How unfair is the new conference alignment?


Jun 30, 2013; Newark, NJ, USA; NHL commissioner Gary Bettman during the 2013 NHL Draft at the Prudential Center. Mandatory Credit: Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

This year, the most recent of Gary Bettman’s grand experiments will begin.  The league has moved teams from the old conferences and divisions and have bundled them up in a way that mostly makes sense. (Hey, Metropolitans! We’ll trade you the two Florida teams for the Rangers and Islanders, straight up!  At least then it would make sense geographically.) Gary Bettman was pleased with this new breakdown, and he sold it to the league and the players. (Then again, any time Gary Bettman says anything is ‘good for hockey’, I tend to growl like my cat whenever something enters the back yard.) With the league falling into its new four divisions, will the league imbalance favor or hinder any particular conference or division this year.

With the new alignment, the Western Conference has fourteen teams, and the East sixteen.  Thus, fifty-seven percent of the Western teams will make the playoffs(as opposed to the fifty percent in the East.) While the Boston Bruins should have no difficulty making the playoffs this year, it will make things difficult for teams that are consistently on the bubble. (It’s going to be a rough one for the fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs for sure.)

Harvard graduate student Stephen Pettigrew was one of the speakers in last months’ New England Symposium of Statistics in Sports at Harvard University. He presented a scenario that highlights the league imbalance in conferences. He ran the scenario ten thousand times under the new alignment, and found that the number nine seed in the East would have made the playoffs in the West thirty-eight percent of the time. For players who run bonus heavy in their contracts (like Jarome Iginla and Tim Thomas), having a better record than your counterparts in the West would be small comfort if you didn’t make those bonuses.

Pettigrew announced his findings and made a solid observation about the people who play in the NHL.

“The thing I’ve been thinking about is that players are motivated by money, but they’re also motivated to win the [Stanley] Cup.” said Pettigrew. “You can’t win the Cup if you don’t make the playoffs. It’s almost as if free agents should want to go West. I doubt this sort of thing will happen systematically. It’s probably pretty tough for a player to hinge his career on this sort of thing. But, if you have a better chance of making the playoffs, you have a better chance of winning the Cup.”

Seattle has recently gotten construction underway for a hockey capable arena, fueling the possibility of a franchise expansion. Perhaps the NHL will look somewhere else out West trying to find another city to balance the league out at thirty two teams. This is Gary Bettman though. He dragged out the whole Arizona Coyotes mess for years longer than necessary in order to keep his Sun belt dream alive. Maybe he has team number thirty two in mind. (Knowing him it could be anywhere from Oregon, to Idaho, to Mexico.)