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
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(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
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(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
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(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
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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
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Winnipeg to Pacific: Move Colorado to Central, move Detroit OR Columbus to Northeast,
Pacific: ANA, CGY, EDM, LA, PHX, SJ, VAN, WPG
Central: CHI, COL, DAL, DET, MIN, NSH, STL
Northeast: BOS, BUF, CLB, CAR, MTL, OTW, TOR
Atlantic: FLA, NJ, NYI, NYR, PHI, PIT, TBY, WSH
(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
Pacific: ANA, CGY, COL, EDM, LA, PHX, SJ, VAN
Central: CHI, DAL, DET, MIN, NSH, STL, WPG
Northeast: BOS, BUF, CLB, CAR, MTL, OTW, TOR
Atlantic: FLA, NJ, NYI, NYR, PHI, PIT, TBY, WSH
(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.

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