As many of you know, Winnipeg now has a hockey team, as the Atlanta Thrashers relocated there officially, back about a month ago. Before their first pick in the Draft, they Decided to rename it, the Jets, much to the delight of Winnipeg hockey fans everywhere (Yay nostalgia!). This however, puts the league in an imbalanced situation - one that they really haven't had much of for an entire decade.
Atlanta was, appropriately, a member of the Southeast Division, in the Eastern Conference. With the fact that the relocation to Winnipeg happened after NHL teams had to submit their upcoming venue schedules to the NHL in order to schedule the 2012-2013 season, they must remain in the Southeast division for an entire season. Winnipeg, which is about 2 hours drive north of the 48th parallel, is therefore going to end up being some 2000 miles away from their divisional opponents - one of the most drastic travelling distances for interdivisional play since the days when the old Norris Division had the LA Kings matching up with Pittsburgh, Detroit, Montreal, and Washington on a regular basis.
The NHL currently has it's divisions set up more-or-less, geographically. Winnipeg, therefore will make more sense in the Northwest division, where its Western Canadian rivals, as well as closest rival in Minnesota reside. this means that a team in the Western Conference will have to be realigned in the Eastern Conference in order to balance out the conferences in their current format, or there will need to be a dramatic and complete realignment of the divisions in 2012.
Detroit, Columbus and Nashville are the most obvious Candidates to go east if the current situation is retained. Detroit, which is located in the Eastern time zone has been outcrying for years to be moved to the Eastern Conference for travel reasons, and Columbus has asked for such a move as well, as the city is located even further east of Detroit (only about 3 hours out of Pittsburgh, PA). Nashville, having more in common as a Southern State than the other two teams, would make more sense than the other two geographically, and culturally, if it was relocated into the "Southeast Division" if it remains as such - regardless of it's location in the more western friendly Central Timezone.
Therefore, the ratio of Eastern time zone teams to Pacific, Mountain, and Central time zone teams creates an issue. If you move one of Detroit, Columbus, or Nashville into the east, the other two teams will be unhappy and feel alienated by the NHL. There will be some animosity at the Board of Governors table for years to come over the decision. The NHL does not much care to deal with such conflicts, and therefore will try to find a more diplomatic solution that will make most everyone happy. They have announced that they will make a more drastic change to the divisions starting in the 2012-2013 season.
Reports in the last week have the NHL proposing a return to 4 NHL divisions with 2 divisions per conference - like it was before the 1997-1998 season ended. This sounds like a potentially good concept that would mean more competition for division titles, and a possibility lead more rivalries to sprout (with that said, potentially less serious than they would be in a tighter division race among fewer teams). However, there's another issue. What's proposed is that there be EIGHT teams in each Eastern Conference division, and that there would be just SEVEN per Western Conference division, and thus, give us a bit of a MLB-style league imbalance. 16 teams in one conference fighting for 8 playoff spots, and 14 teams in the other fighting for the same amount.
Now, in my eyes, as the fan of a Western Conference team in San Jose, I feel this is, relatively 'EVEN' if you will. Eastern teams would not have to travel outside their timezone even remotely as often, whereas Western teams are split into 3 time zones still, and will travel further, far more often.. This means they have higher travel costs, as well as higher player fatigue throughout the season. Financially, the Eastern clubs have it much easier, and the players have less travel fatigue. Therefore, if there's more competition among them for the same amount of spots, it makes up for the disparity in travel costs that a Western team would have to make up for.
Regardless of such a complete and utterly biased opinion, I do understand that it's still going to be deemed unfair by some of the people who are actually in charge - especially being the majority of the NHL's teams will still be located in the east, and they will carry a bit of a political advantage in BoG voting on such matters.
That said, with the new found popularity and profitability of the league since the lockout, this uneven conference balance could mean the opening for possible expansion into new western markets to even everything out in the coming years, but regardless of that, you have to start somewhere if the NHL's going to follow this proposal(we'll leave league expansion talk for another time).
Drew Remenda offered his take on the situation a few days ago in his blog. His proposal to realign the league according to their proposed format is as follows...
WESTERN DIVISION: San Jose, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Los Angeles, Anaheim, Phoenix
CENTRAL DIVISION: Winnipeg, Minnesota, Chicago, Colorado, St. Louis, Nashville, Dallas
NORTHERN DIVISION: Montreal, Boston, Ottawa, Toronto, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Columbus, Detroit
EASTERN DIVISION: Rangers, Islanders, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Washington, Carolina, Tampa Bay, Florida
It seems he came up with this rough plan that he even admits to have drafted in 'about five minutes' by just shuffling the teams around and placing them in geographically concentrated divisions (perhaps to stay constant with the status-quo as much as possible) and did not take any team concerns or historical rivalries into consideration. At first glance at this, you might think "oh, well duh, that's perfect." or "This is easy" or perhaps even "Drew Remenda for Commissioner!", But there's some glaring issues with it that I see right off the bat, showing that this is going to be a little bit harder than just matching teams up geographically.
First of all, lets look at the Western Conference (because that's what actually matters to us, right?)
First thing I see, is that Winnipeg is located outside the division of it's three main Western Canadian rivals. For a small market that might need a bit of a boost from other domestic fanbases, having only one real travelling rival in it's division might lead to some problems that they would like to stay away from. It makes sense for the Time Zone, but it's still silly seeing Winnipeg in the same division as Dallas and Nashville. It's only moderately better than their current location in the Southeast Division. This gives me the idea of dividing the divisions in more of a North-South format like they somewhat currently are, and like they surely are in the Eastern Conference.
Northwest (Norris) - Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Minnesota, Chicago, St. Louis
Southwest (Smythe) - San Jose, Anaheim, Los Angeles, Colorado, Nashville, Phoenix, Dallas
This would keep the current Pacific, Northwest, and Central divisions mostly intact, but somewhat at the expense of Nashville and Colorado, who still would keep good rivals in the new divisions. In the Northwest, you have the Canadian teams with Minnesota, and Chicago-St. Louis can keep it's longtime rivalry that I dont believe should be disturbed. In the Southwest, you keep all the current Pacific teams together, but add Colorado (who would have had to leave the Northwest anyways due to Winnipeg's inclusion even if the current 3 division conferences remained) and Nashville, who, though closer to St. Louis, still has a good healthy rivalry with Dallas and of course, with San Jose. The Travel situations of both divisions wouldn't be too much more straining on one or the other, and most current and historical rivalries would remain intact
So, it all comes down in the west to whether you care more about historical rivalries, or playing within, or closer to your natural timezone. I pick rivalries, personally.
Now lets take a gander at the newly retooled Eastern Conference.
Back east, with this proposal you have even more issues, and it's even harder to solve in this format no matter what you do. What sticks out to me the most in Remenda's proposal, is that Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh - one of the most historic rivalries in the league, would be broken up, and Pittsburgh would remain outside of a division with heated conference rival, Washington.
This is a tough position, seeing as the rivalry is between Western PA and Pittsburgh, which is known for being historically manufacturing based, and claims a hard-working "Blue Collar" attitude, and Eastern PA, and Philadelphia, which is more Metropolitan and has a lot more economic similarities with other Atlantic-Coast fanbases in New Jersey, New York, and Washington D.C.
Pittsburgh would gain mostly established rivals in Columbus and Detroit, which are both somehow CLOSER to Pittsburgh than Philadelphia is, and Pittsburgh shares many equal similarities to each of those 'Rust-Belt' cities as Philadelphia has to it's aforementioned Atlantic neighbors. Detroit and Pittsburgh can definitely be said to have a bit of a rivalry going, as they met 2 years in a row in the SCF and split them each season, but the Columbus rivalry would have to mostly brew out of thin air, as the teams have never been competitive against each other, played only on rare occasions, and Columbus has mostly been bad since their inception with only one playoff matchup (which they lost to Detroit). Detroit would regain old Original 6 rivalries in Toronto, Boston, and Montreal, and play more games with the Rangers, but would lose it's eternal divisional rival in Chicago, which would turn into a much less frequent matchup, and that's pretty unfortunate really. It would still retain Columbus as a division rival, and can continue to feed off that "Michigan-Ohio State" rivalry there.
Essentially, the East is divided into 4 different regions in this format. Detroit-Columbus-Pittsburgh in the Central Great Lakes area, Washington-Florida-Tampa-Carolina in the south, New York, New York, New Jersey, and Philadelphia in their little Atlantic nook, and the northern teams in Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Buffalo, and Boston, which currently make up the Northeast Division, and all have expansive rivalries with one another.
Pittsburgh would retain it's rivalries with it's current division rivals, but they might erode a bit as time goes by. With how historically close the contests have been between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia within their division, and with the history with Western PA vs. Eastern PA, it's especially hard to divide those teams, but they'll still play in the same conference, meet semi-regularly, and will still likely meet in critical playoff matchups like their ECF matchup in 2008.
Other than that, most of the proposed setup of the Eastern Conference looks pretty sound to me, and it reunites Washington with NY/NJ/NJ/Philly within it's division. Therefore, it would be Pittsburgh's loss, and Washington's gain (which can only add to that rivalry I suppose - finally score one for D.C. in that case, I guess).
So, with that, this still leaves us in a sticky situation, where there are uneven conferences, and a few historic rivalries will have to be broken up. It will change a bit of the dynamic within the league, and make it far easier for the western teams to advance out of their divisions and control playoff spots.
This can only be good for us here in San Jose, as not only will we not have to compete with Detroit for a playoff spot, or matchup with them in the playoffs, but we also will have an even better chance of higher seeds. With more teams in a division, it does make it harder to win that position, but the lower competetiveness sure does make things easy.