For all the grief that Ken Dryden received as president of the Toronto Maple Leafs, he accomplished this: he ultimately was successful in getting the Leafs moved from the Western to the Eastern Conference, where they now frolic routinely with rivals Montreal, Boston and neighboring Buffalo. From a purely logistical standpoint, the Detroit Red Wings, like the inconsequential Columbus Blue Jackets, are an Eastern time zone team playing in the West and would like to make the same move. Still, Detroit GM Ken Holland, a big picture guy, realizes that his team is a moneymaker for the western clubs that benefit from all those winged-wheel No. 9 and No. 19 jerseys in the crowd when the Red Wings visit. So, they will take one for the league if they can get a revamped, balanced schedule, which would reduce travel.
Anyway, with any realignment there must be playoffs within the division. Rivalries are rooted in geographical proximity and playoff animus, which makes divisional playoffs the driving force of this exercise.
Think Battles of Alberta. The Chuck Norris Division playoffs. Montreal vs. Boston every spring. Make the top four teams play their way out of the division into a conference final.
While the uncertainty of Phoenix's fate makes this a tricky exercise, we'll assume the status quo and divide the league into two divisions of eight and two others of seven.
(In a perfect world, Detroit trumps Columbus here, but, alas, the Wings must stay in the West. Pittsburgh and Philadelphia are also split, which is sad, but not a deal breaker. Flyers-Rangers is a better rivalry.)
This exercise in divisional realignment helped me realize three things:
Rivalries may grow during the regular season, but they turn nasty during the playoffs, and making teams fight their way out of their division every year will quickly create some great hockey. That's why I theoretically favor the four-division plan based largely on geography because fuel prices are high. (A team source once told me that it costs more than $20,000 just to start up the jet.)
I'd like to see divisional opponents play each other six times and do a home-and-home with every other team. But the math does not allow for that because clubs in an eight-team division consequently would have to play 86 games, and let's face it, the season is long enough as it is. Perhaps the larger divisions can cut four games within their conferences, but that seems like it would be unfair. One possible fix would be contracting or expanding the league by two teams. Just saying. But that's not happening anytime soon, so right now, I would expect the Band-Aid fix (swap Detroit or Columbus with Winnipeg), at least until the league knows exactly where it will be for the foreseeable future. (Ahem, Phoenix.) But because it's fun to put out possibilities, here's one:
(I know Philadelphians will take great umbrage with being deemed "the South", but I'm from New Jersey, and anything below Trenton might as well be tobacco farms, as far as I'm concerned.)
Piecing this puzzle together without combining regions is almost impossible, so I'd put the teams from the south and center of the U.S. together. Road trips to the other regions would involve limited travel. I'd keep the Canadian franchises in two divisions and move the Capitals in with the Penguins, so Crosby and Ovechkin can battle more frequently. Teams would not play the first postseason round within their respective divisions.
At best, division names have been a confusing mix of geographic demarcation and odd honorifics. Did they really name one after Chuck Norris? What position did Clarence Campbell play? In which hockey city did the Prince of Wales reside? Still, the game is bound by its history and traditions, so if the newly aligned league is to have four divisions, why not honor some of the very greatest players the game has seen?
(But wait, we put the Red Wings in the Orr Conference, right? Yes, but with this alignment it's tough to leave Orr or Lemieux out of the honors, and Montreal deserves to be in a division named for one of its francophone greats, so Howe and Detroit are arbitrarily separated.)
Here's what I think should happen next year. Simply swapping Winnipeg and Columbus makes the most sense until the fate of Phoenix is decided. If the NHL already "knows" what that fate will be, then it can go further.
It will be a real shame to lose that thriving Winnipeg-Tampa Bay geographical divisional rivalry, but something has to be done. The men who sign the checks for those who finish their checks are going to vote on moving some teams around, and possibly reducing the number of divisions from six to four "conferences." While we can't think of a more fitting hockey environment than Pebble Beach to get down to this serious business, we have faith in the wisdom of the Guvs, but we'll chime in with our suggestions, too.
Come on, this is a no-brainer. Absolutely, it would be great to get this band back together. Five eastern time-zone teams and one in the central, so the travel is short and the rivalries all fierce. Several games per season with retro uniforms would mint money. Are you telling me fans and media wouldn't eat this up? They would. This would be bigger than the reunion of original KISS band members in 1996. Do it. No, do it. Do it.
I've kept the Flyers and Penguins in the same division, and added Washington to get that Crosby-Ovechkin rivalry back up to snuff again. I've also put the Sabres, Devils and Islanders together to keep a nice New York/New Jersey thing going. Tampa Bay vs. Carolina hasn't been a bad rivalry over the years.
First off, Ottawa, no whining about the travel. Your countrymen out west have been making long flights around North America for years and they've done just fine. Your turn. Besides, now you're in a division with four other Canadian teams, plus three upper-midwest, close-enough-to-Canada-to-be-honorary-citizens franchises. This will work well.
With Florida in here, a nice rivalry with Nashville will develop. OK, maybe not, but the cities are close and this is still a good idea. Fans from these cities are all in a good mood coming to games because the weather is always great. With some good young teams in this division, so will the hockey.