NHL

Analysis: Possibilities for NHL Realignment

| by Sports Nickel

Sometimes you just have to get away from it all, unplug completely and give yourself a true break from the world.

I came back from a camping trip over the Memorial Day weekend that took me completely out of the loop for three full days. I came back to a plugged-in world where some essential truths had irreparably altered — Jim Tressel was no longer the coach of the Buckeyes after resigning amidst growing scandal and intrigue in Columbus. Some truths were inevitably confirmed — Barcelona was the new Champions League kings after dismantling Manchester United at Wembley in a regal display befitting the club containing the lion’s share of the World Cup champion squad along with the world’s best player.

Some tough lessons had been learned — J.R. Hildebrand abdicated his coronation with a rookie mistake into the final turn, handing Dan Wheldon the jug of milk in the winner’s circle and riding the wall to runner-up status.

Some things had stayed the same. Novak Djokovic just kept winning, still undefeated in 2011 as he marched through the draw at the French Open. So did Sebastian Vettel, who with his win in Monaco has taken five of the first six races of the Formula 1 season and is running away with the title before the season even really begins. And Alberto Contador completed his dominance of the Giro d’Italia with a top-three finish in the Sunday time trial into Milan, winning another grand tour whose ultimate place in the record books remains in doubt as the Court of Arbitration for Sport vacillates in its decision on his fate in the clenbuterol case to end all clenbuterol cases.

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And you know what? I was perfectly happy reading about all these things after the fact, only getting a taste of the energy that had dissipated with time and the next round of the cycle. I had no qualms about having taken my three steps back in the lather-rinse-repeat news cycle. The incessant drone perpetuates itself to the point where sometimes I think the juiced-up phone left charging on my nightstand is broadcasting news from the vortex via osmosis in those few hours of sleep I manage to soak up most nights. Sure, we were left huddled around a fire when it was dry and around the pop-up enclosure when the omnipresent rainclouds decided to drop their payload once again. But despite the meteorological conspiracy on the first long weekend I’d had away in a long time, I managed to come back with a clearer mind. And though I was sore as hell after multiple nights sleeping close to the ground, I was nevertheless refreshed after having stepped out of the info-river.

The stories seemed interesting, no doubt, but as I read through things the big-picture stories seemed few and far between. Tressel’s departure was a long time coming, and the revelations are nothing new for anybody that has followed college football with any fervent depth and for any appreciable length of time. Hildebrand simply wasn’t destined to be the first rookie driver to take the Brickyard in its centennial campaign. And all the winners who had just kept on winning brought little in the way of shock value.

How will the NHL redraw its lines? One of these three options seems most likely...

The resonant story upon my return, at least for this child of the snow and the ice, was that Canada was getting a seventh NHL team once again. After the sale of the Thrashers, Atlanta was a hockey orphan once more as a second major-league franchise packed its bags and left Georgia for the Great White North. Many writers more dialed in than myself have already chimed in on the subject, but the one thing that seems most interesting to me is the way divisions will now align with another decidedly Western team in the league.

Next year the Winnepeg Jets/insert name here franchise will play out a regular Atlanta schedule as the oddest possible member of the “Southeast Division”. (For some reason the NHL is of the mindset that the summer doesn’t afford the necessary time to manipulate schedules to prevent such great travel disparity.) But after that realignment is destined to take place. And with my mind firmly on the future while simultaneously giddy and itchy as my personal playoff beard provided some semblance of karmic assistance in the Canucks’ late-game heroics against Boston in the first game of the Stanley Cup finals, now is the time to think about the best way to create new conference and divisional structure for hockey.

The simplest solution would be merely geographical. Where do the best fault lines draw? That is the most vexing problem, with clusters of teams that naturally match up against one another and wide spaces in between, especially for the Western Conference. After staring at the map for a while, three options appear most viable:

OPTION 1: PATH OF LEAST RESISTANCE

This requires little lost sleep for the NHL, with the rivalries of the past decade for the most part maintained. Under this option, three simple shifts realign things with little disturbance to the landscape as it existed before the sale.

The newest Canadian franchise is given domestic brethren with whom they can naturally rival, entering the Northwest Division and forming a bloc with Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and the token American presence in Colorado. Under this scenario the Minnesota Wild would shift from the Northwest to the Central Division, where they can reprise the days of the Norris Division when the old North Stars were competing against the Blackhawks and Blues and Red Wings with regularity. And to replace Atlanta in the Southeast and clear room for Minnesota’s move, the Nashville Predators would move to the Eastern Conference and a more natural geographic fit.

This scenario allows for three divisions to shift with little interruption of normalcy, the other three left completely untouched by the cutting. Would it shock me if our standings looked like this in the near future?:

PACIFIC
NORTHWEST
CENTRAL
SOUTHEAST
ATLANTIC
NORTHEAST

Anaheim

Dallas

Los Angeles

Phoenix

San Jose

Calgary

Colorado

Edmonton

Vancouver

Winnipeg/MB

Chicago

Columbus

Detroit

Minnesota

St. Louis

Carolina

Florida

Nashville

Tampa Bay

Washington

New Jersey

NY Islanders

NY Rangers

Philadelphia

Pittsburgh

Boston

Buffalo

Montreal

Ottawa

Toronto

No, I wouldn’t be surprised in the least. In fact, it might be more shocking to see something more varied than this. But Gary Bettman has floated ideas as radical as shifting Detroit from the Western Conference to the East, so I kept going to see what might seem at first glance more convoluted but upon longer examination might just be the smarter move…

OPTION 2: THE DETROIT SOLUTION

If Gary Bettman is intent on seeing the Red Wings move conferences — and it could make for an interesting power shift — the divisions will become much more malleable. A move of such import would likely be with the intention of reviving the old Detroit-Toronto rivalries of yesteryear. In such a scenario Nashville would remain in the Central Division, and pretty much every other division would see restructuring.

Once again Winnipeg’s franchise would land in the Northwest Division. This time, though, it would be Minnesota instead of Colorado remaining in the division. Working in a more salient geographical pattern, Colorado would be included in the Pacific Division (Denver being a more sensible representative of the Pacific than Dallas, as the Buffaloes and Longhorns can attest) and Dallas would move to the Central to take Detroit’s place in that division.

In the Eastern Conference, that would leave things open for Detroit and Toronto to form the axis of a Midwest Division of sorts encompassing them along with the Penguins, Sabres and Senators. In such a scenario it would be a pure cannibalism of traditional division affiliations. Washington would be joined by Philadelphia in the Atlantic Division with the other remnants of the Southeast, and the New York/New Jersey trio would turn northward to join Boston and Montreal in the Northeast Division. It would look something like this:

PACIFIC
NORTHWEST
CENTRAL
SOUTHEAST
ATLANTIC
NORTHEAST

Anaheim

Colorado

Los Angeles

Phoenix

San Jose

Calgary

Edmonton

Minnesota

Vancouver

Winnipeg/MB

Chicago

Columbus

Dallas

Nashville

St. Louis

Carolina

Florida

Philadelphia

Tampa Bay

Washington

Buffalo

Detroit

Ottawa

Pittsburgh

Toronto

Boston

Montreal

 

NY Islanders

NY Rangers

This would naturally change the dynamic of many rivalries — both the modern and the historic. Two traditional rivals would play with greater frequency, leaving just the Blackhawks to represent the Original Six in the Western Conference. Despite the more radical redistricting, it would result in lowered travel time and costs for pretty much every team, allowing most to live within one time zone instead of just for the staid traditional power base.

OPTION 3: GEOGRAPHICAL SOLUTIONS

But if the NHL is going to go redrawing things radically, they might as well go all-out on the project. To spread some of the Canada love more between the divisions, Vancouver would shift to the Pacific Division. Colorado and Minnesota would join the other Western Canadian teams in the Northwest. The Central is where it gets interesting, as not Detroit but Toronto shifts conferences and becomes Western. In this scenario not one but two teams would move from West to East.

Dallas and Nashville, two bastions of southern pride, stop deluding themselves and become part of the Southeast Division. Washington returns to its rivalries in the Atlantic, and only the Islanders are forced to move to the Northeast under the restructuring. How would that one look?:

PACIFIC
NORTHWEST
CENTRAL
SOUTHEAST
ATLANTIC
NORTHEAST

Anaheim

Los Angeles

Phoenix

San Jose

Vancouver

Calgary

Colorado

Edmonton

Minnesota

Winnipeg/MB

Chicago

Columbus

Detroit

St. Louis

Toronto

Carolina

Dallas

Florida

Nashville

Tampa Bay

New Jersey

NY Rangers

Philadelphia

Pittsburgh

Washington

Boston

Buffalo

Montreal

NY Islanders

Ottawa

Under this plan m0re shifting would occur, but geography would be best served and made as equitable as possible in what is admittedly a fractious hockey landscape.

Whichever plan the NHL goes with, though — whether identical to or at least in a similar in intention — it will be with one of these three sentiments in mind. So look out, because after a year toiling in the Southeast this newly relocated franchise in Manitoba is going to be more than ready to pass the buck to another team to go play an Eastern Conference schedule…

Parsing the Possibilities for NHL Realignment is a post originally from: SportsNickel.com - In Sports We Trust