The NHL's current divisional setup was probably the fairest they could've achieved. While the geography wasn't a total fit, it was the best that could be done to keep an even 15 teams in each conference and thus give everyone an even playing field in the quest for the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Unfortunately, while the NHL's new alignment plan fixes the geography and is somewhat "fairer" in terms of everyone-plays-everyone, it fails in the most simplest of terms --- it is almost inevitable that every single season, at least one deserving team will be hosed out of a spot in the playoffs.
The NHL has cooked up an amplified version of the old four-division setup, getting rid of conferences altogether. Here are the new alignments….
* Anaheim, Calgary, Colorado, Edmonton, Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Jose, Vancouver
* Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Detroit, Minnesota, Nashville, St. Louis, Winnipeg
* Carolina, New Jersey, NY Islanders, NY Rangers, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Washington
* Boston, Buffalo, Florida, Montreal, Ottawa, Tampa Bay, Toronto
Using the Maple Leafs as an example, their schedule will now feature a home-and-home series against every non-conference opponent (23 teams x 2 = 46 games) and six games against each conference foe (6 teams x 6 = 36 games) so the 82-game schedule will be retained.
(It's different if you're in an eight-team conference. The Jets, for instance, have 44 out-of-conference games and 38 against conference rivals. So, the Jets will play each divisional rival at least five times each, and it will rotate each year as to which of the others they'll play an extra time.)
This isn't the big issue, however. The issue is that the conferences will be maintained for the playoffs. So now, to qualify for the postseason, you have to be one of the top four teams in your conference, rest of the league be damned. The first two rounds will feature intra-conference tournaments, with the winners then advancing to the Stanley Cup semi-finals, where they'll be reseeded (presumably by point total) for the final four.
Now, as a Leafs fan, I'm somewhat pleased that we now only have to worry about finishing ahead of three teams to get a shot at the Cup, rather than seven teams. But in the grander sense, are you kidding me with this horsecrap?! The NHL has created the AL East writ large, where quality teams would simply miss out due to their division, rather than their not being one of the actual best teams in their sport. You might argue, "If a team isn't good enough to finish ahead of four others, why should they earn a spot in the playoffs?" Because it's a SIXTEEN-TEAM FIELD! If you have five superb teams in one conference, is it fair that one of them gets omitted while laser teams from other conferences sail in?
Let's not even ignore the numbers game of the fact that the teams in the eight-team conferences are doubly-hard done by, since they have to beat an extra opponent to reach the playoffs. The solution could be that the NHL eventually plans to even things out via expansion teams….but good lord, the NHL doesn't even have 30 stable markets now. If the NHL knows of two great potential markets, let's move the Coyotes or Panthers or someone rather than stretching the league even thinner.
Realignment took place in large part because the NHL simply has too many teams in the Eastern time zone. It's been no secret that the Red Wings have been complaining for years about playing in the Western Conference, plus several other Western teams don't care for all the travel through the Pacific, Central AND Eastern time zones. I admit, as a Leafs fan, I'm so used to seeing our rivals on a regular basis that I overlook the fact that it's hard for, say, a Minnesota Wild fan to really rev up some hatred for the Oilers, Flames, Canucks and Avalanche. (Wild fans' only consolation is the team's gorgeous jerseys). The problem with going to a more geographically-centered format, though, is that it requires a shakeup every time a team is moved. If the Coyotes moved to Quebec City, for instance, I presume the solution would just be to have Quebec slotted into the Leafs' conference, so they'd suddenly have eight teams while the new 'Western' conference is reduced to seven. Still, not fair.
Still, this realignment could be a good thing in the long run since I suspect the re-formatted playoffs could be quickly revamped. How quickly? Oh, just about the first time a team like the Wings, Bruins, Rangers, Leafs, Blackhawks, Flyers or Capitals are the ones screwed by missing out on a postseason spot. Then you'll see Gary Bettman scrambling to cover his ass like there's no tomorrow.
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