The NHL’s newest realignment plan was released to teams last week and a memo trickled out to the media, detailing some substantial changes that could be ahead for the league.
Currently, the Eastern Conference is composed of the Atlantic, Northeast and Southeast divisions. The Western Conference includes the Central, Northwest and Pacific divisions. Under the proposed realignment, the East would consist of just the Atlantic and Central divisions, while the West would have the Pacific and Mid-West divisions.
Some of the team shifts make sense. Detroit and Columbus would get the move to the Eastern Conference they’ve been asking for. That would significantly cut out a lot of travel those teams have had to make while frequenting the far western reaches of the United States and Canada. Similarly, since the Thrashers left Atlanta for Winnipeg before last season, they’ve remained in the Eastern Conference playing the majority of their games against teams not even remotely close to their new location. A move to the Western Conference makes sense for them and their opponents.
Besides the odd decision to place Columbus in the Atlantic Division and Tampa Bay in the Central, I think the realignment proposal looks pretty good so far. The thing the NHL will have to work out is how to deal with 16 teams in the East and only 14 in the West.
Currently, both conferences each have 15 teams. Moving both Detroit and Columbus, however, throws off that balance and creates a competitive issue as it relates to a team’s chances in making the playoffs.
To help offset those issues, the league has proposed that the top three teams from each division will automatically get playoff berths, as explained by ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun. That would mean that the final two playoff spots in each conference would go to the teams in each conference with the next best records, regardless of division.
Now that we’re talking about divisions, I’ll disclose that I’m not a huge fan. Divisions shouldn’t matter when it comes to how the year-end tournament is seeded, or who even makes the playoffs. Too many times, teams in difficult divisions have come into the postseason with a better record than the third division winner, but are seeded lower because they didn’t win their division.
A great example of the silliness of divisions in playoff seeding can be found in the standings below from the 2007-2008 season.
As you can see, the Washington Capitals ended the season with the third seed in the Eastern Conference. Their 94 points, however, were eclipsed by three teams below them. They still received the third seed, though, because they were the winners of a weak division in a system that punished New Jersey, the Rangers and Philly for having to compete with teams racking up the points like Montreal and Pittsburgh. You’ll also notice that, in the West, Anaheim ended up the fourth seed despite having four more points than division-winner Minnesota.
That pretty well illustrates my issue with divisions, but if the NHL must continue with the divisional setup, I guess I’m okay with the restructured playoff the league is proposing.
This way at least, if five of the best teams in the Eastern Conference are, say, from the Atlantic Division, fine. The Atlantic will have five teams in the Eastern Conference playoffs. The fifth best team in the Atlantic shouldn’t be left out of if they have a better record than the fourth best team in the Central simply for the sake of equal divisional representation.
Still, there’s now the possibility that one division offers six or more of the best teams in a conference, leaving any after the top five out of the playoff picture.
All that said, the NHL’s proposed changes have a few more steps to go through before being finalized. The plan has been presented to the league’s Board of Governors and, if given the go ahead by that body, will then go to the player’s union for approval.
If all parties agree on the plan, the changes would take effect starting next season.