Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Realignment once again a reality

by Bob Herpen
Phanatic Hockey Editor

For the ninth time since 1967, and for the first time since 1998, the National Hockey League decided to shake things up a bit and reconfigure the standings.

With the approval of the league's Board of Governors, and pending the green light from the NHL Players' Association, we're going back to the future.

As it had been from the time the league expanded to 18 teams thanks to Washington and Kansas City for the 1974-75 season until the six-division format was unveiled for the 1998-99 campaign to accomodate Nashville, the NHL will have four separate groupings.

Notice how I didn't say "divisions."

The spin involves trying to convince fans that this is a "radical" realignment, but don't be fooled, kids. As it exists, it is not “radical,” and only contains traces of original ideas.

So, here it is…Conference A (Anaheim, Calgary, Colorado, Edmonton, Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Jose, Vancouver)/Conference B (Chicago, Columbus, Detroit, Dallas, Minnesota, Nashville, St. Louis, Winnipeg)/Conference C (Boston, Buffalo, Florida, Montreal, Ottawa, Tampa Bay, Toronto)/Conference D (Carolina, New Jersey, NY Islanders, NY Rangers, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Washington).

There were many things wrong with the current scheduling, but nothing so wrong in the format of the divisions as having two Florida clubs in the same grouping as what used to be the Northeast Division. That pretty much trumps Dallas being placed in the Pacific for me. Everything else seems to be according to what it should be based on geography and didn’t need to be altered.

Still, that wasn’t good enough for our dear Commissioner…

“I had nothing against the existing format, and but for the move to Winnipeg we wouldn’t be looking to change it,” Gary Bettman said last night. “It wasn’t a question of being dissatisfied, but we had a number of clubs that were unhappy with the current state of affairs, and in the context of having to make a change anyway felt it was important for their needs and their concerns and their issues to be recognized. It was intended to be as much a global solution as possible.”

Right. So, instead of trying to find another way to wedge 30 teams into an 82-game schedule with six divisions, it was apparently easier to reconfigure the entire mess into something different. Ahhhh, the corporate mindset.

As far as the Flyers’ own “conference,” I had it as Devils/Rangers/Islanders/Flyers/Capitals/Hurricanes/Lightning/Panthers to keep the “Atlantic” nature of the division intact, but whatever. Having Sidney Crosby in an Eastern grouping against larger market clubs wins out due to the potential for massive ratings.

Having two groups of eight teams each and two groups of seven teams each harkens back to the NHL’s realignment prior to the 1993-94 season, when they needed to accomodate Florida and Anaheim in expansion. Then, the Eastern Conference got two divisions of seven teams each and the West got the two six-team divisions.

The eye was on possible relocations, and the issue came to fruition after only two seasons, when Quebec relocated to Denver and moved from the Northeast into the Pacific in 1995 for a 7-6-7-6 alignment.

Supposedly, with Phoenix still under the gun as far as movement goes, the 8-8-7-7 grouping still may become an 8-7-8-7 in short order.

As far as divisional play goes, each team plays the others inside its own “conference” either 5,6, or 7 times a year depending on size.

This is a very good thing, and shouldn’t have been messed with in the first place after the league decided to dump that schedule matrix three years ago. For travel considerations and plain old market value, the more in-conference games, the better. Anyone who followed the NHL from its return in 2005 until ’08 remembers the intra-division hatred built up.

Also, restoring the two-games-a-year-against-opposite-conference-clubs is a wise move. I don’t know why the league decided to shift away from this after the move to the six-division alignment (and I have shown in past realignment discussions how it could have been accomplished) but you don’t build up animus or an audience if you’re playing Detroit once and San Jose twice at random times.

For Flyers fans, this means we can once again hold out hope of having a yearly Christmas trip to the West Coast which may mean more New Year’s Eve games in Vancouver or in the Canadian Rockies. Flyers-Canucks were a part of our lives and background noise to parties in 1989, 1995-98 and 2001, but not since.

The idea of the top four clubs in each “conference” making the playoffs is a retread of the postseason situation from 1981-93. Back then, seeding was 1-through-4 within divisions, which played each other and the winners within each division played for either the Wales or Campbell Conference title and the right to meet in the Stanley Cup Finals.

That construct came under increasing fire starting in the late 1980′s, when in one year (1987-88), the Toronto Maple Leafs (who finished 4th in the Norris with 52 points) made the playoffs while Patrick Division clubs Pittsburgh (81 pts.) and the New York Rangers (82 pts.) missed out because they finished fifth and sixth.

Returning to that format is going to create a bloodbath of competition in the latter part of the season given the new emphasis on intra-divisional regular-season meetings, but it will certainly at some point leave teams above .500 in the dust and, depending on the competitive balance of the league, may actually see sub-.500 teams in one “conference” make it while over-.500 teams may not in another.

In later rounds, the four “conference” winners will face each other. In effect, you may have one series end up Washington-San Jose and the other Detroit-Boston. That’s also a familiar predicament.

After the NHL absorbed the four WHA clubs for the 1979-80 season, the league seeded playoff teams 1-through-16 like the NCAA Tournament, with no re-seedings and based purely on overall record. That went on for the 1980 and ’81 postseasons. That’s how the Flyers and Islanders ended up playing for the Cup despite playing in the Patrick Division together. So there were things that occurred like a Rangers-Kings second-round series. But back then, the first round was a best-of-five instead of seven.

Should a cross-continent series happen, I sincerely hope the NHL mandates (and the NHLPA accepts) an automatic 2-3-2 format like which existed in the Western Conference in the 90s when San Jose played Detroit and Toronto in their ’94 playoff run. It just makes sense to eliminate the exhaustive travel.

Like Robert Moses and his near-total control over the construction of highways throughout the five boroughs of New York back in the 1950s and ’60s, all we can do at this point is sit back, wait for the announcements to come and both praise and criticize the results. This is happening, despite all the evidence in previous articles across the internets that the existing ways could be altered without this much trouble.

I also had it wrong.

I thought (with plenty of good prior evidence) that 30 owners — whose main concern will always be protecting their own investment — couldn’t make up their minds in the majority to push through something as disruptive as the new realignment plan.

Either this is the dawning of a new day in terms of the shift in BOG philosophy, or there are enough of the old guard remaining who recognize the need to survive and adapt by going along with the new way.

What does that tell us? That after all these years, it's finally sinking in about television revenues and maximizing the best and longest-lasting rivalries. It also tells us that the NHL is betting the farm (again) on the East Coast.

Pittsburgh-Washington. Flyers-Rangers. Flyers-Capitals. Rangers-Penguins. Bruins-Canadiens. Canadiens-Maple Leafs. Maple Leafs-Sabres. And with Quebec still a viable option for relocation, it opens up the possibility of the newNordiques-Canadiens and Bruins-newNordiques throwdowns.

It also tells us that whoever reported that Detroit had significant sway in the process due to some long-ago verbal promise from the league, wasn't reading the situation correctly.

Yes, Red Wings-Blackhawks/Red Wings-Stars/Flames-Oilers and Ducks-Kings are still on the docket, but how much exposure will these clashes get without the requisite Golden Children? The further West one goes, the fact still remains that their only shot at gaining ground in viewership and interest, is a good showing on an NBC weekend slot.

But that's not so bad when you factor in how much money the NHL has invested in NBC and its soon-to-be-renamed Versus for the next 10 years. The final justification for the expense -- and the only real way to turn a profit is -- to feature the sure things with a bit of spice thrown in for good measure.

And while the league is smart enough to conceptualize in a different way to mess around with the standings, it's also smart enough to know how not to mess around with millions on the line.

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