Adding one team, much less two, to the National Hockey League is akin to dropping a rock into a still pond, the ripples spread across the water in every direction. Some “ripples” are readily apparent, such as the loss of one or two players from each roster in the NHL expansion draft, the financial windfall from expansion fees (to be split equally between the thirty existing teams), and the necessity of adding minor league franchises to develop prospects for the new NHL clubs. Less apparent is the possibility that expansion could mean less travel for everyone, with the Dallas Stars and their fellow Western Conference clubs benefiting most from the arrangement.
As has been widely reported, the league received franchise applications from interested parties in Las Vegas and Quebec City. Assuming both are approved, the current division and conference alignments will have to change to accommodate the NHL’s newest teams. A proposed radical change to eight four-team divisions aside, the most likely scenario for expansion would put Las Vegas in the Pacific Division and Quebec City in the Atlantic, while one Eastern team will have to move to the Central Division in order to balance the two conferences at 16 teams each. Who might the Stars’ new neighbors be? Though NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman hasn’t officially ruled out the possibility of putting Quebec City in the Western Conference, it’s simply not realistic. The only viable candidates are the two teams which migrated east just two seasons ago, Detroit and Columbus.
Of the two, the Detroit Red Wings have a longer history, a more established fan base, and would seem better able to weather a move back to the Western Conference. As the Red Wings campaigned for years to move east, Bettman is doubtless dreading the phone call he’ll have to make to owner Mike Ilitch. Changes to league scheduling might just make the call easier, though.
Due to the NHL’s current imbalance (14 teams in the West vs. 16 in the East), Eastern clubs play 30 divisional games each season, while Western teams play 29. In addition, all clubs play non-divisional opponents within their conference three times per season, for a total of 21 games in the West and 24 in the East. Finally, each team plays a home-and-home against every team in the opposing conference to round out the schedule. In balancing East and West to create four eight-team divisions, the scheduling change which makes the most sense is as follows:
- 34 games against divisional opponents (five games each vs. six teams, four games vs. one team)
- 48 games against the rest of the league (home-and-home against the other 24 teams)
For the Dallas Stars and other teams in the Central Division, the benefits of playing 16, rather than 21, games against Pacific Division clubs are obvious; for coastal teams, the reverse is also true. One or two fewer trips across two time zones will reduce hours spent in the air and cut down on player fatigue. And let’s not forget the fans: Even die-hard Stars supporters readily admit contests against the Kings, Ducks, Sharks and Canucks, which usually start at 9:00 pm or later on weeknights, are brutal. More games in the Central time zone, rather than the Pacific, should boost local TV ratings for the Stars. Many other clubs would see a similar impact. Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch should have fewer objections to moving back to the Central Division, as his team wouldn’t play any more West Coast games than they do under the current schedule. Thus, adding teams in Las Vegas and Quebec City could prove to benefit the league as well as the Dallas Stars and their fans. More teams, less travel; who knew?