Almost as soon as it was announced that the Thrashers would be leaving Atlanta for Winnipeg, NHL fans around North America started talking and thinking about realignment. Having the second coming of the Jets playing in the Southeast Division didn't make a lot of sense and a number of Western Cenference teams including the Red Wings, Blue Jackets, Predators, and Stars had issues with the current alignment format. The door was open for Gary Bettman and the NHL to completely overhaul the system following models already in place with the NHL and MLB.
In the end a complete overhaul didn't happen although some significant changes were made, the biggest being four conferences instead of six divisions and a revised playoff format. And in the grand scheme of things, the teams in today's Western Conference did get some of what they were looking for but the end result isn't all good either. There simply wasn't an option out there that was going to be good for every team but what was finally decided upon seems a lot better for teams in the east then it is for those in the west.
Here are the four new conferences:
|Conference A||Conference B||Conference C||Conference D|
|San Jose||St. Louis||Toronto||Washington|
As you can see the teams in each conference have been grouped geographically with the exception of Conference C which is the existing Northeast Division with the Panthers and Lightning added to the mix. Something tells me a travel company is already working on travel packages from the three Canadian cities to Florida for next season.
With the new alignment comes a new schedule format one that includes every team playing in every NHL city every year. This is a massive improvement over the existing system. For example, fans in Edmonton won't have a chance to see the defending Stanley Cup Champion Bruins or Jets this season unless they travel to do it (who in their right mind would voluntarily go to Winnipeg?) and that makes no sense. This was something that I believe most fans wanted, I'm glad the NHL listened.
Starting next season, under the new format the Oilers will play a home and away game against every team in Conference B, C, and D. The remaining 38 games will include six against three of the teams in Conference A and five against the other four. Which teams make up the three and which make up the four will change annually. With this format teams should be travelling less and will as a result be able to keep their costs down. On The Forecheck has a breakdown of the average distance from each team to the conference opponents. The Oilers are tops in their conference and third highest in the NHL. For fun check out Conference D.
Where the plan starts to come apart, for me at least, is when we reach the playoffs. Four teams from each conference will make the playoffs and the first two rounds of the playoffs will be intra-conference in the same format as was used during the 1980's. After the conference champions have been determined they may be re-seeded one through four, or an east west format could be used. Defending Big D says this will be determined at the General Managers meetings in March.
The intra-conference playoffs are less than ideal as far as I'm concerned because it can lead to very good teams being eliminated in the second round while lesser teams advance further which is less than ideal for fans who want to see the best teams competing deep into the playoffs. In the 80's the Oilers and Flames went to war just to get out of the second round; that might have been great for building a rivalry but I don't know that it was ideal for the league as a whole.
But what I really don't like is the lack of a cross over in the playoff format. It doesn't take an advanced degree in math to know that playing in a seven team conference gives your team a better chance at making the playoffs. That both of the seven team conferences are located in the east would make it easy to argue that there is a bias towards maximizing the chances for large eastern markets to make the playoffs. The NHL is a business so I appreciate why they would want to do that but I'm surprised that they would do it in a way that is so obvious. If Phoenix packs their bags for Quebec City next season then perhaps a cross over comes into play at that time and this moot point. For now though I don't like it.
Patrick Laforge says the the are Oilers happy with the new format and that the new system will be good for TV viewers as the majority of games will be played in just two time zones. Patrick Laforge also said that the number of intra-conference games and the new playoff format will make every regular season game seem more like a playoff game, something the will create incredible drama for the fans. He also added that this new format may not be implemented for next season and that Gary Bettman still has some additional stakeholder negotiation to do. What exactly that means isn't clear but it's possible that Mr. Bettman is trying to finalize what would happen in a Phoenix to Quebec City scenario now rather than having to do this all again next year.
In general there are some good things in this new plan for teams in the west and the Oilers as well. I don't love all of the new plan but it's probably an improvement of the existing system, so at least it's a step in the right direction.