On Realignment and Rivalries in the NHL

So the NHL Board of Governors were able to formulate a new alignment for the league. By all accounts, it’s been well-received. It seems to address geographic issues as best as possible, including those caused by Atlanta’s move to Winnipeg, while accommodating possible future moves (Phoenix east?) Not that there haven’t been criticisms. From the loss of some rivalries to the inequities of the uneven conferences and playoff formulations, criticism has come and may even have been expected. But, while the criticisms may be valid, are there truly realistic alternatives to the proposed realignment that work in the modern NHL? Frankly, it doesn’t seem so.

A completely balanced schedule is, of course, out of the question. Not economically nor logistically feasible in a continent-wide league. An unbalanced, divisionally-weighted schedule and playoff qualification system is necessary if travel costs are to be kept in line. An unbalanced schedule where teams play divisional opponents more often has always been arguably good for the NHL. In the old 6-team league, it was easy to schedule 14 games against each of 5 opponents. Expansion changed that, and in 1967-68 teams began playing more games against division opponents than non-division. Further expansion, further mathematical permutations, but always with a bias toward a team playing divisional opponents most, in the hope of legitimizing divisional winners, maintaining rivalries, and determining playoff seeding.

The new realignment attempts to strike a balance in a number of factors. Among these is maintaining rivalries, specifically geographic ones. Divisional (now known as conference) play gets significant importance. However, governors saw a need to ensure each team played in each arena at least once per season, which will be achieved by playing non-conference opponents once at home, once away. The result is a reduction of 6 divisions to 4 conferences, 2 of 7 teams, 2 of 8, and a playoff format similar to the old divisional system.

So what are the issues? Well, the 2 main ones seem to be that it is statistically easier to be 1 of 4 playoff teams in a 7 team conference than in an 8 team conference, and that the 2 games against non-conference opponents will kill some existing rivalries. There’s truth in both points. And to both, I find myself saying “but, who cares?”

Going back to 1932-33, the NHL experienced its first unequal divisions, splitting 9 teams into 2 divisions and having the top 3 from each see playoffs. Since the 1967 expansion, inequity has been a staple of the NHL alignment and playoff structure. The defending Stanley Cup champion Toronto Maple Leafs missed the 1968 playoffs. The Leafs finished 5th in their division that year, which in seasons prior would still have meant no playoffs. But that year, 8 playoff spots existed, 4 from each of the East and West divisions. The Leafs finished 5th overall, over .500, ahead of 4 West teams that had sub-.500 records who earned playoff spots. Absolutely, under the new format Toronto did not qualify for post-season, but it can be argued the rules were too skewed to favor new teams playing a weighted schedule in an inferior division. And that was only the first example… in 1969-70 for example, the .382 Oakland Seals made the playoffs while the .605 defending champ Habs went golfing. Even in the spring of 2007, the 97 point Thrashers grabbed 3rd seed by winning their division, ahead of the Pens and Sens, who both netted 105 points, while out west, division winner Vancouver’s 105 points grabbed 3rd for themselves ahead of Nashville (110), Dallas and San Jose (107 each). The bottom line: it has long been established that the best regular season teams do not always reap the highest rewards when it comes to playoff position.

That things have long been this way is not an excuse. But, as a completely balanced schedule where everyone plays everyone say 4 times (making a 116 game regular season) is not in the cards, inequities are going to be inherent. Some teams play in weaker divisions, others play fewer 4-games-in-6-night situations, others travel fewer miles over the year. As unsatisfying as it seems, the situation simply is what it is, nearly impossible to make ‘equal’. That becomes especially true is if you intend to address the second complaint, preservation of rivalries.

Rivalries are funny things… they emerge somewhat organically. They also fade. One of the fiercest rivalries through the 1990s and into the early 2000s was Detroit and Colorado. Between the spring of 1996 and 2002, these teams faced each other in numerous hard-fought, blood-and-guts playoff battles. It was 2 teams that really hated each other. The intensity and animosity of the players, ratcheting up the competition, genuinely disliking each other. But that intensity has faded over a decade or so. I am positive that fans of the Avs and Wings still have some hate on for each other, but only 2 regular-season meetings between these teams won’t help stir the intensity any. Funny though, the Avalanche are an example illustrating how rivalries change. At one time, the Avalanche were the Nordiques, and had incredible wars on ice with les Habitants during the old Battle of Québec. That rivalry no longer exists… Montreal-Colorado is not exactly a game circled on the calendar by the fans. But without the move to Colorado, no Avs-Wings rivalry exists, as they would never have met in the playoffs except in a Final. One rivalry ended, another was born. In the new alignment, perhaps Colorado will find more intense rivalries develop with their new California-based division-mates.

The new alignment provides a number of opportunities really. Some of the old division rivalries will be rekindled. The old Patrick division is reborn (with Carolina added). Much of the old Norris also is reformed, with Minnesota, Dallas, Chicago, St. Louis and Detroit together again. Interestingly, Minnesota will see their current Wild play more often against their former franchise, the Stars. Tampa and Florida will see more of Toronto, Buffalo, Boston and Montreal, which is great for snowbirds. Meanwhile, many current rivalries remain.

I love rivalries as much as anyone. In almost 40 years of watching the game, I’ve seen some born, and some wither. As much as change is not always our preference, it is inevitable. Expansion comes, teams move (and some may yet move again). And more than ever, the players, the heroes and villains of these rivalries, move from franchise to franchise. Sometimes, the numbers just don’t sort out perfectly to create even conferences. Sometimes, that seems unfair. The new alignment, while somewhat unexpected in its configuration, seems to be an honest attempt to accommodate as many of the owners and fans as possible while addressing at least some of the issues the old alignment had.