The results finally came in last night from the National Hockey League Board of Governors, who had a tough task on their hands, which was to decide the new realignment for the league. This was something that had been talked about for many years, but only came to the forefront of change when the Atlanta Thrashers moved to become the Winnipeg Jets, thus having a team from central Canada located in a southeast division for this season. The solution on how to fix this was not simple, which is why we see an entirely new shift, erasing the two-conference, six-division format, and going completely with four conferences. This is something that I like, however, there are a few kinks.
Take the new playoff format, for starters. Teams will make the playoffs if they finish within the top four of their conference, even if they have more points than a team in another conference, because the new conferences are not combined in overall standings like the old divisions were. This spells doom and gloom for a team like the New York Islanders, who, if you thought had a tough time now, are going to be in for a lot worse due to the addition of the Washington Capitals to what is now labeled as “Conference D”. This could very well spell the end of their existence on Long Island, because a successful product on the ice may be all but impossible. After all, what are the odds that in a given season, the Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers, New York Rangers, and New Jersey Devils will all finish lower than them? The same goes for another newcomer, the Carolina Hurricanes, who are in the midst of a terrible season. The Columbus Blue Jackets, in “Conference B”, are in an even worse predicament, as they have seven other teams to worry about as opposed to six. It is because of this that I scoff at the rumors of the NHL wanting to expand to 32 teams—a contraction to 28 would make much more sense. As for what the exact details of the playoffs will look like, we will have to wait until the spring for that decision.
If there is one good that does come from this, though, is that it does indeed become more difficult to make the playoffs. Yes, the same amount of teams go in (something I always laughed at; the prospect of more than half the teams in the league making it) but this format adds to the difficulty, because teams have to finish in the top four of their conferences now more condensed with harder teams to play against, especially so for the two eight-team conferences that encompass the westerly located teams. We could now be seeing a lot of what happens in baseball, where a team wins 90 games (the universal benchmark for a successful season) and still misses the playoffs. Who in the NHL will be the first team to get 100 points and not make it?
One must also hope that the NHL will go back to their late-1980’s/early-1990’s originality when it comes to conference names. They used to have Prince of Wales and Clarence S. Campbell in regards to overall conferences, and then divisions named after hockey legends, such as Conn Smyth, Lester Patrick, Jack Adams, and James Norris. I will suggest, that here, names of more recent legends be used for the four conference names. How about Howe, Orr, Gretzky, and Messier? Now that would be something completely original to the league, rather than the geographically named divisions that they switched to in the mid-1990’s. After all, how cool would it be to see the Edmonton Oilers raising a banner to their rafters reading, “Gretzky Conference Champions”, or the Bruins doing the same for Orr, and the Red Wings for Howe?
Overall, I really cannot find anything to complain about here, as I think they went with the only options they had, in trying to keep in consideration teams’ geographic locations as well as existing rivalry. The playoffs are certainly going to be more intense, because each team is located with their most hated rivals now, in more close-quarters combat, and are now guaranteed to face off in the first round, something that might not have happened with a division-conference format that we have had for many years now. The final details are still being worked out, but if you are a fan of a competitive team every year, there is reason to get excited. If not, then I can see the frustration you are experiencing, because the NHL just became a lot more combative.