The NHL just experienced one of the worst work stoppages in the history of the game. Sure, the 2004-05 work stoppage wiped out an entire season, but the timing of this most recent lockout couldn’t have been worse. A team from Los Angeles had just won the Stanley Cup, and anytime you get a winner in L.A., your in for some real popularity.
But the NHL in it’s infinite wisdom, decided they didn’t want to be popular and got themselves into a bitter lockout that has shortened the season and killed the momentum it had going.
Not all is lost though, as some careful re-organizing and possibly some expansion can put the NHL right back on track and get it back to being one of the most popular sports in America.
NHL realignment has been discussed in the past but nothing has come of it yet. While it seems like a mundane thing, realignment might be the saving grace hockey needs to make sure its relevant and prominent in homes all over North America.
The problem with the current system is this: teams like the Minnesota Wild and Chicago Blackhawks are currently in the Western Conference, meaning most games the teams play are on a west coast schedule and don’t start until well after 9pm local time.
Die-hards are no doubt watching, but it’s hard to attract average fans when a majority of the games don’t start until well into the evening. There’s also a matter of rivalries not existing, as the Wild’s biggest rival at the moment is the Vancouver Cancucks, a west coast Canadian team that hardly considers a team from Minnesota it’s rival.
Realignment would allow the Wild more geographical rivalries with teams like Chicago, Winnipeg and St. Louis as right now only the Blackhawks and Blues sit in the same division. Other teams like Washington and Winnipeg are odd teams out in divisions full of teams geographically located near one another.
Winnipeg, which sits less than 1,000 miles from Minnesota and Chicago, are in a separate conference with no team sitting closer than 1,500 miles.
The NHL tried a plan to fix this a few years ago but the deal was ultimately never went anywhere after approval and hasn’t been really talked about since then. The plan in 2011 that never went anywhere would have broken the NHL into four conferences and drastically altered the Stanley Cup playoffs.
In the 2011 plan, the new conferences would have aligned like so:
Toronto Maple Leafs
New York Rangers
St. Louis Blues
New York Islanders
San Jose Sharks
Columbus Blue Jackets
Tampa Bay Lightning
New Jersey Devils
Detroit Red Wings
Note how the teams are more geographically aligned than they are now. Personally, I’d have moved around the Predators, Maple Leafs and a few other teams but NHL expansion would fix a lot of problems.
The new playoff system in this format would be to have the top four teams within each conference play each other, eventually getting four conference champions. These four teams would play, whittling the field down to just two teams in the Stanley Cup Finals. Notice how in this format, rivalries becomes heated as you play conference, or “division” opponents to get into the playoffs and then play them again in the playoffs.
This is how the old system used to be and it was the source of some major rivalries back in the day.
The whole point of realignment would be to cut down on player travel time in between games, but an underlying plus would be the fan benefits from having games scheduled at reasonable times against teams that have the chance to create real rivalries. It’s been rumored to have happening before with nothing coming out of it, so it’s still early to get our hopes up.
But if NHL realignment does happen, it’s not just the players or fans who benefit from it, the sport as a whole becomes a lot stronger.