The NHL Appears Ready For Radical Four-Conference Realignment

A year ago, the NHL introduced a major realignment plan. Gone were the six divisions, and two conferences. In were four geographic conference, with the winners of each thrown into a final four for the Stanley Cup. The Board of Governor's approved the plan, but it was essentially scuttled by the lockout. Citing questions of travel time and unbalanced conferences, the NHLPA vetoed the changes. Really, it was a power play ahead of CBA negotiations. But now, with labor peace in our time, we appear to be ever closer to the first four-conference league.

This weekend, the CBC's Elliotte Friedman revealed the planned realignment. This time, it's being worked out through the cooperation of both owners and players. You can see the new conferences over there on the side.

There are two major changes from last year's version: Detroit and Columbus join "Eastern" conferences, instead of staying out west. Currently in the West, these teams constantly have to fly to the coast, and rack up more travel than just about anyone. The Red Wings love the proposal:

"It'd be unbelievable," Jimmy Howard said. "The travel takes years off of all our lives.

"We know how to deal with it, we've traveled back-and-forth across the United States quite a bit, but to move to the East, I think that would be a lot of fun. That would be great for our fans, too, not having to stay up till all hours of the night to watch us."

It has to be said, the Predators get kind of screwed. They had publicly expressed their interest in moving East, but get left behind in the "Central" conference. They also lose a good rivalry with Detroit, and a local one with Columbus. The Avalanche seem to be the travel losers, with no one in their conference closer than Dallas.

Leaving aside travel, the schedule has fantastic balance. Every team will play each team in its conference either five or six times, but here's the best part: everyone will have a home-and-home each year with every team outside its conference. Pittsburgh-Vancouver, in both Pittsburgh and Vancouver. Boston-L.A. on either coast.

There is one fly in the ointment, and it's the same one that dogged last year's proposal: with 30 teams, two conferences are necessarily going to have seven teams while two have eight. Four from each qualify for the postseason. This makes it harder for teams in the East to make the playoffs! Friedman says the idea of a "crossover" team, MLS-style, was discussed, where a fifth-place team with more points than a fourth-place team in a smaller conference would leapfrog to qualify. But he raises another idea—a play-in game, MLB style, between the fourth and fifth finishers in the bigger conferences.

The playoff formula is expected to be worked out, and it's not like it can't be tinkered with in a few years. It's possible an announcement comes as early as this week.

[CBC]