29 June 2011

What if the NHL never went to six divisions...

A return to a four division realignment reportedly proposed by Commissioner Bettman last week is apparantly being very well recieved, and will probably be finalized this year to start in the 2012-13 season. As many of you know, I have been a supporter of at the very least realigning the Western Conference into two divisons and reducing play between the Pacific and Central teams. I proposed this several weeks ago before the Thrashers to Winnipeg move was made official.

But now that this idea finally seems to have some traction among the Board of Governors, I wonder what would've happened if the NHL never abandoned the four-division format in the first place? The NHL switched to six when the last batch of four expansion teams (starting with Nashville in 1998-99) began play. First, let's look at the last year of the four division format in 1997-98, the Coyotes have been a Phoenix a few years, and the Whalers just moved to Carolina.

1997-98, Last year of four division format
(7) Pacific: ANA, CGY, COL, EDM, LA, SJ, VAN
(6) Central: CHI, DAL, DET, PHX, STL, TOR
(6) Northeast: BOS, BUF, CAR, MTL, OTW, PIT
(7) Atlantic: FLA, NJ, NYI, NYR, PHI, TBY, WSH

Carolina stays in the Northeast, because there isn't a logical team to switch with in the Atlantic. Looking at this now, I'm surprised Phoenix and Colorado never swapped divisions after Phoenix's relocation. Oh well, let's assume it stays this way as we now enter the most recent expansion era.

1998-99, Nashville's first year, joins Central division
(7) Pacific: ANA, CGY, COL, EDM, LA, SJ, VAN
(7) Central: CHI, DAL, DET, NSH, PHX, STL, TOR
(6) Northeast: BOS, BUF, CAR, MTL, OTW, PIT
(7) Atlantic: FLA, NJ, NYI, NYR, PHI, TBY, WSH

The Central and Northeast are the only divisions that are "short a team." The Central seems to be logical choice because of Nashville's proximity to Chicago and St. Louis, even though they are commonly thought of as a "Southern" team, they are as close to those cities as anywhere in the Atlantic division, plus there isn't a realistic trade here. Nashville to the Central seems obvious.

1999-00, Atlanta's first year, joins Northeast
(7) Pacific: ANA, CGY, COL, EDM, LA, SJ, VAN
(7) Central: CHI, DAL, DET, NSH, PHX, STL, TOR
(7) Northeast: ATL, BOS, BUF, CAR, MTL, OTW, PIT
(7) Atlantic: FLA, NJ, NYI, NYR, PHI, TBY, WSH

The Northeast is the only division short a team, and again, I don't see a switch that would be made out of the Atlantic to make a space for them. This is probably why it looked like a good idea at the time to realign to six divisions of five as it splits the Eastern Conference pretty nicely, (although separating Washington from more "traditional" rivals). But the way the three division format was applied to the West, really screwed Dallas and Minnesota down the road. Furthermore, the way the schedule was divided, with double home-and-home against all conference opponents, it also really screwed Detroit and Columbus (and frankly, probably wasn't so easy on west coast teams either). Still, I think they made the best decision possible with a three division Western Conference constraint, but I'm glad they are now re-thinking this.

2000-2001, Columbus and Minnesota first year, major realignment
Columbus & Minnesota will become Central Division teams, Toronto moves to Northeast, Pittsburgh moves to Atlantic, Phoenix moves to Pacific

(8) Pacific: ANA, CGY, COL, EDM, LA, PHX, SJ, VAN
(7) Central: CHI, CLB, DAL, DET, MIN, NSH, STL
(7) Northeast: ATL, BOS, BUF, CAR, MTL, OTW, TOR
(8) Atlantic: FLA, NJ, NYI, NYR, PHI, PIT, TBY, WSH

Now that its a given that there will be two divisions of eight and two of seven, there is a lot of flexibility. Both Columbus and Minnesota make sense as Central teams. But I could see the NHL making Columbus play in the Northeast for the first couple seasons and then swap with Toronto. The NHL did this in the six division alignment because Nashville was still a very young franchise in the Central and the league didn't want another expansion team in the same five-team division. I think they'd be willing to allow two expansion teams in a seven-team division, but three would have been a lot.

Phoenix finally moves to the Pacific, making that an eight team division. Given that there will also be an eight team division in the Eastern Conference, Pittsburgh, Carolina, and Atlanta all have a case to move out of the Northeast. Let's assume Pittsburgh gets the nod based on seniority.

So above is a very possible alignment the NHL would have from 2000 up until Atlanta's relocation for next year.

2011-2012, Atlanta Relocates to Winnipeg
Winnipeg to Pacific: Move Colorado to Central, move Detroit OR Columbus to Northeast,
Northeast: BOS, BUF, CLB, CAR, MTL, OTW, TOR
(Option, also move Phoenix to Central so both Detroit AND Columbus could go to the Northeast)

I Imagine Canadian TV prefers this scenario, but the one below is simpler

Winnipeg to Central: Move Detroit or Columbus to Northeast
Northeast: BOS, BUF, CLB, CAR, MTL, OTW, TOR
(Option, also move Phoenix to Central so both Detroit AND Columbus could go to the Northeast)

Note in both scenarios, I'm assuming Columbus will move because of a preference for Detroit and Chicago to remain together. Still the decision is close, given that Detroit probably could win on seniority.

Also I could see a swap of Pittsburgh and Carolina somewhere along the way, though that would mean separating Pittsburgh from Philadelphia, perhaps a reason the Penguins wouldn't want to move.

While I noted above Atlanta's move to Winnipeg is before the upcoming season, the actual realignment isn't going to take place until 2012-13, so Winnipeg will stay in the Southeast division for now (and honestly who isn't rooting for a Southeast Division championship banner to hang at MTS Centre for all time). Since there were only about four weeks between the relocation being made offical and the release of the schedule for next season, it was easier to do a Find and Replace of "Winnipeg" with "Atlanta," rather than figure out how to change the schedules of three divisions if a "simple" three-way swap took place for this coming season (For example, Winnipeg to Northwest, Minnesota to Central, Columbus to Southeast would've drastically impacted 15 teams' schedules).

But the other big reason for waiting to realign is that there will be a Phoenix question if the City of Glendale stops funding the team's losses (they have paid the NHL $25M for the last two years to keep the team open for buisness while trying to find a local buyer).

Where to put Phoenix in the event of a relocation becomes clearer in a four division setup. Keep in mind that for a team to move, there needs to be a potential owner, and a potential arena, ALL of the possible cites below lack at least one of those things. Winnipeg was the only city that met the two criteria, but with the Thrashers going there, the Coyotes seem likley a team without a destination. For that reason, frankly, I think it is more likley the Coyotes simply fold if Glendale stops funding the losses than a relocation to any one of these cities. That said...

If Phoenix moves to...

Seattle or Portland, Pacific Division
Houston or Kansas City, Central Division
Quebec City, Northeast Division (probably means Detroit AND/OR Columbus have to remain in/return to the Central).

I don't forsee any Atlantic division destinations unless Atlanta inexplicably gets a third bite at the apple, highly unlikely given no ownership emerged to keep the Thrashers in Atlanta for what would've amounted to a discount compared to what True North paid.

And while drawing pretty lines on maps is fun for a while, the real issue is how they balance the schedule. Particularly, if the playoffs become division based instead of conference based, will the Central and Pacific divisions only need to schedule home-and-home and load up on division games. If that is the case if Detroit AND/OR Columbus get left behind in the Central, it makes little difference compared to getting to move East. If the number of games between opponents inside or ouside the division remain close, then it doesn't really matter where they draw the division lines, and it doesn't really help the travel situation in the West.

Hopefully, looking at the four-division question as if the six-division era never happened, clears up what might work if the NHL indeed follows through with this idea.

28 June 2011

Three Quick Notes: Congrats to Boston, Wild hire new coach, trade Burns.

I think I might make "Three Quick Notes" a feature here at SOTSO Hockey.

1) Congrats to Boston.

Yes, I rooted against you in every round except for the final (and I was probably rooting for Boston in the first rounds against Montreal). Yes, you were my pre playoff pick to win the final, and yes, I bailed on you after a dissapointing start in the first round. And yes, while I'm glad you have defeated the most hated team in hockey, I'm sure next fall, you'll remind me why I hated you so much against Buffalo and Tampa. Though I must admit, for teams like Tampa and Boston, they played a game 7 that was way cleaner than it should've been. There were no penalties, but not for the usual reason of the refs ignoring stuff, it was becuase they really played hard and clean.

2) Wild Hire Yeo

I do think Fletcher made a gutsy pick here after all the deserved criticism of hiring the inexperienced Todd Richards. I understand where he's coming from, the coaching pool this year was much thinner than it was two years ago. I think Fletcher is rejecting less appealing big names here. The Wild need discipline, I don't think Richards ever had the ability he needed to motivate the locker room. The two "big names" were MacTavish and Hitchcock. Both teams lost their recent NHL gigs for the same problem Richards had, though I would say Hitchcock got some redemption in the recent World Championships with team Canada.

Still former Houston Aeros coach Mike Yeo was recently a head coach (unlike Richards who was a few years removed from being "the guy"), and led the Aeros to a phenomal season which resulted in a trip to the Calder Cup finals. Motivation appeared to be a key in Fletcher's remarks (while, to his credit, he was very careful to not directly disrespect the outgoing Richards), and Fletcher later even went so far as to later call out the players' conditioning.

Yeo has more upside than Richards, and has a record of being able to motivate players, specifically players that will be with the big club before too long as the Wild go into this summer ready to "blow it up"

3) Burns trade

I'm sorry to see Brent Burns go, but I understand after the abltross that was Kim Johnsson's contract, the Wild were going to be wary of overpaying another defensman. Burns is going to command more on the open market than the Wild would be willing to pay next summer. But I think they made a good deal with San Jose to get an extra 1st round pick, the affordable, albiet inconsistent scoring winger Devin Setoguchi, and prospect Charlie Coyle who has a pretty glowing scouting report (stick tap to Hockey Wilderness).

I think this is a pretty good price they probably would not have been able to get if they waited until the deadline. This is a good deal for San Jose too, Burns will be joining a deeper defensive core there, which means he won't always have to against opposing top lines. Both teams did well on this, but give the Wild credit for making the Sharks pay, this is way better than getting nothing for Gabroik for sure!

12 June 2011

Schedule Formulae with a balanced NHL schedule...

I wanted to address something Commissioner Bettman mentioned along with the news of Atlanta's impending relocation to Winnipeg last season. He mentioned the possibility of going to a "more balanced schedule."

Most people are taking this to mean every team will appear in every building at least once a year, or a the very least an expansion of interconference play from the current number of 18 games per team pear season. Let’s assume it is the case that the NHL will go to 30 interconference games per team per season (15 opponents times 2 games, one home one away). This means there will be only 52 games (down from 64) to be spread among conference opponents. Surprisingly, this means there are a fairly finite number of schedule formulae the NHL could use depending on how the league chooses to realign (how many diviisons, conferences, etc...), which Bettman believes will happen following next season.

Depending on travel priorities, the schedule will look something like one of the five possibilities that I analyze below. While, I have my preferences for the how the league should be realigned and the schedule it should follow, I think the bigger point is regardless of which of these possibilities the schedule looks like, realignment is actually going to matter less under a more balanced schedule.

Under the current alignment, when we argue which teams belong in the same division or conference, we were arguing over which teams appear three times versus twice versus three times every five years* in a given building. With a more balanced schedule and guaranteeing every team appears at least once it means we would be arguing about fractions of those numbers.

(*Yes, I know the Canadian teams have an exception that means they play Canadian interconference opponents home-and-home every year, so 3 times every 5 years isn't correct other than as an overall league average)

I think it's pretty safe to assume the NHL will stick with two conferences of 15 teams each, moving Winnipeg to the West in favor of moving Detroit or Columbus to the East, let's assume for the sake of argument that remains true. The question then becomes how many divisions will be in each conference.

WARNING: Lots of numbers and nerding out below.

As you scroll the possibilites, keep in mind...

Breakdowns written as [Number of Opponents] * [Number of Games per opponent].

Categories of Games:

Div - Games against opponents in the same division
RC - Games against opponents in the same conference, but not same division
IC - Interconference games, or games against opponents of the opposite conference

Sample Schedule:

The Sample home schedule shows how many teams would appear how frequently in each building. The first option will have the Sample Home Schedule listed as:

4*3 (All Div), 5*2, (All RC), 20*1 (5 RC, 15 IC).

Which means, four opponents from the division would appear three times, five teams would appear twice from the rest of the conference, and then 20 teams would appear once, 5 from the rest of the conference and 15 interconference opponents).

If there is an imbalance, assume that it could be handled on a rotating basis. (There’s an argument for doing this by seeding, but that’s not crucial to overall point of this post)

Lastly assume all options include two games home-and-home against 15 interconference opponents, the only difference between the options is how the Div and RC games are divided.

Three Division Options
Conference has 3 Divisions of 5 Teams.

Option A - Division Focused

24 Div (4*6)
28 RC (8*3, 2*2)

Sample Home Schedule:
4*3 (All Div), 4*2, (All RC), 22*1 (5 RC, 15 IC).

These are two possible schedules that are close enough to be under the same option. Both possibilities try to preserve the six games against each division opponent, however only 4 or 5 opponents from the rest of the conference will appear twice (down from 10) as the RC schedule is reduced by 25%.

Option B - Conference Focused

16 Div (4*4)
36 RC (6*4, 4*3)

Sample Home Schedule:
12*2 (4 Div, 6 RC), 17*1 (4 RC, 15 IC)

This is the current formula the NBA uses. This makes it almost unimportant in which division a team is, as the most a team will appear in any building is twice, and it would be 12 out of 14 conference opponents that would appear twice. (Detroit or Columbus in the Southeast division wouldn't be so ridiculous travel-wise, just name-wise)

Two Division Options
Conference has 2 Divisions, one of 7 teams and one of 8 teams.

Option A - Really Division Focused
Division of 7 Division of 8

36 Div (6*6) 38 (3*6, 4*5)
16 RC (8*2) 14 (7*2)

Sample Home Schedules:
Division of 7: 6*3 (Div), 23*1 (All RC and IC)
Division of 8: 5*3 (Div), 2*2 (Div), 22*1 (All RC and IC)

This formula would preserve a large balance in division games, and mean the minimum number of games between teams outside of division matchups. (Might not be so great in the Eastern Conference if "rival" teams get forced into different divisions).

Option B - Division Focused
Division of 7 Division of 8

28 Div (4*5, 2*4) 31 Div (3*5, 4*4)
24 RC (8*3) 21 RC (7*3)

Sample Home Schedules:
Division of 7: 2*3 (2 Div), 6*2 (2 Div, 4 RC), 22*1 (RC and IC)
Division of 8: 1 or 2*3 (Div), 3 or 4*2 (Div or RC), 24*1 (RC and IC)

This formula would still favor division games, while not paring games against other conference opponents to the minimum.

**NOTE: If divisions have an unequal number of teams, it is impossible to create a formula similar to Option B in the three division format in which the games between opponents of different divisions after guaranteeing the maximum games between opponents of the same division. The only way such a formula comes close to working is if some teams in the larger division give up a game against a division opponent to ensure there are enough opponents in the smaller division to go around, but that seems to defeat the purpose of using a divisional alignment in the first place.

No Division Alignment
Conference has no divisions, 15 teams in one group

52 (10*4, 4*3)

Sample Home Schedule:
12*2 (12 Conference opponents), 17*1 (2 Conference Opponents, 15 IC)

Note the schedule is the same as option B in the 3 division format. This formula is the simplest and means the only relevant alignment is where line is between two conferences.

Which formula to use is a matter of how much emphasis the NHL wants to keep on division play. But adding interconference games does necessarily reduce games within the conference and within the division. How are playoff races going to be decided? That’s a very important question regarding where the balance in the schedule should lie. What do you think?

Coming Soon

I will update my last realignment plan now that the move to Winnipeg has been made official.

10 June 2011

Loving this Final.

I wasn't able to do a preview post, I did tweet my prediction (@justinjelinek) of Vancouver in 6. And while all the momentum has clearly swung Boston's way, it's still very possible Vancouver gets it back together and wins.

I turned on Game 3 shortly after the Horton incident. And I saw everyone on the Bruins looking to get a piece of Vancouver. Even Tim Thomas took a chance to wipe out Sedin (should've been a penalty, but even if it was called, it was well worth it). It was a beautiful thing, and I think Vancouver just wasn't ready for that.

I like that Boston now looks like a team on a mission, and Vancouver now looks like the team that used to be on a mission. After Vancouver easily dispatched of a good Sharks team (sorry check another blog for the Sharks are chokers meme), the Canucks, though the first two games against Boston were close, looked to be on their way to a lopsided final.

Now Boston is clearly the team on a mission, will Vancouver find their way again?

For the record I hate both teams, but I hate Boston less, and after game 3