Don’t adjust your smell-o-vision folks, that comforting odor perforating your nostrils is indeed that elusive new-league smell. Ever since the Atlanta Thrashers were re-incarnated as the Winnipeg Jets, the NHL has desperately needed a re-alignment to move a mid-western Canadian team out of the Southeast Division. The league came one step closer to that goal this week when their plans were leaked a bit early. Beyond all the hoopla, the proposal is akin to searching for a used car; you know what you need, it’s just a matter of the specs. And with any car purchase, there are going to be problems.
Some of the options came standard. Winnipeg moves to the “West” and Detroit comes over to the “East”. Bonus surprise, Columbus shifts right as well. This move, along with the call to split teams up into four divisions, makes a heck of a lot of sense travel wise. Detroit and Columbus won’t get so beat up heading to the Pacific coast multiple times a year, while Winnipeg won’t be spending parts of it’s season in sunny Florida. While the West is easily divided, the East is a bit of a head scratcher. Detroit, Boston, and Florida are all in the “Central” division, while Columbus is lumped in with Washington and New York in the Atlantic. Logic says the Blue Jackets should be riding in a Central division before Boston or Montreal. The league might be better served to create “North” and “South/Central” divisions, with the current Northeast, plus the New York/New Jersey squads coming over to comprise the ‘North”. “South/Central” would contain the current Southeast division, plus the Pennsylvania teams, and the Wings and Jackets. A New York/Boston rivalry is way stronger than Tampa Bay/Montreal. The Southeast has established rivalries and the Red Wings would only add credibility to a division with the Flyers, Penguins, and Capitals. While we’re at it, let’s just change the division titles all together. A call has been made for years to rename awards after some of the games greats. Why not simply rename divisions after them? Perhaps the Howe, Hull, Orr, and Gretzky divisions?
Speaking of rivalries, the idea of every team, playing in every arena each season is a total lemon. The Bruins have 22 teams outside of their division. That translates to 44 games eliminated from the schedule without even seeing a division rival. Teams currently see their division rival about 5 times a year. Even at 4 meetings a year, times the other 7 teams in the B’s division, that comes out to 28 games. That leaves just 10 games for non-division teams in the East, or, 3 or 4 match-ups each. Translation, these “conference” games are only slightly more valuable than out of “conference” match-ups Hockey is a game that thrives on intense rivalries, and those rivalries are born out of familiarity. In the past three years, the only Western teams to really get B’s fans riled up consistently are Chicago and Detroit, because of the Original Six history, Vancouver, due to our Stanley Cup match-up San Jose, for the booing of Joe Thornton, and sometimes Dallas, because of a melee game from 2009. Outside of that, in an age of Center Ice packages, on demand video, and the world wide web, does anyone actually have to “see” a Taylor Hall or Zach Parise in Boston to get excited about them? The NHL should go to Baseball’s old formula and only face teams in their own conference. The B’s could face division rivals 7 times a year, for 49 games, and then divide the remainder among conference rivals for 4 meetings a year. By the time the playoffs roll around, these guys will absolutely hate each other. And it will make for fantastic hockey. Who cares if the Stanley Cup finalists don’t see each other during the season? They’re not rivals anyway. Was a World Series ever meaningless before 1997? No. The Stanley Cup never will be either. As a bonus, it might actually add a little intrigue to the All-Star game, as it’d be the only time all year that some of these guys come together.
The true test of this new format lays under it’s playoff hood. Restructuring the playoffs into a divisional format is a stroke of genius. The Bruins will have to play Buffalo and Montreal every year. Philly and Pittsburgh is almost a given. L.A. and Anaheim could be an annual affair. Those rivalries bred during the season will completely fester come playoff time and explode straight through your TV sets and into your living rooms. The only thing better would be a playoff run where you have to square off against two division rivals just to get to the final four. The league’s decision to add wild cards adds an interesting component. It ensures parity and allows the best teams to get into the tournament, while keeping a team from getting in just because they finished high enough in their division. If all regular season games were played only within your conference, it would only add to the drama of these playoff match-ups.
The NHL has pulled the candy-apple red sports car off the showroom floor, now it’s up to the Player’s Association approve the test drive. Whatever the re-alignment plan becomes, will go a long way in determining the success of the league following the lockout. Everyone involved needs to pool together to come up with the best plan for the game. With a few tweaks at the mechanic’s shop, this baby could be ready to roll off the lot come September.