The NHL is currently unbalanced with 31 teams after the Vegas Golden Knights were the latest team to join the growing league. With Seattle rumoured and expected to join the league as early as the 2020/21 season it may the perfect time to not only change the alignment of the league but also change the current playoff format.
The proposals for re alignment are as follows keeping in mind the theme of holding geographical positions and minimizing travel it has been suggested the current divisions would line up as follows.
The Pacific division would conspire of the Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames, Vancouver Canucks, San Jose Sharks, Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks, Vegas Golden Knights and of course Seattle. Keeping the California teams together was crucial for rivalries the same also true for Calgary and Edmonton. The notable absentee from the Pacific division is the Arizona Coyotes who for geographical reasons will be moved over to the Central division with the Blues.
The Central division will host its usual suspects them being of course the Blues, Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars, Chicago Blackhawks, Winnipeg Jets and the Minnesota Wild. With addition of the Arizona Coyotes and Detroit Red Wings to the division will provide some interesting storylines. The Blues and Blackhawks will have the chance again to renew their rivalry with the Red Wings. Although in recent times the Blues have developed rivalries with two other division teams namely the Winnipeg Jets and the departing Nashville Predators.
The Metropolitan division will see a huge change in its residents. Out of all the divisions this one in particular poses powerhouse after powerhouse. The Pittsburgh Penguins, Columbus Blue Jackets, Nashville Predators, Carolina Hurricanes, Philadelphia Flyers, Washington Capitals, Florida Panthers and the Tampa Bay Lightning will all compete for spots in the post season. This division would be as close as it gets and will be interesting to see how it would play out. This group of teams makes sense in a division geographically and also gives the Lightning and Panthers less hectic travelling within their division. It has to said that their travel is brutal even in their own division as it stands(Atlantic). They both make 2 trips each to Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto and that’s just in their division never mind the rest of their division match ups. The absence of the Predators will please most Blues fans but may upset some as the Blues were just starting to build a rivalry with them.
Finally the Atlantic division will host the Toronto Maple Leafs, Monteral Canadiens, Ottawa Senators, Buffalo Sabres, Boston Bruins, New York Rangers, New Jersey Devils and the New York Islanders. As said it makes little sense to have the Florida teams there and if Buffalo are in this division why cant teams that play in the same state join in. Another boost to this division is the renewal of “original six”rivalries with four of them present namely the Leafs, Canadiens, Bruins and the Rangers.
These divisions make sense geographically instead of previously when it was mainly concentrated on time zones. If the league does expand again with Kansas City or Quebec in the future they would slot in nicely in the Central and Atlantic respectively.
With the divisions set up this way it may be time to remodel the current format of the playoffs. There are pros and cons for keeping it as is or changing it back the format used prior (1994-2013).
The current format is known as the “Wild Card” format where the top 3 teams from the 2 divisions qualify with the two remaining going to the teams with the best records in the conference. It was initially designed to intensify divisional rivalries however it has created unfair advantage for teams in weaker divisions. Furthermore there are tougher first round match ups for stronger teams in superior teams. An example of this is that two of the strongest teams in Eastern Conference being the Penguins and Capitals always face each other in the first two rounds. This season the Maple Leafs were locked up in 3rd place in the Atlantic with six weeks left and lets you think that these teams in the first spots in the divisions are just playing out the remainder of their regular season just to see who will get home ice advantage.
However the GM’s, coaches and fans like the divisional match ups, it generates interest from fans, creates rivalries and increases attendances. When Gary Bettman was asked about the current format he believed that “the competitive balance is so intense you can easily and we’ve seen it many times, see an eighth seed beat a first seed. Just because you’ve matched up in a way where on paper one team should win over another the fact of the matter is that there’s a reason we play the games”
The format which most NHL fans would like to see back is the format where high seed plays low seed regardless of division. In each conference 1st seed v 8th seed, 2nd v 7th, 3rd v 6th and 4th v 5th. The issue with this format was it gave less meaning to divisional match ups both in the regular and post seasons. This way however the best teams can advance and are not knocked out in the 1st round and gives fans genuine interest down the stretch of the season seeing the different possible match ups they could have for their team. Having excitement for the fans is one of the most important things for the NHL, still the playoff push is exciting always but when it gets to the new format of the playoffs it becomes anti climatic as you knew who you would be playing in some cases weeks prior.
With the introduction of Seattle in 2020/21 it would be the perfect opportunity to address both these situations however as we have seen in the past what is right for the fans of the NHL and what is right for the NHL as a whole are two different things.