Thearon W. Henderson
The NHL formally announced their realignment plan earlier today. How will the new format impact the Oilers' quest to return to the post season in the years ahead?
The always exceptional Elliotte Friedman has been the man to follow to break news regarding the realignment story. Again yesterday, he released some new details that had not previously been made public.
In the story linked to above, Friedman confirms the previously discussed re-structuring of the league into four groups from the existing six division structure. The groupings can be seen in the diagram below for those who are not yet familiar with them:
The new information from Friedman is that the four conference structure that had been contemplated has been dropped in favour of a more familiar two conference structure with each being divided into two divisions. The two "Western" Conference divisions will each be made up of seven teams, while the Eastern will consist of two eight team divisions. The Oilers will be part of the "Pacific" division (conference and division names are subject to change) with fellow Western Canadian franchises Vancouver and Calgary, as well as the three California-based teams (Anaheim, San Jose and Los Angeles) and the Phoenix Coyotes...at least for as long as they are in Phoenix (more on that later).
During the regular season the Oilers will play each of the 16 teams in the "Eastern" Conference twice, once at home and once on the road, which ensures that each team will play in every city each year, something that NHLPA had been insistent on. That will account for 32 games of the 82 game schedule.
The team will also play 21 games against the other division in the West. That will include three games against each of the seven teams. Teams will alternate who gets the extra home game from season-to-season.
The final 30 games will be played within the division, with five teams being played five times each, and one team being limited to four meetings each season. Once again, the league will rotate which teams receive the extra home date in the season series each year.
Now, the playoff structure brings a bit more change from the previous proposal. The top three teams from each division will make the playoffs and be ranked 1-3 within their division. The remaining eight teams in the West (or 10 teams in the East) will then battle for two wild cards. Here's where it gets a bit weird...
The highest ranked wild card team will become the #4 seed of the division whose #1 seed has the lower point total. The lower ranked wild card team will become the #4 seed of the division whose #1 seed has the better record. That means that although the Oilers are part of the "Pacific" division, were they to qualify for the playoffs as a wild card team, they could very easily find themselves as the fourth seed in the midwest division playoff bracket. Everyone follow? Good, you'll be tested later...
This also brings about the return of the divisional playoff format. The first two rounds of the playoffs will see teams play within their division (1 vs. 4 & 2 vs. 3 in R1, two winners play each other in R2). In the third round, the two division champions will meet in the conference final with the winner representing their conference in the Stanley Cup Final. There had been talk of a league-wide crossover possibility to open up the potential for two teams within the same conference meeting for the Cup, but that appears to have been dropped.
So, now that we've clarified exactly what the new structure is...what does it mean for the Oilers? Should fans be dancing in the streets as if Steve Tambellini had just been fired? Or should they be curled up in the fetal position rocking back and forth like they should be if Tambellini were to receive another contract extension?
Well, the answer is a bit of both really.
For starters, the biggest advantage, and one that I'm shocked the NHLPA allowed, is that the Oilers are part of a conference that has two fewer teams than its counterpart. That means that right off the start, the probability of the Oilers qualifying for the post-season is 14% higher than it would be were they part of the Eastern Conference. So...that doesn't suck.
It also means a better travel schedule as the team will be able to group together games against divisional opponents to reduce the number of north/south flights each season. There is likely to be a few more 8:30 local time starts in Edmonton with the increased number of games to be played in the Pacific time zone. For Oiler fans in the East, that's a kick in the groin, but that fact is hardly a concern to the team or the league.
The last thing I'll point out from a high level at this point is the fairly obvious sign this sends about the potential future of the Phoenix Coyotes. With 16 teams already in the East, the likelihood of another team being moved into that conference is virtually non-existent without another team switching back. What that likely means is that when the Coyotes ownership drama finally plays itself out and the league considers relocation, Seattle will have a huge leg up on other cities bidding for the team simply by virtue of their geographical proximity to PHX's current divisional opponents.
Looking at how this impacts the Oilers from a competitive standpoint is a bit tougher as teams obviously go through ups and downs over the course of time. As it currently stands though, the Oil will be in tough to claw their way into a post-season birth. They share a division with the current Stanley Cup Champs, as well as perennial cup contenders San Jose and Vancouver. If they aren't able to beat at least one of those three teams, they are already down to fighting for a wild card spot.
Once they get into wild card territory, things don't get much brighter. Let's say for argument's sake that the Midwest division sees the Blackhawks, Predators and Blues grab the top three seeds (as they would using the current NHL standings). At this point, the Oil would need to best all but one of Calgary, Anaheim, Phoenix, Dallas, Colorado, Minnesota and Winnipeg at a minimum.
That certainly sounds daunting, and it is for the Oilers as their roster currently stands, but all NHL rosters will continue to evolve. While the Oilers are hoping they are on the verge of a significant step forward in the standings, the Flames are trending in the opposite direction and the window for teams like the Sharks and Canucks to win before their core players start to reach the point of diminishing returns is not far off at which point it will take effective management for them to avoid taking a step backwards from a competitive standpoint. The team may face an up hill battle in the first season or two following the realignment, but could see the prospect of an extended run of consecutive playoff appearances begin to improve within a couple of seasons.
Overall, the team appears to see some benefits from a travel standpoint and are certainly fortunate to find themselves in the smaller of the two conferences, but from a competitive standpoint in the short term, I think the Canadian team that is best positioned to benefit from this realignment plan is the Winnipeg Jets. With Dallas, Colorado and Minnesota as divisional opponents going forward, they should have a fighting chance at a playoff spot each season for the foreseeable future.