NYR, PHI, PIT, TBL

Conference 2:  BOS, BUF, MKH, MTL, OTT, QUE, TOR, WSH

Conference 3:  CBJ, CHI, COL, DAL, DET, MIN, NSH, STL

Conference 4:  ANA, CGY, EDM, LAK, PHX, SJS, VAN, WPG

As in Scenario 1, if the Coyotes relocate to Seattle, they’ll remain in Conference 4.  If they move to Houston or KC, they’ll swap with Colorado.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Until expansion brings the NHL up to 32 clubs, two conferences will have seven teams while two have eight.  The primary complaint is that teams in the smaller conferences will have an easier road to the playoffs, under the proposed format of teams 1-4 in each conference making it in.  To offset the disparity, the league is discussing some sort of wild card playoff for the eight-team conferences.  In short, this would attempt to fix one mistake with another.  Here’s where the NHL is wrong on realignment:  conference playoffs.

The very idea of conference playoffs, with the potential of, say, Boston vs. Toronto year-after-year-after-year, is just plain terrible.  As I suggested last week, the four regular-season conference champs (which should be decided by conference record – not overall points – by the way) should be seeded 1-4, with the next-best twelve teams seeded 5-16.  Rather than a simple 1 vs 16, 2 vs 15, etc. format, the conference champs should get the benefit of choosing their first-round opponent.  Thus, the top four clubs have the option of minimizing travel and/or selecting an opponent whom they dominated in the regular season.  Once the conference champs have selected their opponents, the remaining matchups would be determined through normal seeding, i.e., 5 vs 12, 6 vs 11, and so on.

Though many will no doubt complain that this proposed format could result in increased playoff travel for many clubs, that is precisely the point:  Eastern teams currently have a distinct travel advantage through the first three playoff rounds, which this system would eliminate.  Of equal importance, this system is the only way to ensure the sixteen best teams make the playoffs every year.  Gone will be the almost-annual complaint of inferior teams in one conference making the playoffs while better teams in the other conference hit the links.


About Matt Pryor

Freelance writer of hockey, history and travel. Born and raised in Texas. Saw first hockey game 22 FEB 1980 (USA 4, USSR 3), was instantly hooked. Attended first NHL game 26 DEC 1981 (Colorado Rockies 6, Calgary Flames 3). Semi-retired beer league player. Shoots left.

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