GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

March 22, 2013

NHL realignment is a step in the right direction

On Hockey
Conor Walsh

---- — Having watched the NHL and commissioner Gary Bettman bungle decision after decision over the years, it’s almost gotten to the point where mistakes are expected.

Well, folks, they finally got something right when the NHL officially approved its realignment plan last week.

Starting next year, the league will be broken into four divisions — two in the east and two in the west.

The east will feature eight teams per division, seven per division in the west.

Every team will play a home-and-home regular-season series with teams teams from the other conference -- i.e. the Bruins will play Vancouver twice every season -- three games against non-division conference foes and four or five games against division opponents.

The plan has its problems, sure. Increased travel, a playoff wildcard system, the door it opens for league expansion.

But for a sport that’s been pushing over the past few years to get back on the map, this is a great step forward.

Some of you will remember a similar format in the past, when the league was broken into four similar, but smaller, divisions from 1974-1993.

And the benefits of that format will be seen again in this one.

The best thing that will stem from this NHL realignment is rivalries. Think about why the Bruins and the Canadiens have such a great rivalry: Years and years of hotly-contested regular season and playoff battles.

Well, the newly created divisions will result in much of the same. The playoff format will consist of a four-team divisional bracket, much like the days of the Adams Division, followed by a conference championship round and finally the Stanley Cup Finals.

Let’s look at it in the case of the Bruins’ division, where they’ll be joined by Montreal, Detroit, Toronto, Buffalo, Ottawa, Tampa Bay and Florida.

Every year, the B’s are going to be further building their rivalries with the likes of the Canadiens, Maple Leafs and Red Wings with heated playoff series.

The same can be said for the other divisions. Look at the other Eastern Conference grouping, where Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New Jersey and the New York Rangers will be joined by Washington and Carolina, among others. Plugging two quality organizations into an already heated division is sure to produce fireworks.

Further, the new plan’s focus on cross-conference play is a breath of fresh air for fans of the game. I don’t know about you, but there’s been something weird during this year’s shortened season about not seeing the Bruins skating against Vancouver or Chicago.

Under this new format, every team in the NHL will visit the TD Garden at least once a year, and the Bruins will visit every venue across the league as well.

This may mean more travel for some teams. For others, though, particularly in the Western Conference, it will only help -- especially considering they’ll have to deal with less time-zone changes with more divisional games.

It’s far from perfect. While the new playoff format seems cool on the surface, what we’re currently looking at is pretty close to perfection.

Have you ever complained that the current format of the Stanley Cup Playoffs is boring? Me neither.

Similarly, the uneven conferences -- 14 teams in the west, 16 in the east -- opens the door to two problems: the ridiculous wild card system, which would allow a team to win a division it’s not in, and possible expansion.

It’s no secret that Bettman’s been open to boneheaded expansion ideas. Remember the whole Atlanta/Florida/Nashville/Phoenix Sun Belt experiment?

And with the conferences now uneven, don’t be surprised if you see a team in Quebec City and Seattle some time soon, only further watering down a league that would be much better with fewer teams.

But how can anybody argue against a system that adds fuel to the rivalry fire? There are few things better than a seven-game series between the Bruins and the Canadiens. Or the Flyers and Penguins. Or the Oilers and Flames.

With this, you’re going to see those rivalries ramp up every year during the regular season, only to boil over in the playoffs each year.

The NHL’s moving in the right direction, having dramatically grown in popularity over the past five years. This system’s made for excitement, which will only further pull people in.

And there’s nothing wrong with that.