NHL realignment was formally approved on Thursday for the 2013-14 season, and there was much rejoicing. Change can be exhilarating and positive.
Then again, it can be regrettable and negative, too.
Here are five things we may end up really hating around the realigned NHL, from the playoff format to the awkward labeling:
1. Messing With Perfection
Weren’t you exhausted from constantly hearing people complain about the current Stanley Cup Playoff format?
Wait … no one ever did?
The conference-based playoff format we’ve had since 1993-94 has been exciting, unpredictable (hello, Los Angeles Kings) and equitable, for the most part. This format, along with the overtime charity point, has kept teams in the playoff hunt longer than in the previous divisional format, simply due to how many moving parts there are in the conference seeding. We’ve had our share of classic series, dramatic moments and memorable finals.
Naturally, it’s time to scrap it.
Divisional playoffs can be the lifeblood of rivalries, and there’s no question that increasing the chances for a Boston/Montreal or Pittsburgh/Philadelphia series can only be a positive thing. Because, you know, we weren’t getting these matchups anyway …
Part of the problem might be that the NHL wasn’t bold enough in reformatting its postseason. This was a chance to expand it, tinker with “play-in” games and really make the Stanley Cup Playoffs a multi-tiered tournament.
Instead, we have a somewhat convoluted wild card format that exists somewhere between the violent bliss of divisional play and the parity of the conference system. It could rule. Or it could have us yearning for the halcyon days of Atlantic Division powerhouse vs. random Southeast Division team in Round 1.
2. One Division’s Team Can Win The Other Division
Speaking of the playoff format: How do you like the idea that the Vancouver Canucks, located closer to Alaska than to Illinois, could win a Central Division title?
The wild card format – a necessity due to the imbalanced conferences in the new realignment – provides the chance for a team in one division to “join” the other division for the first two rounds of the playoffs. Via NHL.com:
The division winner with the most points in the conference will be matched against the wild-card team with the lowest number of points; the division winner with the second-most points in the conference will play the wild-card team with the second fewest points.
So let’s say the Chicago Blackhawks have the most points in the Western Conference, and the Canucks are the lowest wild card. They’d meet in the first round of the Central Division (for argument’s sake) playoffs. Let’s say Vancouver wins (Schneider must have gotten most of the road starts) and faces the St. Louis Blues in Round 2. They win that series, and advance to face the winner of the division from which they’re actually a member.
Meanwhile, they can hang a Central Division championship banner next to the ones that actually make geographic sense.
And they will enter the following season as the reigning Central Division champions while playing in the Pacific.
3. Relocation And/Or Expansion
Commissioner Gary Bettman kicked the can down the road on both expansion and relocation during his media briefing on Thursday, but it’s not exactly rocket surgery to think that (a) the imbalanced conference format is ripe for a two-team expansion soon and (b) the Phoenix Coyotes, those poor bastards, still don’t have an owner.
The three cities mentioned most prominently for new NHL teams are Seattle, Quebec City and Toronto. A quick scan of our world atlas reveals at least two of these destinations are decidedly not in the “West.”
Does this mean more conference tinkering? Or does this mean – and really, this makes the most sense – having that second Toronto team in the Chicago Blackhawks’ division so the Leafs get all the Eastern Conference teams coming to town regularly while the Blowers or the Rakes get the West?
Then again, there’s another layer of anxiety here for some fans: Does the NHL need to expand at all?
4. Removing Detroit From The West
Bettman didn’t have any concerns about removing Detroit from the Western Conference from a marketing perspective, but we still feel it’s problematic.
Multiple trips from Detroit to Western Conference cities created buzz. When those teams in the West played in Detroit, that’s when they’d get prime time exposure on NBC Sports Network and the NHL Network. (The Minnesota Wild are on Rivalry Night against Detroit next Wednesday, and aren't even a rival.)
Losing Detroit from the West is more than just losing a sparring partner for the Chicago Blackhawks. It’s losing an Original Six team whose presence in a playoff series can be the selling point of that series. Unless you tuned into the Red Wings/Nashville Predators series because you’re a huge Pekka Rinne fan.
Conversely, the Eastern Conference is now loaded with glamour franchises, with only one Original Six team in the West. Great for business in prime time for NBC and the Canadian broadcasters; lousy for the Western Conference.
5. Florida and Tampa Bay Are Royally Screwed
Finally, there’s the farcical jambalaya that is the Canada/Northeast/Florida division, in which the Panthers and Lightning face extended travel and tougher competition than in the Southeast Division.
“We certainly approve of and are very excited by the NHL’s realignment plan,’’ Panthers President Michael Yormark said. “Not only will we maintain and grow our in-state rivalry with the Lightning, but we will also be able to cultivate rivalaries with some of the NHL’s most historic clubs.’’
I am not quite sure why the Lightning was put into Division C. I would have assumed that geographically speaking, it would have been more feasible for the Lightning and Panthers to be in Division D. The addition to Division C will result in longer travel times for the team when they head out of town. This could potentially have a negative impact on the team’s practice schedule and potential days off.
The best Bettman could do was rationalize that the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning will do great business from the transplants and snowbirds when these northern teams come to town. But in every other way, the Floridian teams were screwed in realignment.
Bettman said there will be ‘sensible geographic designations’ for division names.
Good luck on this one.
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