The NHL and NHLPA are close to announcing an agreed in principle to a new four-conference alignment plan for the NHL that would go into effect for the 2013-14 season. Both the NHL and NHLPA have left the door open for re-assessment of the new alignment at the conclusion of the 2015-16 season (or sooner if needed). That leaves the door open for expansion, relocation, or unforeseen circumstances that would cause an adjustment or bold change to the new format.
There are a lot of positives to take from the new alignment, including the potential for an increase of television ratings for the league, and we all know the NHL is all about TV ratings and the money it brings in. This new plan could bring hockey back into the limelight and boost the sport's popularity, especially in America.
The realignment plan will consist of four divisions (a variation from last year's realignment plan that consisted of four individual conferences) and the traditional two conference (East and West) alignment. The scheduling plan is for division opponents to play each other four times a season and the rest of the league at least twice a year. You can read a breakdown explaining the scheduling process here.
From the current Western Conference, the Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets will move to the East in this new alignment deal. Detroit has been waiting for their wish to be granted to move to the East and it looks like it has been granted. Detroit and Columbus will now have fewer trips west and late start times for many of their road games. That is a positive. For Columbus, they will be hosting a multitude of games against original six teams as well as the nearby Penguins; surely that will boost attendance there.
The realignment of Detroit to the East opens the door for the resumption of a storied rivalry between the Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs (and the potential ratings bonanza it will bring); that's an NHL dream. The new alignment also turns the Washington Capitals / Pittsburgh Penguins rivalry into a division feature, adding weight to games through division standings.
The rivalry between the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens remains intact, as does other Eastern and Western conference rivalries of all sorts, yet look at all of these Original Six matchups in the East (where five of the fabled six teams now reside). You have to be thinking that NBC Sports loves that.
However, on the downside, the Detroit and Chicago Blackhawks rivalry would be no more. To me, that is a huge loss to the NHL, those teams, and their fans. But, there will always be losers in any new deal and the fact that Detroit finally goes to the East (where it actually makes geographic sense) overshadows the absence of a rivalry. With the absence of Detroit, Chicago (or perhaps Nashville, or other Mid-West division challengers) have a much better chance to make the playoffs.
The changes may erase a key rivalry, but it has the potential to create new rivalries as well. The rekindled rivalry between Detroit and Toronto was already noted. The Central division could create a new one between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Detroit or even Boston. Those would be fun to watch.
Like I already said, there will always be teams that get shafted in new deals like this and it looks like two of those teams are the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Florida Panthers. In this alignment plan, the Bolts and Cats will be in a division with Boston, Buffalo, Detroit, Florida, Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto. That means the NHL's two southern-most teams will actually have to fly over the entire Atlantic division in order to get to road games in their own division. That's a rather odd alignment, but so is suggesting Boston, Montreal or Ottawa are in the central part of the East.
The travel, in my opinion, is nothing when it comes to how much TV ratings can potentially be boosted. Tampa Bay and Florida will be playing a plethora of traditional teams in key divisional matchups and that should boost their own local ratings. There was never much of a rivalry between the Florida clubs and their division foes (Carolina, Washington and Winnipeg) and it's debatable if there ever would have been. Sure, games between the Lightning and the Capitals were heated and building in to something, but it never could be as exciting as the new matchups could be.
Another wonky part about the new realignment plan is the West and the East team count when it comes to the playoffs. There will be 16 teams in the East and 14 in the West, making the postseason unbalanced.
I think it's a good idea for the NHL to try out a wild card system for the playoffs though, but why not award the team with the most points at the regular season with a bye like the NFL does? Perhaps that's because it would leave an uneven amount of playoff teams in each conference, but in that's case, why not grant the bye to each regular season division champion?
If the NHL had a one-and-done elimination playoff game, you'd think it would attract more people to watch the game, right?
Regardless of how the proposed wild card works out, eight teams from the West would go to the post season and eight teams from the East would go. Remember though, there are two less teams in the West, leaving it somewhat weaker in it's makeup and favoring the top seeded teams. The top three teams in each division will clinch playoff spots, while the wild card teams are supposed to be made up of the top point getting teams that remain in each conference (regardless of division).
All in all, I think this new NHL realignment is a good idea. TV ratings will for sure improve and the league desperately needs that. Like I said, there will always be winners and losers but in a realignment plan, but I think in the end, most teams win.
The new alignment goes like this: