So, instead of go any further in rehashing the obvious, I'll bite on Jeff Little's suggestion that the NHL consider realignment and share this little idea that's been percolating around about as long as this blog:
The Dark Blue Jacket
National Hockey League Realignment Scheme
National Hockey League Realignment Scheme
First, let's look at the landscape as it exists right now:
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The premise of my realignment is this: Rather than break conferences along longitudinal lines - East and West - the NHL should break them along latitudinal lines - North, Central and South. Doing so accomplishes three main objectives: 1) It evens out the ridiculous disparity in conference travel costs, 2) It all but guarantees that Canada will have a team make it deep into the Stanley Cup playoffs and 3) It ensures that the American sun belt will have a significant role in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The travel situation is obvious. Every season, the notable Preds blog, On the Forecheck, does the hockey world a favor and calculates the amount of travel that NHL teams will have to endure over the course of a season. Consider this: Per On the Forecheck's analysis, the average number of miles traveled by an NHL team is a whopping 39,807. Only three Western Conference teams - Detroit, Chicago and (go figure!) Los Angeles will travel less than that. The rest are all Eastern Conference. The worst off is San Jose at 56,254, and the easiest travel schedule is owned by the New Jersey Devils at 27,152. Clearly, there is no relationship between number of miles traveled and the adverse effect on a team's record, but the disparity in travel is real and needs to be addressed.
Then there's the Canada thing. Why am I, an Ohioan who roots for the Columbus Blue Jackets, so intent on getting Canadian teams deep into the Stanley Cup playoffs (if not all but guarantee them a place in the Finals)? It's pretty simple, actually. Canada is the birthplace of hockey and, over time has made hockey its national sport with a fan and media infrastructure to match. Think about it: Hockey Night in Canada is a national institution. The Hockey News is a Canadian publication. Sirius XM's NHL Home Ice channels broadcast out of Toronto. So many of the hockey journalists that we enjoy reading are out of Canada. Canada operates in a market economy like the United States, and the only reason that all of this media infrastructure exists is that the Canadian fanbase is manic about their sport. So when a Canadian team is in the playoffs, or better yet in the Finals, that whole country goes crazy. Tell me that's not good for the sport as a whole.
Why the sun belt? Pretty simple. Since taking over as Commissioner, Gary Bettman has spent an inordinate amount of effort on expanding the NHL into the increasingly populous southern states of the United States of America. He's even taken it to the point of irrationality, forcing Phoenix to keep its franchise despite all economic indicators suggesting that the franchise should move. He wants to support the south, so let's give him his wish. Hell, I'll give him an entire conference.
So, with no further ado, here are my conferences:
Northern Conference: Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver, Minnesota, Boston, Buffalo, Detroit
Central Conference: New York Rangers, New York Islanders, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Columbus, Chicago, St. Louis, Colorado, San Jose
Southern Conference: Washington, Carolina, Atlanta, Nashville, Florida, Tampa Bay, Dallas, Phoenix, Anaheim, Los Angeles
If Phoenix up and moves to Winnipeg like the NHL intelligentsia suggests, then Winnipeg would be in the North, Detroit would move to the Central and St. Louis would slide to the South. (If Phoenix moves to Kansas City, then they could swap conferences with St. Louis.)
It's not perfect, but in my mind it's a better solution than the current configuration. Everyone has to spend time on the West Coast, and everyone has to spend time on the East Coast.
The great fun in this format is in the playoffs. I envision three conferences each holding their own playoffs. (It's the NHL - they've always had more teams in the playoffs than not, so why stop now?) But the key is that the conference champs would then get to a Stanley Cup Finals format that is a round-robin, double-elimination tournament. This would be ridiculously fun. For those who don't know what that means, here is the bracket for such a tournament:
Forget the simplistic "Sid v. Ovi" matchups - try on "Sid v. Ovi v. Iggy" or "Stamkos v. Nash v. the Sedins." (NHL Marketing Gods, leave a comment with a phone number where I can call you to collect my royalty check.)
Which brings me to my final matter, explaining why a three-conference format makes sense - and why a three-team Finals is worth a spin. I rely upon common sense: Whereas the other leagues rely on increments of two or four to organize themselves - two leagues in MLB; two conferences in the NFL, MLS and NBA; two halves in soccer, football and basketball; etc. - hockey is played in three periods. No other sport uses the number three as an organizing principle. So why not play it up and have three conferences? And three teams in the Finals? Why not make a virtue of The Power of Three?
Sure, it makes scheduling the Finals a logistical nightmare, but there are some very savvy people working on things like scheduling (You think that putting CBJ v. Detroit as bookends on OSU-Michigan football weekend was a matter of chance?). They can work it through.
Of course, this is all in fun. What do you think? And can you come up with a better realignment plan?