Reshuffling The NHL

The reincarnation of the Atlanta Thrashers as the Winnipeg Jets (complete with the classiest uniforms in the league) has drawn into stark relief the need for the National Hockey League to reorganize their 30 franchises and alter their scheduling policy, to better market the league and to avoid imposing starkly disproportionate travel demands (and corresponding game-time/marketing penalties) on certain affiliates. Commissioner Gary Bettman seems to understand this--but certain franchises (primarily established North/East Coast teams, grandfathered into the most favorable travel impositions and most ideal game schedules) seem opposed to 'taking one for the league' if it means their perfect situation is impacted.

Hockey has to stop thinking so parochially, if they hope for their sport--and League--to more broadly prosper.

If the NHL were to realign to four Divisions--an East and Central in the Eastern Conference, a Midwest and West in the Western Conference--it would preserve existing rivalries and unburden certain centrally-located franchises (Winnipeg and Dallas the most) of grueling travel miles (and away-game start times that rob the teams of home media audiences); it might look something like:

•NHL Eastern Conference•
East Division:
New Jersey
New York Rangers
New York Islanders
Tampa Bay Lightning
Washington Capitals

Central Division:

•NHL Western Conference•
Midwest Division:
St Louis

West Division:
Los Angeles
San Jose

If there was a desire to split the two New York and two Pennsylvania teams into opposite divisions, one of each could be switched (say Philadelphia into the East and the Islanders into the Central); Nashville and Columbus could be interchanged (this alignment makes sense time-zone-wise but with the other Central teams clustered in the north-mid-east, the marketing possibilities of games against the Predators and vice versa might make fiscal/promotional sense). And as configured the East Division doesn't have a Canadian team--one with an east-coast-time-zone could easily be shuffled in if desired, though there isn't a good candidate to shuffle out. And this could need adjusting if Phoenix loses their team (especially if Quebec lands it).

Fortunately, it would not make quite as much difference which Division a team was in under this proposal, as with only two Divisions--and thus only two Division winners--the other teams will be fighting every other franchise in their conference for the remaining six playoff spots.

Restructuring of schedules would first prioritize home-and-away games for every NHL team with every other NHL team--it is healthy for the League to give every fan a chance to see a given superstar in their own arena at least once every year. That accounts for the first 58 of a season's games; adding a second set of home-and-aways with the other 14 teams in a franchise's conference would push the regular season schedule to 86 games, but would be the fairest way to achieve a balanced schedule (and with the greater variety of opponents, would probably *feel* shorter and provide an attendance boost, as well); as a season extension would have to be negotiated with players (though now's the time to do that), 82 games could be retained by having teams play home-and aways with the other six (or seven) teams in their Division, then an alternating home-or-away third game against the seven (or eight) teams in the other Division in their Conference, then fill their remaining three (or four) games out against other Division opponents they were comparable to the prior season (East One versus East Two, Central One and East Three, a weighted schedule a la the NFL) until the schedule balanced. This would mean most teams would see every team twice, the teams in their own Division at least four times and some five, and the teams in the other Division in their Conference at least three times and some four (see above why 86 games would be preferable :).

Rivalries would be preserved, the entire continent would see the entire League every season, travel would be more balanced (Midwest teams will still travel the most, Dallas and Winnipeg still probably most of all--but it would be north-south, same time-zone) and the only crazy out-of-time-zone games any team would have to face would be rare--once or twice a season--and potentially interesting enough for fans to want to stay up late.

The NHL needs a move like this. The opportunity to make it happen is right now.