NHL Realignment: Third Time is a Charm?

Gary Bettman
Gary Bettman wonders if his realignment plans will be left out in the cold…again (Kellen/Icon SMI)

What’s Wrong with the Proposal?
Clearly, realignment is no easy task for any professional sports league. Inevitably, some teams will be at a traveling disadvantage due to their geographic location. The Arizona Cardinals, for example, once played in the NFC East; the Atlanta Braves once called the NL West home. Simply put, there is no way for any league to keep all of its teams completely happy with the division in which they play. The NHL, however, faces some unique challenges compared to other leagues, especially now. With nearly one quarter of its franchises located in Canada, the league must deal with divisional travel challenges that are not faced by the other major sports. Throw in the debacle that is the Phoenix Coyotes ownership situation and producing a successful long-term realignment plan will prove to be quite a challenge.
That being said, the NHL’s new realignment plan is laughable, at best. Surely, this can’t be Gary Bettman and the league’s best effort. While they did address NHLPA concerns regarding how teams would qualify for the playoffs with a sort of wild card system in an effort to ensure the best teams would make the post-season, there are still several issues with the new plan.
For starters, the breakdown consists of 16 teams in the East and 14 in the West. Obviously, this creates a slight imbalance for the chances of teams to have an equal shot at a post-season berth. This may not be a huge concern for present purposes but, should the Coyotes relocate to the East (to Quebec City, for example), the NHL will find itself in a similar situation that it faces now with Winnipeg playing in the South East division. Worse yet, without some other sort of realignment, it could lead to 17 teams in the East versus 13 in the West. Surely the league doesn’t want to tinker with the divisions again in the next few years.
Aside from disparity in the number of teams in each conference, the divisional breakdown must leave some organizations scratching their heads. Take the Florida Panthers. Nevermind that their backyard is literally the Atlantic Ocean and they would be playing in the Central rather than, you know, the Atlantic. Consider the fact that the team would be geographically closer to taking a Puerto Rican vacation than to their second closest divisional opponent, the Detroit Red Wings. On the bright side, this means the league has gift wrapped the perfect line for General Manager Dale Tallon to woo potential free agents to South Beach: “Sure, you have to play to half-empty arenas every night but, hey, at least you’ll rack up as many frequent flyer miles as anyone else in the league. You won’t even have to deal with those nasty winters the Edmonton Oilers face.”
Third Time is a Charm
Sure, no plan will be perfect. There is simply no way to ensure every team will be happy with realignment. The trick is to minimize the damage. So, here is an alternative to the proposed plan, complete with throwback names for the divisions and conferences. There is even one name to represent each original six team to further celebrate the game’s history (though probably more synonymous with Montreal, Scotty Bowman represents Detroit because, frankly, neither Howe nor Yzerman had the same ring for naming a division). So without further ado:

Southeast (Orr) Division:
Florida, Tampa, Carolina, Nashville, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Washington
Northeast (Bowman) Division:
New Jersey, NY Islanders, NY Rangers, Boston, Buffalo, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto

Central (Sittler) Division:
Columbus, Chicago, Detroit, Dallas, Minnesota, St. Louis, Winnipeg
Pacific (Park) Division:
Colorado, Anaheim, Calgary, Edmonton, LA, Phoenix, San Jose, Vancouver

Is it perfect? Clearly, it is not. A team like Detroit, for example will likely be disappointed to still find itself in the West. However, this plan groups teams a little more closely from both geographic and time-zone standpoints while still maintaining the majority of the rivalries throughout the league. Furthermore, should Phoenix move to the East, the plan is built to allow a smoother transition. Should the Coyotes end up in a place like Quebec City or Hamilton, they could either simply move to the Central (not ideal but manageable) or a team like Toronto could slide to the Central and the Coyotes could take their place in the Northeast. This would keep the competitive balance even with 15 teams in each conference without introducing yet another realignment in the coming years. Again, the key here is to minimize the damage for everyone involved. And that is something the NHL should be very interested in after the past year.