Right Wing Conspiracy is a weekly column about hockey, with the odd hockey-related conspiracy theory thrown in for good measure.
The 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Were Realignment Foes Right?
During the haggling between the NHL, NHLPA and the owners over realignment for next season, the biggest controversy by far concerned the unbalanced conferences. With sixteen teams in the East and only fourteen in the West – and eight teams from each conference making the playoffs – one group would seem to have a decided advantage over the other, in terms of qualifying for the postseason. Simple math indicates 50% of Eastern Conference clubs will make the playoffs, compared to 57% of Western clubs. How might that disparity play out? Let’s move this season to next, and see how it looks:
Division D no.1 Pittsburgh (72 pts.) vs. Wild Card no.2 Ottawa (56)
Division C no.1 Montreal (63) vs. Wild Card no.1 Detroit (56)
Division C no.2 Boston (62) vs. Division C no.3 Toronto (57)
Division D no.2 Washington (57) vs. Division D no.3 NY Rangers (56)
In this scenario, Detroit – late of the Western Conference – has replaced the New York Islanders. Both the Isles and the Columbus Blue Jackets (Western Conference refugees, as well) finish with 55 points and miss the playoffs.
Division B no.1 Chicago (77 pts.) vs. Wild Card no.2 Winnipeg (51)
Division A no.1 Anaheim (66) vs. Wild Card no. 1 San Jose (57)
Division A no.2 Los Angeles (59) vs. Division A no.3 Vancouver (59)
Division B no.2 St. Louis (60) vs. Division B no.3 Minnesota (55)
This is where the train leaves the rails: Winnipeg, with 51 points, gets an invitation to The Dance, while the Islanders and Blue Jackets, each with 55 points, stay home. Extrapolating over an 82-game season, it would take 96 points to secure a playoff seed in the East, compared to just 88 in the West. That’s a HUGE difference, folks.
Given that the NHL has no intention of moving either Detroit or Columbus back into the Western Conference, how can they correct for this disparity? Two potential solutions come to mind: 1. Changing the playoff format, or 2. Expansion.
CHANGING THE PLAYOFF FORMAT
Where playoff formats are concerned, the most equitable is also the most radical: Eliminate both division and conference playoffs. The four division winners are seeded 1-4, the next best twelve teams are 5-16. As a reward for winning their respective divisions, 1-4 get to select their first round opponents. The remaining clubs are matched up as closely as possible to normal order, i.e., 5 vs 12, 6 vs 11, etc. After the first round, all teams are re-seeded and play proceeds accordingly. The +/- of this format is fairly straightforward:
- Format ensures top sixteen teams make the playoffs every year, eliminating controversy. (+)
- Significant advantage (reward) goes to division winners by allowing them to pick their first round opponents. (+)
- High potential for increased travel during playoffs, as cross-continental matchups (i.e., Vancouver vs. Florida) could occur in any/every round. (-)
- Playoff travel will be spread more evenly between Eastern and Western conferences. (+)
- Format allows potential for two teams from same division to meet in the Stanley Cup Finals. (from an American TV ratings perspective, + if it’s Rangers-Penguins, – if it’s Senators-Maple Leafs)
The NHL’s unbalanced realignment has led to much speculation on the possibility of an expansion to 32 teams. To this end, Quebec City and Seattle seem to be frontrunners, with a second Toronto team running third. Kansas City, with its NHL-ready arena, is always part of the conversation, as well. The biggest question, however, is the status of the Phoenix Coyotes: Will they stay or will they go?
If the Coyotes move, Seattle would seem a logical destination, as well as one which would allow them to remain in the same division. Though Kansas City’s name pops up every time a team starts talking relocation, KC will likely always be the guy your girlfriend flirts with to make you jealous, though she has no intention of seriously dating him. Why not? Because he’s totally like a big brother to her, that’s why. Also, his 31st-ranked TV market just doesn’t turn her on.
Television is a significant consideration in both expansion and the potential relocation of the Coyotes. Though the Thrashers’ move to Winnipeg improved the NHL’s bottom line in the short-term, losing a presence in America’s 8th-ranked TV market could hurt when it comes time to renew the league’s television contract. Phoenix is ranked 12th, and losing that market without a comparable replacement would be a bitter pill for the NHL to swallow. For this reason alone, 14th-ranked Seattle is a much more desirable destination than either Quebec City or Toronto.
On the other hand, Houston, the no.10 TV market in America, is a very attractive darkhorse candidate for either relocation or expansion. The AHL Aeros, who are leaving for Des Moines after the playoffs, averaged 6793 fans per game this season, good for 7th in the league. According to this spreadsheet, Houston would seem to have the financial resources to support an NHL franchise. A second team in Texas would fit nicely into the Western Conference’s Division B, where they would benefit from an instant rivalry with the Dallas Stars. At this point, all Houston lacks is an NHL-level ownership group.
An expansion team in Quebec City seems to be inevitable at this point. While the league’s bottom line will benefit greatly from the second coming of the Nordiques, the downside is that either Detroit or Columbus will again have to go West. The Red Wings, with their long-established and loyal fan base, would weather such a move better than the Blue Jackets, but Detroit owner Mike Ilitch undoubtedly has more pull with the league office than his counterpart in Columbus.
The NHL will have 32 teams in the not-too-distant future; bank on it. Quebec City is a virtual lock for an expansion franchise, which would send either Detroit or Columbus back to the Western Conference. If the Coyotes move, they’ll either end up in Seattle or Houston. If Phoenix stays put, the 32nd team in the NHL will either be on Puget Sound or the Houston Ship Channel. Either way, The Great Game grows, and that’s a good thing.