For years teams like Detroit, Columbus, and Winnipeg have complained about excessive travel schedules that have forced them to cross multiple time zones to meet divisional opponents. Fans in mid-west cities wanting to see their clubs play teams like Anaheim, LA, or Vancouver would stay up to all hours of the night, due to the time difference. It just wasn’t practical, and may have even been a competitive disadvantage. So NHL officials have recently gone about developing and implementing a new system. A system in which geographical location plays more of a role in divisional alignment. It’s far from perfect, but it’s a start.
One of the biggest problems with realignment is that it has created disparity in the number of teams in each conference. There are now 16 Eastern Conference teams (8 per division) and just 14 Western Conference clubs (7 per division). Under the new format, the top three teams in each division qualify for the playoffs. So having two less teams out west means that the top three spots will be slightly easier to attain. There are also two wildcard spots in each conference. That means the remaining 10 teams in the east will be battling for the final two spots, versus only 8 out west. Under the old format, the division winners in each conference would occupy the top three seeds. Then the 12 remaining clubs (in each conference) would battle for the final five playoff spots. Not only is there now a disparity, but it becomes much more difficult to qualify for the playoffs under the new arrangement.
It appears, however, that the 14/16 disparity was done on purpose to allow for the possibility of expansion or relocation. For years the Phoenix Coyotes have struggled to find a stable owner, and have subsequently been run by the NHL itself. This has led to much speculation about the ‘Yotes potentially moving to somewhere like Quebec City. But, just a few days ago, the Coyotes were finally sold and it now appears as if the franchise will be staying put for the time being.
With the New Jersey Devils currently heading towards bankruptcy, it appears as if they could be the NHL’s next target for relocation. However, it’s likely that the league will take over ownership duties, much like they did in Phoenix, in order to keep the Devils in Newark. So that leaves the door open for expansion. Along with Quebec City, the most popular City brought up in possible expansion scenarios is Seattle. But adding one team would not even the conferences so it’s likely that when the NHL expands it will include two new franchises.
Moving back to realignment, let’s take a look at the new divisions. Under the old format, the league consisted of six divisions (three per conference). The Flyers were in the Atlantic Division with the Rangers, Islanders, Penguins, and Devils. In the current format there will only be four divisions (two per conference). Even though there is still an Atlantic Division, none of the former Atlantic clubs are found in it. This decision by the NHL is especially puzzling when you consider only two teams (Boston and Florida) in the “new Atlantic” actually border the Atlantic Ocean.
Anyway, the Flyers new division (division D in the chart at the top) is now known as the “Metropolitan Division”. The Metro, as it’s now referred to, consists of Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, New York (Rangers and Islanders), New Jersey, Washington, Carolina, and Columbus. The new “Atlantic Division” (division C in the chart) will include Boston, Buffalo, Detroit, Montreal, Ottawa, Tampa Bay, Toronto, and Florida.
Out west, there will now be the “Central” and “Pacific” divisions. The Central Division (division B) is made up of Chicago, Dallas, Colorado, St. Louis, Nashville, Winnipeg, and Minnesota. Meanwhile, the Pacific Division (division A) includes Calgary, Edmonton, Los Angeles, San Jose, Vancouver, Phoenix, and Anaheim.
To most fans of Eastern conference teams, the old divisional alignment was far superior. But it was the Western conference teams that were suffering due to excessive travel, even for divisional games. Teams like Detroit and Columbus make much more geographical sense in the Eastern conference. While Winnipeg will benefit greatly from not having to play in the Southeastern division anymore. And the current disparity of teams leaves the door open for expansion, something the league has been exploring for the past several years. Change is never easy, and there are plenty of kinks to be worked out, but the NHL’s realignment appears to be a healthy solution for the league overall. As for the Flyers, the road to the postseason may have become a bit more challenging but it’s nothing this franchise can’t overcome.