It is not a question of if there will be a division realignment in the 2012- 2013 season, it is a question of how big that realignment will be.
Gary Bettman has proposed a drastic change to the division/conference format. In his plan, the divisions would shrink in number, 6 overall to 4, but grow in number of teams, 5 to 7 and 8. The Western Conference would be made up of two divisions, the Pacific and Midwest. The Pacific division would have 7 teams, while the Midwest would sport 8. The Eastern Conference would be made up of the South division and the East division. The East would have 8 teams and the South would have 7.
The plan calls for each team to play division opponents 6 times, other division (but same conference) teams 4 times, with the rest going to the opposing conference teams. Best four teams in each division move on to the playoffs.
Here is one of the rumored division breakdowns floating around:
*If the Coyotes move (as expected) some juggling may continue depending on where they land. If it is Quebec, Coyotes could join East division, Devils could move to South, Pittsburgh could move to Midwest, Avalanche could move to the Pacific. But that is another bridge to cross at another time.
So that is how the new Bettman realignment plan looks, but how will it work?
With uneven divisions, the NHL schedulers will have to get very creative. For example let's run the current scheduling model on these divisions (as described above).
Let's say you are the L.A. Kings. You play in the Pacific. As of now the Pacific boasts the PHX team (which could change), and consists of 7 teams. You play each division rival 6 times. 6x6= 36. So 36 of your 82 games are against your division. You play the other division teams in your conference 4 times each. 4x8=32. So 32 of your 82 games are against the other division in your conference. Which makes it 68 of your 82 games in conference. The remaining 14 games are spread out over the 15 teams in the other conference.
But let's say you are not the L.A. Kings. Let's say you are the Buffalo Sabres. You play in the East, which has 8 teams. You play each division rival 6 times. 6x7= 42. So 42 of your 82 game schedule (over half the season) are games against your division. You play the other division teams in your conference 4 times each. 4x7=28. So 28 of your 82 games are against the other division in your conference. Which makes 70 of your 82 games in conference. The remaining 12 games are spread out over the 15 teams in the other conference.
Do you see the problem? The Kings will have less divisional games than the East division and the Midwest division teams will have. The Sabres will have less cross conference play than the Florida Panthers. And so on.
The point being: Is it really fair to make some teams play 36 division games and other teams 42?
Furthermore, because of the uneven divisions, the schedule is not equal for all teams. Division strength has always been a problem, there will always be strong divisions and there will always be weak divisions. But this format will take the natural advantages of divisional placement and multiple them greatly, creating bigger gaps between teams based solely on what division they play in.
For example, if you have the weaker division in the conference and that division is also an 8 division team you hold a sizable scheduling advantage. You play your weaker division for over half of your schedule. That gives you a great chance to pile up the points. Not only that but you play the harder division less than you would if they had 8 teams and you had 7. This means that you can avoid a possible few more losses than if the roles were reversed.
Of course, this is only one scenario. There are more with their own odds, like the weak division of 7 teams, strong division of 7 teams, strong division of 8 teams.
But even more so, the unevenness of the division teams cause another problem: playoff berth. With this new layout, the top four teams from each division move on. For one division that simply means having more points than three other teams. For another team that means having more points than four other teams. And take this simple logic, that it is harder to beat out four teams than three, and compound it by looking at the fact that the 8 team division will be playing more games in division, which means more games have the stronger influence on the playoff picture, and all the other little intricacies that un-level the playing field.
What happens when you do this, is that you find that a lucky draw into the right division with the right number of teams can exponentially increase your ability to make the playoffs. In the current 6 division league, every team plays the same number of division games and has the same number of teams in their division. Which helps keep the odds more even.
What if the NHL would just tweak the number of divisional games for the 7 team divisions? That way each division plays 42 divisional games a year. Newer reports suggest that has been brought up.
Well if that is the case, there are still holes, with the same fundamental problems. One of these problems is that the fans may not want to see over half their hometown teams schedule being set aside for 6 or 7 other teams.
Another problem is that there still is an inherent unevenness with the divisions. One division has to play each team 7 times while another has to play each divisional team 6 times. And with the same playoff berth system, the advantages and disadvantages are still there. If you have a lower number of teams fighting for a playoff spot in your division, it's easier. Some divisions will enjoy the fact that they have to play each division team 7 times, as it will give them a better chance. Still other teams will be hurt by this difference.
What this adjustment tells us is that, either way you slice it, in this format there will be significantly less continuity and uniform than in the current 6 division format. Fans want continuity, they want balance and the same rules for everybody. The format, with adjustment or without, does not preach that at all.
Some other things must be considered by the NHL if they truly are considering using this format.
One of these things is the added pressure on contraction to 28 teams that this new format will create. It is not farfetched to believe that these uneven divisions and schedules will create a cry for an even number of teams in each of the divisions. They can either go down to 28 teams or up to 32. Though Bettman has a history of expansion, it is hard to believe they can keep the Coyotes franchise around (in Phoenix or elsewhere) and add two more.
It is more plausible that two teams would get shown the door. The Coyotes are of course the front runner, and the Lightning, Panthers are prime for the second spot (as painful as it is for me to say).
Besides the fans losing more teams to root for, losing more teams is not something that the NHLPA will be pleased about. When teams fold and are not replaced, players lose their jobs, less job means more competition for the players. And with more supply and less demand, players will get a little less salary.
Not that I am against players getting less money, but the repercussions to the NHLPA may affect the Collective Bargaining Agreement and, thus, the league as a whole.
Bettman, the champion of expansion in the last 15-20 years, needs to consider moves that will protect what is left of his southern experiment. Atlanta has already gone down in flames (no pun intended) and Coyotes would already be relocated if it wasn't for the millions and millions given to them by the NHL and the city of Glendale. If he puts this plan into action, he may be forced to give up two teams as collateral in a few years. Something that would mar his legacy for expansion.
Simply put, the new alignment may create a more regular occurrence of lopsided conferences--weak teams making the playoffs when they have no business making the playoffs. This is something the NHL and Bettman have been trying to discourage since the lockout. They have instituted the shootout in efforts to create more parity in the league. This realignment would go against that notion.
Thankfully there are more possibilities for realignment. A simple shuffle of teams in the current format will achieve the same goal: keeping teams in proximity to their divisional teams.
Here is my proposed shuffle:
This division is too rich with rivalries to change around. The Devils/Rangers, the Penguins/Flyers, the Flyers/Devils, the Penguins/Rangers, the Flyers/Rangers and so on.
Again, this division also already promotes the division rivalry Bettman says is the key reason for the new alignment. Bruins/Canadiens, Leafs/Canadiens, Sabres/Canadiens.
Not too many rivalries as of now, but most of these teams are young compared to other franchises. The division presented here has very good proximity and that helps inspire rivalries, and is good for travel.
Sharks, Kings, Ducks all have a natural distain for each other. Three in-state rivalries.
Red Wings and Blues used to have great playoff series against each other, and with the Blues poised to compete again, that rivalry will reignite. The Blackhawks and Wings also have a pretty good rivalry.
Four Canadian teams in one division always means good rivalries for fans to watch.
This allows for geography and rivalry to be accounted for while at the same time keeping the balanced divisions and the more balanced scheduling.
A balanced schedule not only levels the playing field for the teams, but gives the fans a little more variety. The fans might not want to see 42 games against the same 7 teams every year. They may not want only 12 games a year against cross conference teams (not all of those 12 infront of the home town crowd mind you).
I am not sure that this format is the best option for the league and its fans. I believe their is a better way to create more rivalries, but to also keep even divisions. Even divisions are key to a smooth schedule and parity within conferences.
Gary Bettman has been known to make big changes to the league. The expansions, the rule changes, the shootout and now possibly this realignment. However, how many of his innovations has worked out well? A few of his expansion teams are in dire need of better ownerships, some are walking a thin line and the Thrashers are no more.
As far as the rule changes go, they have not brought in the massive amounts of casual fans that Bettman said it would, and has alienated some die hards. The same with the shootout. Diehards like tradition, like continuity, Bettmans realignment does not speak to that.
What the NHL Board of Governors, the NHL GMs and the NHLPA need to ask themselves, and ask Gary Bettman, is if this really is the best plan of action for the NHL and the fans, or if this is Mr. Bettman's attempt to reach out to a casual fan that either doesn't exist or doesn't care.