At first glance the new NHL realignment, which was passed last week and will take effect next season, sounds great for the game. I mean who doesn’t love division rivalries and the prospect of the Bruins playing the Canadiens in the playoffs every season?
But upon closer look there are plenty of flaws in the new system, and it’s apparent that the NHL is attempting to fix something that isn’t broken.
Here’s how the realignment stacks up.
Starting in the 2013-2014 season there will be two eight team divisions in the Eastern Conference and two seven team divisions in the Western Conference. Come playoff time the top three teams in each division qualify and the two teams with the next highest amount of points will get the wild card spots, regardless of the division they play in.
The realignment will also see teams play a home-and-home series with every team in the opposite conference meaning the Bruins will play each Western Conference team at TD Garden and will travel to each Western Conference arena once a season.
The Divisions will look something like this: Boston, Buffalo, Detroit, Florida, Montreal, Ottawa, Tampa Bay and Toronto will reside in the Central Division of the Eastern Conference. Carolina, Columbus, New Jersey, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Washington will make up the Eastern Conference’s other division, the Atlantic Division.
In the West Anaheim, Calgary, Edmonton, Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Jose and Vancouver make up the Pacific Division while Chicago, Colorado, Dallas, Minnesota, Nashville, St. Louis and Winnipeg make up the Midwest Division.
There are a few shifts as Detroit and Columbus move to the East and Winnipeg moves to the West.
This new system will certainly boost inter-divisional rivalries and it will be very interesting seeing how the Detroit Red Wings fair in the Central Division alongside the Bruins. Seeing the same teams in the playoffs every year will also make the competition more intense.
The first glaring weakness of the realignment is the uneven conferences. There are 14 teams in the West compared to 16 in the East. And unfortunately for hockey purists, this opens the door to expansion, which watered down the league the last time it decided to expand to cities where hockey is not very popular. Statistically teams in the Eastern Conference will have a 50 percent chance of making the postseason while Western Conference teams will have a 57 percent chance of making the playoffs which is downright unfair.
The road to the Western Conference is certainly easier, and it will even easier with Detroit moving over to the Eastern Conference. At the moment at least, it appears the balance of power has shifted to the Eastern Conference, which is not only tougher to win statistically, but will be tougher to win because there are more good teams playing in the conference.
The current system has it right, and the drama is still there. Currently the NHL playoffs take into account division imbalance, if one division is weaker than another it will show with fewer playoff bids, and the seeds are set up perfectly with the top seed meeting the lowest seed in each of the first two rounds and so on.
While the unbalanced division are certainly a weak point, the wild card system is even worse. How can the league implement a system based on the strength of divisional rivalries when it will allow teams to win the opposite division.
The wild card system means we could see five teams from one division and three from the other qualify for the postseason, meaning one of the two wild card teams must enter the opposite division’s playoffs.
With the parity in the NHL the odds of a team winning the opposite division are not that slim. At least one top-two seed seems to go down each year and a No. 8 seed won the Stanley Cup last season in the Los Angeles Kings. The Kings didn’t just win the Stanley Cup either, they did so in just 20 games.
If the realignment were in play last season, the Kings would have been crowned Midwest Division Champs despite the fact that they play in the Pacific Division. That’s a serious glitch in the sticking point of the entire system.
Sure there’s a lot to like about the new realignment. Divisional rivalries are great for fanbases and the sport. But if it’s not broke don’t fix it, and the current format is not only unbroken, it’s a superior system to the one that’s coming next season.