The readers of this blog may be too young to remember divisional playoff hockey. Their best point of reference is the AHL, or maybe the MLB. Divisional playoffs provide advantages and disadvantages for fans. Most great rivalries in the NHL exist within divisions. Toronto-Montreal, Edmonton-Calgary, Pittsburgh-Philadelphia, and let’s not forget those heated Columbus-Nashville games! Seeing a team 6 times a season before the playoffs begin can create good hockey, or some absolutely awful hockey if one team isn’t on the same level of the other. An example of this is Buffalo and Toronto over the past five years. Buffalo held a 13-1 record against the Leafs during parts of the 08/09 and 09/10 seasons, before the Leafs had a resurgence and have gone 7-6 since then. I’m still a firm believer that the Senators-Leafs battles of the late 90’s and early 00’s was the best divisional hockey played in the past twenty years, anywhere in the league. Rivalries not only create loathing of the other team by fans and players, but it also boosts the profile of players, creating local heroes. Maybe not top-line, superstar skill guys; but the hardworking grinders or stoic leaders that always seem to come through when the going gets tough. Joe Nieuwendyk, Gary Roberts, Chris Philips, and Daniel Alfredsson were these guys for the aforementioned Leafs-Senators battles.
So if the NHL were to go back to divisional playoffs, what would it do for divisional rivalries? What would it do to non-divisional rivalries like Chicago-Vancouver? Essentially it would eliminate rivalries between non-divisional teams that aren’t very good. They wouldn’t meet in the first round of the playoffs and therefore would have to advance to play each other. This isn’t particularly bad, as same-conference opponents still play four times per year. But it would mean up to 13 games against a divisional rival for any given team, if the first round goes 7 games. We would also lose uninteresting first-round matchups that have minimal bearing on who wins the Stanley Cup.
Another byproduct of having divisional teams play each other more due to divisional playoffs is the existence of dynasty-like teams. Using the New York Islanders and Edmonton Oilers teams of the 80’s as examples, we can see that they just got better and better as the years went on. They beat the same teams they had always beaten because they got to know them even better. It would not be surprising to see a team like the current Blackhawks or Penguins stay as good as they are for the next decade if they kept playing the same teams in the first round year after year.
Speaking of divisions, one might notice the Southeast isn’t exactly comprised of teams from the southeastern part of the USA. This is, obviously, due to Atlanta moving to Winnipeg. Due to issues between the league and the PA, the divisions were not re-aligned prior to the 2011-12 season to accommodate this. The move to Winnipeg didn’t provide the league with enough time to re-align divisions. When they eventually do, would it be the best option for the NHL to stay at 5 teams per, with a total of 6 divisions? The only other option with a 30 team league is to have unbalanced divisions of 7 and 8. The players association would never let contraction take place, because that would mean dozens of player jobs lost. The sad reality for the league is that the franchises don’t make the kindest geographical divisions. The western teams, especially those in the current Northwest division, have a much longer travel schedule than teams in the east. The NHL wants to keep the current east/west format, with unbalanced conferences but even divisions within each conference. Two groups of seven in the east, and two groups of 8 in the west. Didn’t the MLB just get rid of this ridiculous concept?
What about the option of non-geographical divisions. It could potentially create parity on the travel schedule and bolster some already great rivalries (Vancouver and Chicago within the same division for instance). The NFL and MLB both succeed at this, in a certain way. They have geographical divisions within non-geographical conferences. If the NHL did this, the question then becomes: How do you split up the conferences? Could a north-south split potentially work?
First, here is what a practical, conservative solution may look like if the league tried to stay as true to the current layout as possible:
Division 1 (Northwest): Calgary, Edmonton, Minnesota, Vancouver, and Winnipeg
Division 2 (Pacific): Anaheim, Colorado, Los Angeles, Phoenix, and San Jose
Division 3 (Central): Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Detroit, and St. Louis
Division 1 (Southeast): Carolina, Florida, Nashville, Tampa Bay, and Washington
Division 2 (Northeast): Boston, Buffalo, Montreal, Ottawa, and Toronto
Division 3 (Atlantic): New Jersey, NY Islanders, NY Rangers, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh
I think that the NHL is better off with something a little more radical. Get rid of conferences with geographical restraints. With two divisions and 15 teams per conference, they could be split to create good rivalry matchups. The divisions themselves would be split on an east-west basis, rather than north-south like they currently are.
Division 1 (West 1): Calgary, Chicago, Dallas, Edmonton, Minnesota, Vancouver, and Winnipeg
Division 2 (East 1): Buffalo, Columbus, Detroit, Montreal, Ottawa, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Toronto
Division 1 (West 2): Anaheim, Colorado, Los Angeles, Nashville, Phoenix, San Jose, and St. Louis
Division 2 (East 2): Boston, Carolina, Florida, New Jersey, NY Islanders, NY Rangers, Tampa Bay, and Washington
This can also be thought of as 4 independent divisions, with no conference jurisdiction. Within this format, play would be focused much more on divisions than it is now. Teams will play four games against each division opponent. Play outside the division shall be equal between all other three divisions, regardless of conference, and it shall be two games per team.
4 Divisional games = 24 (West) or 28 (East).
2 Conference games = 46 (West) or 44 (East)
Remaining 10 (East) and 12 (West) games are to be played within their own division, on a randomly-generated basis. This means that the western teams will end up finishing the year with more divisional games than the east by two per team. It also gives the NHL the option to cut down on these flex games, effectively making the season anywhere from 72 to 80 games long. This provides more time to rest between games if fatigue becomes an issue. While it’s not a balanced schedule, it provides structure and makes sense. One luxury about a league with so much parity is that an unbalanced schedule does not hurt the chances of teams like it would in a league without parity.
Within divisions, first place would play fourth place in the 1st round of the playoffs, and second plays third. When the four divisional winners emerge, all 4 are re-seeded based on their record against non-divisional teams during the regular season. This means, you could potentially have a cup final between any two teams that aren’t in the same division. This is to safeguard against weak groups, like the Southeast had been prior to five years ago. There are also allstar or winter classic ramifications that come with this type of schedule. Two allstar games? That would erase most of the complaints that brew around allstar voting time, which are “player X should have made it over player Y”.
Okay, so that went further down the hypothetical road than I had originally planned, but what other options does the NHL have, other than drastic change? I don’t believe there are any. In the future, expansion to two healthy markets would provide an opportunity for 16-team conferences set up similar to how the NFL is. There is not much doubt that the players’ union would be in favour of expansion. Two additional teams would boost revenue, exposure, and make millions of fans thrilled. As for where those teams might be good fits, who could form ownership groups, and what it would do to the dynamic of the league; well, that is a discussion for another day.