Home League News A Closer Look at the NHL’s Realignment Plans

A Closer Look at the NHL’s Realignment Plans

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Image: sbnation.com

As you no doubt aware, the NHL Governers agreed Monday night to Commissioner Gary Bettman’s plan for realignment, in an effort to reduce team travel and shake up the structure of the playoff system. Gone would be the two-conference, six-division setup that fans have grown accustomed to since the mid-90s, to be replaced by a four-conference system in which each team is guaranteed home-and-home matches with all other teams.

The recommended format — which must pass the NHLPA approval process before becoming official — also promotes inter-conference rivalries, while preserving traditional rivalries which built up under the former (er, current, for now) system.  While there are several advantages to the new system, which addresses many concerns voiced by fans throughout the years, there are a few disadvantages to adopting this approach also. And since this is a Toronto Maple Leafs blog, I’m sure you’re all wondering how exactly these changes will affect the boys in blue. We’ll get to that a bit further down.

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The Proposed Conferences

The league is using the term “conferences”, so I’ll stick to that lingo, but feel free to call them “divisions” if you prefer. Under the proposed setup, either term could apply.

Conference A Conference B
Anaheim Ducks Chicago Blackhawks
Calgary Flames Columbus Blue Jackets
Colorado Avalanche Dallas Stars
Edmonton Oilers Detroit Red Wings
Los Angeles Kings Minnesota Wild
Phoenix Coyotes Nashville Predators
San Jose Sharks St. Louis Blues
Vancouver Canucks Winnipeg Jets

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Conference C Conference D
Boston Bruins Carolina Hurricanes
Buffalo Sabres New Jersey Devils
Florida Panthers New York Islanders
Montreal Canadiens New York Rangers
Ottawa Senators Philadelphia Flyers
Tampa Bay Lightning Pittsburgh Penguins
Toronto Maple Leafs Washington Capitals

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Regular Season

  • Every team will play every other team in the league twice in home-and-home fashion, which totals 58 games. The remaining 24 games will be played within the team’s own conference.
  • For those in 7-team conferences (C and D, above) this works out to four additional games against each of their six conference rivals (24 games).
  • For those in 8-team conferences, they will play three of their conference rivals four additional times (12 games), and four of their conference rivals three times (12 games).

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Post-Season

  • Four teams from each conference will qualify for the playoffs.  Teams will be seeded 1 – 4 in each conference.
  • Round 1: in each conference, 1 vs 4 and 2 vs 3 in a 7-game series.
  • Round 2: in each conference, winners of 1st round in a 7-game series to determine conference winner.
  • Round 3: conference winners will be re-seeded according to regular season standings. Matchups will be 1 vs 4, 2 vs 3 in a seven-game series.
  • Round 4: Stanley Cup Final, seven-game series.

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Advantages to Realignment

  1. Home-and-home matchups with every team
    Fans have been asking for this for years. Every market deserves to have a chance to see every team at least once, but often that has not been the case in recent years due to travel logistics, arena bookings, etc.
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  2. Travel implications
    Although teams in the geographic East won’t feel the impact of this as much, teams in the geographic West will have presumably less travel (or be able to better arrange travel) under the new system. Dallas moving into a conference of “Central” teams makes a huge difference here.
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  3. The playoff picture
    This is the advantage of the emphasis being put back on smaller groupings of teams, and on rivalries. Instead of worrying about having to be ahead of seven teams to make the playoffs, as they do now, teams only need to worry about remaining ahead of three or four.
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  4. Stanley Cup Final is no longer necessarily East-West
    A team entering the playoffs could conceivably meet an opponent from any of the other three conferences in the Stanley Cup Final. This provides 12 potential SCF opponents (4 from each of the other 3 conferences), as opposed to the current 8.  It also opens the door to certain matchups previously not possible under the East-West system.
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  5. Ease of expansion / contraction / relocation
    Let’s face it: 30 doesn’t evenly divide by 4.  By setting things up the way the NHL has in its proposal, a door has been left open to the possibility of eventually expanding the league to 32 teams without having to restructure its season & postseason formats.  Conversely, one could argue the same door enables them to contract to 28 teams without having to restructure either.  Further, the new system also theoretically lessens the impact (schedule-wise) of relocation.

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Disadvantages of realignment

  1. Fan confusion
    Don’t underestimate this. The last thing a league with teams in several small markets wants to do is make its fans unsure about how the league is structured.  If the change is going to go through, the league must be committed to stick to it over the long haul for the sake of its non-traditional fan bases.
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  2. Certain teams will be seen fewer times in some markets
    This one is best explained with an example. Presently, teams in the Northeast and Southeast divisions play Pittsburgh and Washington four times each (2 home, 2 road).  Under the new system, those numbers would be cut in half for the Northeast teams, as well as both Florida teams, meaning fans in “Conference C” above would only see Crosby and Ovechkin come to their cities once.
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  3. Playoff format
    When the league first moved toward the East-West conference setup, and away from divisional play affecting playoff standings, the goal was to eliminate the possibility of a team in a strong division being excluded from the playoffs despite posting a better record than other teams that got in.  Under the new proposal, where a set number of teams from each grouping gets in, the league is again opening the door to this possibility.  (Example: 5th place team in “C” has 93 points, 4th place in “D” has 91 points. The “C” team misses the playoffs while the “D” team is in.)

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How Realignment Affects the Toronto Maple Leafs

Since this is a Leafs‘ blog, we should probably take a look at this.  On the whole, it doesn’t affect the Maple Leafs all that much.

The greatest area of impact would be the regular season schedule.  The Leafs currently only see Western Conference teams once or twice a year; for example, last season Toronto played Anaheim, Chicago, Colorado, Columbus, Dallas, Detroit, Los Angeles, Minnesota, Nashville, Phoenix, St Louis, and San Jose — 12 of the 15 teams in the West — only once each. Under the new format they would be guaranteed two games against each of those clubs — one at home, and one on the road.

The downside to this scheduling arrangement would be the impact on matchups with other Eastern teams outside the Leafs’ current division. Those matchups — excluding Florida and Tampa Bay, who under the new system would be added to the Leafs’ division — would be cut down to two games per year from the current four.

Playoff-wise, well, considering the Leafs haven’t made the playoffs since the lockout there really isn’t much impact here other than the potential for the Toronto-Boston rivalry to kick into high gear, and to reinforce the existing (but dry of late) Toronto-Ottawa and Toronto-Montreal rivalries. As for the proposed new system not enabling the Leafs to face Montreal or Boston in a Stanley Cup Final, they can’t do that anyway under the current system so it’s ultimately not that big of a deal.

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Where Things Go from Here

It is important to remember that (as of today at least) nothing is official yet.  The proposed realignment, although accepted by the NHL Governers, still must be approved by the NHLPA.  Should the PA accept the realignment plan, it should be in place for next season. But with Collective Bargaining on the horizon, it will be interesting to see whether the NHLPA dangles their acceptance of the proposed realignment as a form of leverage in negotiations. Stay tuned.

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Looking forward to your thoughts as always,

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