Tuesday, December 6, 2011
The Winners and Losers of NHL Realignment
By Katie Baker
The NHL's shadowy-titled Board of Governors gathered Monday and Tuesday in the hockey mecca of Pebble Beach, Calif. The agenda included a player-safety update and discussion about the upcoming CBA talks, but the sexiest, most anticipated, and most controversial topic in the months leading up to the meeting was league realignment.
The league’s system, comprising of six divisions split between Eastern and Western conferences, has had its doubters for years, but then the Atlanta Thrashers relocated to Winnipeg, resulting in the temporary absurdity of the Jets in the "Southeast" Division. That finally forced the NHL's hand. The Board had two disparate solutions to consider, both of which would need votes from at least 20 of the 30 NHL teams to pass. They could either settle on a simple one-for-one swap between Winnipeg and one of the easternmost Western Conference teams, or approve an all-out reimagining of the entire system.
The basics: The NHL will split into four conferences of seven or eight teams each, with conference groupings based largely on time zones. Teams will play conference opponents up to six times (three home, three away) during the regular season, and will play every nonconference team in the league twice (once home, once away). The top four teams in each conference will play one another in the first two rounds of the playoffs, with the winner of each of these mini-tournaments advancing to the Stanley Cup semifinals.
Here's a look at who wins under the new arrangement, who loses, and who is headed for a shootout.
Schoolteachers in Detroit and Columbus: The two organizations that were most adamant about changing the two-party system were the Red Wings and the Blue Jackets, two teams in the eastern time zone that were nevertheless lumped into the Western Conference and forced to play a number of games that involved triple-time-zone travel and late starts — not a way to get the kids watching. While the Red Wings were most vocal about this headache, arguing that they had earned the right to move back East, the team most negatively impacted was probably Columbus, which lacks the history and the near-religious fan base willing to stomach such scheduling. The new system, which groups these teams with others only one time zone away and mandates a home-and-home with everyone else, will also benefit Columbus by bringing the nearby Pittsburgh Penguins to town once every season as opposed to once every so often.
League togetherness: (Alternate title: UNITYYYY!!!!!) The NHL is notorious for infighting, disagreements, and being slow to enact significant change. Which is why it was a bit surprising to see that only four teams reportedly voted "no" on a pretty major realignment plan. It’s still unclear which teams voted against the plan, but most guesses include some combination of Montreal, Pittsburgh, the Florida teams, Colorado, Winnipeg, or Carolina. Regardless, coming out of the vote there was a strong sense that the decision has clear downsides for several franchises, even those that voted yes "for the good of the league." Which brings us to
Gary Bettman: The commish made a very un-Bettman-like statement on his weekly radio program last week, saying: "If we don't get it done now, we're going to be in really tough shape if we don't get it done by the All-Star Game. I don't even think we can wait that long. But I haven't figured out what we'll do if it doesn't happen."
In hindsight, perhaps he was just being cagey because he already knew realignment would be approved after spending much of the fall massaging GMs to loosen them up for the idea. Toronto GM Brian Burke called the successful vote "typical Gary Bettman," according to Yahoo!'s Nick Cotsonika. "It's like a Chicago election in the '30s, you know?" Burke said. "Not that it's fixed, but he's got a pretty good sense of where the votes are going to come."
The Dallas Stars: The Dallas Stars, who have languished under poor ownership for the past few years, finally have the committed and enthusiastic Tom Gaglardi at the head of their ship. And realignment has been one of Gaglardi’s pet causes for years. "I think the first time I met Tom to discuss his acquisition of the Stars, going back to 2009, that was one of the first questions he asked me," Bettman said. "And every time I saw him, he asked me the question again." Like Detroit and Columbus, Dallas found itself in a division that wasn't a great geographic fit. The Stars, whose home rink is in the central time zone, were grouped into the Pacific Division, which meant lots of late start times and long road trips. Under the new plan, Dallas will have to travel to play Pacific teams only once each per season, and it will now play host much more often to popular teams like Chicago and Detroit, and teams with Dallas-related backstories such as the St. Louis Blues under Ken Hitchcock or the Minnesota Wild. For a team hoping to rebuild its fan base under new ownership, this is a good thing.
Henry and Linda Staal: The parents of the Staal brothers will have to watch their sons play against one another a lot more now in the regular season, knock one another out of the playoffs, and know that only one of them, if any, will advance to the Stanley Cup semifinals. The new alignment puts Jordan (Pittsburgh Penguins), Marc (New York Rangers), and Eric (Carolina Hurricanes) in one conference. Given what happened between Eric and Marc last season, this would be nerve-wracking in more ways than one.
First-round upset specials: One of the most fun things about hockey has long been the free-for-all nature of the playoffs — all you have to do, really, is get in. Almost every year the battle for the last handful of playoff spots goes down to the wire, and even eking your way in as the no. 8 seed doesn't give you that long of a shot; since the league went to its existing "top eight in each conference" playoff format in 1994, the no. 8 team has upset the top seed nine times in 34 tries, better than 1-in-4 odds. (Chicago almost made it 10 teams last year, taking Vancouver to seven games.) Under the new format, only four teams from each conference make the postseason, where they will then play two rounds against one another, marking the end of those no. 8 seed Cinderella runs. There will also be the grim, new reality that a team could potentially have more points than postseason-bound teams from all three other conferences and still have to hit the golf course early if it's fifth within its own conference. Finally, we could see MLB-like scenarios in which the best two teams in the NHL play each other in the earliest rounds.
The Carolina Hurricanes: Carolina, which formerly benefited from being in a division that included the once-woeful Florida Panthers and the ultimately relocated Atlanta Thrashers, now finds itself the low man on a totem pole. The Hurricanes are stacked with the likes of Philadelphia, Washington, the Rangers, and Pittsburgh — all organizations that routinely spend all the way up to the salary cap on their teams. (In contrast, the Hurricanes have the third-lowest cap hit in the league.) With only four teams from each conference making the postseason and the bulk of regular-season play now being intra-conference, it's hard to imagine how the Hurricanes will adapt. As NBC Sports' Joe Yerdon points out, there's probably a reason Carolina GM Jim Rutherford had the democratically wacky idea of a 20-team Stanley Cup playoff.
The Phoenix Coyotes: Nobody knows what will happen with the Phoenix franchise, whose time as a league-owned franchise continues to tick away. Without a buyer, there's a strong chance that Phoenix will end up elsewhere — a possibility that seems almost baked into the new realignment parameters, which offer more flexibility for franchise movement than the old format did, lest the league end up with another Winnipeg-in-the-Southwest.
AND IT LOOKS LIKE THIS ONE'S GOING TO A SHOOTOUT!
The Pacific teams: I'm interested to see what will happen with teams like San Jose and Los Angeles. As any West Coast hockey fan already knows, getting national TV attention is difficult when you're west of the Continental Divide. (Actually, this would be even more true if the Continental Divide began at Chicago and cut its way over to Washington, D.C.) The new system cuts down on the grueling travel schedules and crippling jet lag that West Coast hockey teams endure, but it also could have the potential for further alienating teams on Pacific time from getting crucial NBC coverage, especially because the lucrative and highly marketed Blackhawks and Red Wings won’t be visiting as much. Here's hoping that the league starts scheduling some 1 p.m. Saturday games out West and televises them live on NBC — weekend-afternoon hockey is simply the best.
Rivalries: The new system is being praised for deepening some of hockey's most storied rivalries. The new intra-conference playoff format could have the Blackhawks and the Red Wings, or the Sabres and the Habs, battling to the death year after year in the playoffs' first or second rounds — after already facing each other six times during the regular season. New rifts will be made deeper: Tampa Bay and Boston, which fought to seven games last postseason, will now hate each other even more, and a ramp-up in Midwestern battles between the likes of, say, St. Louis and Nashville will be fun to follow. Still, there are downsides: Teams like Detroit and Colorado, whose '90s dominance fueled a bitter rivalry that holds on to this day, will now meet only twice in the regular season and won't see each other in the playoffs unless both teams advance to the Cup semifinals. Ditto for fledgling feuds like Dallas-San Jose. Original Six teams such as Montreal and Toronto will now only host the New York Rangers once — though that didn't seem to bother Leafs coach Ron Wilson, who, according to Chris Botta, smiled when told about the realignment that will have his team playing a lot more often in Florida. "That's good," he said. "I'm a golfer."
The Florida teams: The new conferences include two that are entirely within the eastern time zone, but the split isn't a clear Northeast-Southeast divide. Instead, Mid-Atlantic teams (and Pittsburgh) are grouped together, and northern squads like Toronto, Montreal, Buffalo, and Boston are combined in a conference that also includes Florida and Tampa Bay? Until this season, when Atlanta moved awkwardly to Winnipeg, the furthest these Florida teams had to travel to face a divisional opponent was up to Washington; now their average travel distances will be upwards of 1,000 miles, the highest in the league. (Edmonton is the only other team that will crack the millennium mile mark.) "Travel is the negative, but hopefully we can work around it," said Panthers GM Dale Tallon. On the plus side, Tampa Bay and Florida will now be routinely hosting some of the most storied franchises (and the Senators) throughout the season, which as Tallon pointed out "will be good for our fans."
Lovers of hockey lore: It's been pointed out that some of these new conferences look a heck of a lot like the divisions that existed before 1993 and had names like "Patrick" and "Adams," which were rich with hockey history. The league's realignment plan was released with placeholder names A, B, C, and D, opening up the door for rampant speculation, pleading, and a much-abused Twitter hashtag imploring the league to go back to old-timey conference names. (I had my own suggestion.) It seems like the league will probably stick with boring and straightforward titles — what to call that two-pronged Florida-Northeastern conference, though? The Blue Line Straddle? — but hockey fans can hold out hope.