Friday, March 15, 2013

NHL Realignment: Good Divisions, Confusing Playoffs

The NHL is realigning from 6 divisions to 4. The good news for the Bruins is that the 5 teams currently in their division will remain together, with the exciting addition of the Detroit Red Wings, and the less exciting additions of the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning. Here's how the NHL will look starting next season:

Division A:
Boston Bruins
Toronto Maple Leafs
Montreal Canadiens
Buffalo Sabres
Ottawa Senators
Detroit Red Wings
Florida Panthers
Tampa Bay Lightning

Division B:
Columbus Blue Jackets
Carolina Hurricanes
Washington Capitals
Pittsburgh Penguins
Philadelphia Flyers
New York Rangers
New Jersey Devils
New York Islanders

Division C:
Winnipeg Jets
Chicago Blackhawks
Colorado Avalanche
Dallas Stars
Minnesota Wild
Nashville Predators
St. Louis Blues

Division D:
Vancouver Canucks
Calgary Flames
Edmonton Oilers
LA Kings
Anaheim Ducks
San Jose Sharks
Phoenix Coyotes

The playoffs will also be modified. In a very complicated and puzzling way. It will still be divided by Conference. It will also be divided by division. Bear with me as I try to explain...

The top 3 teams from each division will qualify for the playoffs. Then the best 2 teams, from either division, will qualify as wild cards. The division winner with the best record will face the wild card team with the worst record, regardless of division. The other division winner will face the other wild card team. The 2nd and 3rd place teams in a division will face each other. Then the winners of these series will face each other in the Divisional Championship round.

So, here is how it could look...

Division A winner vs. Wild Card #2
Division A 2nd place vs. Division A 3rd place

The winners of each series would face each other, then the winner of that series would face the Division B winners in the Conference Championship. Then the winner of that goes to the Stanley Cup Finals.

I absolutely fucking HATE this new playoff format. If it ain't broke, don't fix it, and the playoffs weren't broke. The playoffs were great. They were thrilling. They spawned non-divisional rivalries like Chicago/Vancouver, Chicago/LA, Boston/Vancouver, Boston/Philadelphia.

And they were simple. 1 vs. 8, 2 vs. 7, 3 vs. 6, 4 vs. 5.

Try explaining this new format to your girlfriend.

And as much as I love a regular season schedule weighted for divisional rivalries, it feels forced in the playoffs. And I kind of like the possibility of facing a rival like Montreal in the Eastern Conference Finals. How cool would it be if there were a way to meet a divisional rival in the Stanley Cup Finals?

This realignment solves some problems and creates others. Detroit and Columbus, who play in the Eastern Time Zone, will benefit from playing more games in their own time zone, and less games on the West Coast. Winnipeg is finally in a geographically logical division. Most divisional rivalries (such as Montreal/Boston, Pittsburgh/Philly, Edmonton/Calgary) remain intact. And other previously non-divisional rivalries (such as Washington/Pittsburgh) now have an opportunity to flourish.

Some drawbacks are obvious already. There are 14 teams in the West, 16 in the East. Eight teams from each Conference will make the playoffs. So it will be easier for Western teams to make the postseason.

There's also the fact that the two Florida teams were attached to perhaps the most powerful division (in terms of fan support and history). Once again, instead of eliminating or adjusting its weakest links, the NHL will support them, at the expense of their strongest franchises. The Lightning and Panthers will benefit at their box office when the Red Wings, Bruins, Maple Leafs, and Canadiens come to town.

The NHL will never contract, unfortunately. The owners don't want to lose the markets, the players don't want fellow players to lose their jobs, and there are five people in Phoenix who really like the Coyotes. These people are stopping contraction.

We'll see how the new divisions work. There is never going to be a perfect solution. This isn't bad.

We'll also see how the new playoffs go. Based on current NHL standings, here's what the first round matchups would be:

Detroit vs. Montreal
Ottawa vs. Boston

Toronto vs. Pittsburgh
New Jersey vs. Carolina

Phoenix vs. Chicago
Minnesota vs. St. Louis

Winnipeg vs. Anaheim
Los Angeles vs. Vancouver

That's not bad, not bad at all. I think every year facing the same team in the playoffs could be a double-edged sword. It would be great for a good rivalry. It would be tedious if the teams weren't evenly matched, or if one were from Florida.

As a Bruins fan, we keep the rivalries from our own division, and we add Detroit. Four of the Oriignal Six teams are in our division. Add the rabid fanbases in Ottawa and Buffalo, and you've got some great crowds, great buildings, great games. And then there's the two Spring Break teams.