18 May 2011

The Least Radical NHL Realignment Idea.

I've been considering the NHL geography problem for a while. Clearly the Western Conference is far more spread out and it is a travel and TV ratings disadvantage (Especially Detroit and Columbus who have conference opponents 3 time zones away, and Minnesota and Dallas who have division opponents 2 time zones away).

I've had this plan for a while, but I was going to wait until the realignment debate got going again (owners meeting, relocation rumors) before bringing it up.

The NHL rarely makes radical change so I wanted to come up with a realignment idea that constrained some of the ideas that often get mixed in with realignment plans.

1) Keep an 82 game schedule (yes I understand there's an argument for contracting this number, I'm treating this as a separate issue)

2) Assume a 30 team league (yes I know people have ideas about expansion and contraction, again, I'm treating this as a separate issue)

3) Assume no relocations (I'm going to make a slight exception to this one and include a contingency in the event Atlanta moves to Winnipeg, as the possibility is widely reported. Outside of this possibility, perhaps more probable than possible, I am not assuming teams are going where I would like them, Seattle or Kansas city for instance, but for simplicity I'm working in the present, I've made other posts on prospective NHL markets).

Before we get to defining my proposal, Let's consider the 4 division proposal that got some traction before dying at a board of governors meeting a few years ago. This realignment would be for a more time zone oriented approach. Basically it would put the 8 teams in the in Pacific and Mountain time zones in a new "Pacific" division, and the 5 teams in the Central time zone with the Detroit and Columbus. This would also have rearranged the Eastern Conference into two divisions.

By reports this died mostly because the Eastern teams were fine with the 3 division status quo. Here's my feeling on that: It's okay. Why can't we just leave the East alone and realign the west in order to find some schedule relief, so here's my proposal:

WESTERN CONFERENCE

PACIFIC: ANA, CGY, COL*, EDM, LA, PHX, SJ, VAN
CENTRAL: CHI, CLB, DAL, DET, MIN, NSH*, STL

EASTERN CONFERENCE

NORTHEAST: BOS, BUF, MTL, OTW, TOR
ATLANTIC: NJ, NYI, NYJ, PHI, PIT
SOUTHEAST: ATL*, CAR, FLA, TBY, WSH

*Teams involved in contingency plans in the event of Atlanta moving to Winnipeg
1) I would swap Nashville to the Southeast and move Winnipeg into the Central. This is simpler of the two contigency plans, however...

2) If Winnipeg insists on having more Canadian opponents there could be a 3 way swap with Winnipeg to the Pacific, Colorado to the Central, and Nashville to the Southeast, though this makes for a god-awful Pacific division that stretches from Winnipeg to Los Angeles.


(For the sake of further arguments, assume the NHL goes with contingency 1, now back to the plan)

The Schedules would look like this...

Eastern Conference schedule and playoff format stay the same
*24 games against teams in the division
(6 games against each of 4 teams)

*40 games v rest of teams in conference
(4 games against each of 10 teams)

*18 games against Western Conference
(1 game against each of 12 teams plus 2 against each of the remaining 3)

*Top 8 overall make the playoffs

Western Conference schedule changes...
Pacific Division
*43 games against teams in the division
(6 games against each of 6 teams, plus 7 games against 1 remaining team)

*21 games v rest of teams in conference
(3 games against each of 7 teams)

*18 games against Eastern Conference
(1 game against each of 12 teams plus 2 against each of the remaining 3)

Central Division
*40 games against teams in the division
(6 games against each of 2 teams, plus 7 games against 4 remaining teams)

*24 games v rest of teams in conference
(3 games against each of 8 teams)

*18 games against Eastern Conference
(1 game against each of 12 teams plus 2 against each of the remaining 3)

*Top 4 in division make the playoffs


(NOTE: where there's imbalance, assume there is a rotation plan or that the extra games would be assigned based on "seeding", the method is less important to this post, I just know either is possible).


What's great about this plan is how little it changes.
1) The East is absolutely unaltered.

2) The East v West rotation doesn't have to change.

(I get there's an argument for expanding that, but that isn't necessary for realigning the divisions, so for simplicity I'm assuming that stays the same).


But what changes has very clear benefits...
1) The number of games between new Central teams and new Pacific teams gets reduced.

The conference games between teams of different divisions seem to be the travel killers for teams at the extreme boundaries of the Western Conference. Let's compare the four teams I'm focused on and the number of road games they would play against the 8 teams in the "New Pacific" division

Columbus & Detroit (currently 16, new format 12)
- Even Detroit would still play 9 road games at Western Conference opponents if they moved to the East

Dallas & Minnesota (currently 20, new format 12)*
- The reduction of 8 includes teams in the Mountain Time Zone which is one hour different than central time, so while the number is bigger, in terms of actual distance probably less dramatic of a reduction than for Detroit and Columbus


2) With the travel relief, this means better local time slots in markets where the teams against division opponents when they are away (very relevant when keeping West playoffs within the divisions)


3) Teams stay within a one hour difference for the first two rounds of the playoffs guaranteed.

A couple obvious disadvantages (and my pre-emptive arguments)
1) It's harder to make the playoffs in the Pacific.

That's obviously true as it's 4 slots for 8 teams in the Pacific, whereas it's 4 slots for 7 teams in the Central. Minor leagues have used a "cross-over" rule to make a 5th spot available to the larger division if the 5th placed team finishes higher than the 4th placed team in the smaller division.

I am not in favor of this because all this does is "reward" the team that wins the smaller division with the extra travel of playing the 5th place team from the more distant division. I think keeping the travel down for a division winner at home takes precedence over fairness to the 5th place team in the larger division. In short if your team doesn't like it, make sure you finish 4th next year.

Furthermore, I do see potential relocation possibilities where the Central division could become an 8 team division and the Pacific division could become a 7 team division (say Phoenix to Kansas City for example), so as the alignment is flexible, long term this could balance out.

2) In the event of Relocation, Winnipeg doesn't get many Canadian opponents.

Overall I feel we can cross this bridge when and if it happens, so I'll keep this short for now. This does impact the NHL keeping the East v West home and home between the Canadian teams, they might find a way to do tweak the schedule a bit to get Winnipeg included (I also have another more radical realignment idea to address this later this week).

I also mentioned a way to put them in the Pacific division that seems realistic (but probably unfair to the SoCal teams). Perhaps in this instance the Pacific could be sub-divided into Canadian and American Pacific divisions, even if just for the purpose of changing the balance of the schedule. So CGY-EDM-VAN-WPG would play more games against each other and consequently so would ANA-LA-SJ-PHX, and there would be fewer games between the groups.


Conclusion

While the overall tweaks are subtle, this would have an positive impact on reducing Western Conference travel by making bigger divisions and creating further imbalance of the schedule in favor of more division games (at the expense of games in the conference between teams of different divisions).



In the playoffs, teams will not have opponents more than one time zone apart for the first two rounds, guaranteed.



And the East gets to keep what works very well for them.



I believe this plan versus many more radical proposals I've seen in the blogosphere, is just subtle enough to work. Get it done NHL!

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