Last night, the NHL's Board of Governors approved a realignment (story from Yahoo! Sports' Puck Daddy blog) which would group the Minnesota Wild with many of the rivals from the old Norris Division days. The Wild will even be grouped with that franchise that used to call Bloomington home, along with Chicago, Columbus, Detroit, Nashville, St. Louis, and Winnipeg.
(For clarity, in the rest of the article I will be prefacing conference and division names with "current" if I am referring to the current alignment that ends this season, or "new" if I am referring to the approved change starting nest season.)
I have written extensively supporting a four-division/conference alignment as it would be beneficial to most current Western Conference teams, and beneficial to Detroit, Columbus, Dallas and Minnesota in particular. The proposal that passed is rather close to the split the southeast idea I posted about a month ago. It's not exactly the same, they put Florida-Tampa, and Carolina-Washington in different divisions from where I had them. Furthermore, they left both Detroit and Columbus in the "new Central," but these are points on which I do not want to quibble. This is a great day for Minnesota hockey fans, and I suppose for everyone in the current Western Conference.
The travel in the first two rounds of the playoffs are going to be cut as well, as four teams from each new conference will advance, pure and simple. Teams will face new conference opponents in the first two rounds, and then there will be some form of re-pairing (apparently still being discussed) for the NHL's "Final Four."
All of that said, I have been participating in a lot of comment sections through the blogosphere, and I see many frustrating objections in the comments sections in which I've participated. So here's my attempt to quell some of the issues.
(more below the jump)
1) Uneven Conferences
Yes, it isn't perfectly fair, but the amount of disparity here has been blown way out of proportion. Under the new format, teams in 7 team conferences will on average get one extra playoff appearance every 14 years. It's not that big a deal.
(WARNING: I'm about to show my work, skip ahead to 1a if you don't want to read math.)
If you use this handy-dandy fraction calcuator, you can subtract 4/8 from 4/7 and you'll get the result 1/14, which represents teams having an extra 1/14 (or 57% v 50%) chance of making the playoffs. Which manifests itself as on average one extra playoff appearance every 14 years.
If you compare the playoff changes in the new format to the current format, in which teams in each conference each have an 8/15 chance:
For new conferences of 7, subtract 8/15 from 4/7 and the result is 4/105 (or one extra appearance every 26.25 years)
For new conferences of 8, subtract 4/8 from 8/15 and the result is 1/30 (or one less appearance every 30 years when compared to the status quo).
NHL network mentioned last night the governors didn't see this as an issue an these numbers must be pretty much why.
1a) We need a crossover rule!
No we don't.
To quickly define what a crossover rule would be in the NHL (and the AHL used it before they realigned before this season), the idea is that a 5th place team in a larger division should have the opportunity to substitute for a 4th place team in a smaller division in the playoffs if the 5th place team has a better record. Now to tear that idea down...
Overall, larger groupings make it less likely that one division will end up that much stronger than another anyway. If there are or one or two bad teams in a division of five (or four bad teams in the case of last years' Northwest Division) it was easier to rack up points. If there's one or two bad teams in a larger grouping, it's harder to rack up points if everyone else is decent.
Still, the schedule is going to be very conference heavy and frankly comparing teams in different conferences will be apples and oranges. Take the new Conference B for example (where Minnesota will be). Hypothetically, what if Columbus and Winnipeg continue to be terrible, and the top 5 teams sweep all of their division games against the two minnows? Would the 5th place team in Conference B be more deserving than say a 4th place team in Conference C where it appears there are 5 legit teams that will all have many playoff appearances in their near future, but might not have as high a point total because their division is going to be more competitive?
Furthermore, I believe keeping travel down for the top seed should take precedence over accommodating bubble teams. For example, under the new alignment, if Boston wins their conference, and Anaheim is a 5th place finisher in their conference with more points than Toronto which is a 4th place finisher in the same new conference as Boston, is it more important to be fair to Anaheim as a bubble team? Or is it better to give Boston the matchup with considerably easier travel? What's better for TV?
Last point, the NHL got by just fine despite the fact there were 10th place finishers in the current Western Conference that had enough points to make the top 8 in the East in the past two seasons. But again, West and East play very different schedules, so the comparison might not prove which team is better. That factored in with travel considerations is why there wasn't a crossover before, and shouldn't be one now.
If your team can't be in the top four of either a group of 7 or 8, they don't deserve to go to the playoffs, try a little harder next year. This is how the Governors saw it.
1b) Realize this isn't set in stone
With the reclocation elephant having taken up quite comfortable residence in a room at Coyotes headquarters since the league took over that team a few years ago, there is obviously potential the new conferences of 8 and 7 will change. Just because a team is currently in a conference of 8 or 7 doesn't mean that will last for ever. In itself that somewhat balances out this minimal inequity. More on that in the next point.
2) Shouldn't we wait for Phoenix?
This argument makes no sense. The current western teams want this done now, and it's pretty easy to see there is space in a couple conferences for northeastern relocations. With this passing it's pretty obvious what to do if Phoenix goes to any of these rumored (and I do want to emphasize *rumored*) locations.
to Quebec/Hamilton/Southern Ontario - Simple move to the new Northeast*
to Kansas City - Either stay put or move to the new Central*, kicking Columbus or Detroit to the new Atlantic* or new Northeast*
to Seattle - They can just stay put
*names are mine as the new conferences don't have official titles yet
If they keep the six division alignment, where does Phoenix go? Who do you bump out of the current Northeast if it is a Quebec City relocation?
And more directly to this objection, what is really gained by waiting a year? Or another three years as that's as long as its been since the league took control of the team.
3) Playoffs will be boring
This objection might have some legs, but I say we just try it for a few years and see what we think. But keep in mind these are groups of 7 and 8 now, not groups of 5 or 6 like they were last time there were divisional playoffs ('92-'93, before Florida and Anaheim, also the North Stars last season, in which they missed), that in itself should lead to more matchup variety.
The original proposal form this summer suggested there would be a league wide reseeding after round 1, if boredom turns out to be an issue, perhaps this can be revisted, and this change would make it possible for ANY two teams to meet in any round after round 1.
4) Switching two teams is simpler
That may be, but it does nothing to address the horrible travel issues for Dallas, Minnesota, and whichever of Columbus or Detroit would've been left behind in the current Western Conference. The teams on the Pacific coast won't have to make so many trips to cities on the east end of the current Western Conference either, though they will be making more trips to the east coast under the new format.
Furthermore if they did the two team switch, again what happens if Phoenix moves to an eastern location? Do they still keep the same six division format? If so, do they just kick back west whichever team they just kicked east? If they keep six divisions, how do they align the three in the current eastern conference with Quebec City in the mix? I don't see good answers to any of these questions.
5) Bettman is ruining the game
This one makes me laugh, because it's the same argument people like myself have used in advocating for a switch back to a four
As Roy at Wild Puck Banter put it on Twitter last night.
Well put, couldn't have said it better myself.
Now if we can just get rid of the shootout and the collusion point, I might have to take back about 96% of the mean things I've ever said about Commissioner Bettman.
(Don't worry, I'm never going to take back the mean things I said about Colin Campbell.)