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Re-Aligning the NHL

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With the recent reports (and subsequent NHL denials) that our current playoff foe, the Phoenix Coyotes, would soon be trekking north to Canada to once again reside in Winnipeg, something has become abundantly clear: the NHL needs to abandon its current conference and divisional alignments.

If (or perhaps when) the Coyotes becomes Jets again, there will be just 8 teams located in the western time zones (Mountain and Pacific) and we will throw in Dallas as well for good measure (despite being in the Central Time Zone). Even further, there will be just 12 teams west of what is traditionally described as the dividing point of the US, the Mississippi River. To put this into perspective, the Central Division houses two teams that are in the Eastern Time Zone and three in the Central Time Zone and play teams regularly in the Pacific Time Zone, 3 hours behind us whereas all teams in the Eastern conference play in the same time zone.

Using time zones as a divider may seem weak at best, but it is the root of the entire issue. The time zone differences between the teams in the "Western" Conference, not only give the Eastern teams an unfair advantage (fewer late starts. No Eastern team will be seeing any 10:30PM starts as the Wings will tonight), it is also harmful for the fans and, as a result, the league’s television revenue.

Essentially, the NHL has far less geographical parity than the other leagues in the nation. It centered pretty squarely on the eastern seaboard, with half the league located east of Detroit. The Western vs. Eastern matchup that we currently see in the Finals is not only false, it is unfair for 15 teams.

As this is a Wings blog, I will use them as the main example. Tonight, we face off against the Coyotes in Game 3 of the first round. Puck drop is scheduled for shortly after 10:30 PM EST. This works for the Coyotes. It will be a standard 7:30 PM PST start for them. In Game 1, though, the Coyotes faced a 4:30 PM PST puck drop here in Detroit and on Saturday, it was a 10AM PST puck drop. Time zone differences are unavoidable, but it does wear out the body and leaves you with little sleep while teams like the Capitals and Rangers take a 4 hour bus ride, with no time differences, to switch cities.

In addition, it alienates the majority of fans for one team for each game. Tonight, many Red Wings fans will not be able to watch such a late start due to school and work in the morning. Last Wednesday, a lot of Coyotes fans were not out of work by the time the game started. This will happen regardless of how the league is aligned, sure, but it does feel unfair to fans when your team does this two or three rounds of every playoff season.

The answer to these problems is relatively simple: re-align the divisions and conferences. I would propose we eliminate the current format entirely in favor of a system where conferences/leagues are aligned to produce geographical parity (as in the NFL and MLB) and divisions are aligned, for the most part, to produce possible geographical rivalries.

Conferences would be realigned so that one half of each geographical area (east, central, western) is in each conference. This would eliminate any rest advantages the Eastern conference may have in the Playoffs, but should also allow for a team to face off against the same team two years in a row (something that would be difficult if the entire conference system was abandoned, for example).

Divisions would still be geographically based for the most part. This would be needed to keep travel down during the season; we obviously cannot have the Kings and Bruins in the same division. This would keep travel costs and hours low and allow for the ever-important geographical rivalry that a league like the NHL thrives on (Flyers-Penguins, Capitals-Penguins, Wings-Blackhawks, etc.).

In addition, this would allow the league to reintroduce some history. Recently, the NHL has become more and more proud of its past with campaigns such as the "Where Greatness Happens" series of commercials and the Heritage Classic. Re-aligning the league would allow for the conferences and divisions to be renamed in favor of people important to the history of the league, as it once was before the adoption of the Eastern (Prince of Wales) Conference and Western (Campbell) Conference.

So, here is my proposed alignment.

Wayne Gretzky Conference

Gordie Howe Conference

Lemieux Divison

Orr Division

Messier Division

Roy Division

Richard Division

Hull Division

Pittsburgh Penguins

Boston Bruins

Edmonton Oilers

Anaheim Ducks

Montreal Canadiens

Chicago Blackhawks

Philadelphia Flyers

New York Rangers

Los Angeles Kings

Colorado Avalanche

Ottawa Senators

Detroit Red Wings

Washington Capitals

Carolina Hurricanes

Vancouver Canucks

Dallas Stars

Winnipeg Jets

Columbus Blue Jackets

Florida Panthers

Tampa Bay Lightning

Calgary Flames

Minnesota Wild

Buffalo Sabres

Toronto Maple Leafs

Atlanta Thrashers

New Jersey Devils

St. Louis Blues

San Jose Sharks

New York Islanders

Nashville Predators

I tried to pick substantial players for each conference and division to be named after as well as picking making each division have at least 2 teams in this year’s playoffs to create talent parity as well. Additionally, I tried to make sure that teams that each player played on are included in their division/conference. For example, all four of Gretzky’s teams are in his conference. It was difficult, of course. I had originally meant for Dallas and St. Louis to appear in the Hull division and make it a true dedication to both Bobby and Brett, but it proved near impossible without screwing with the geography restriction.

That said, is something like this a viable solution if and when the Coyotes move to Winnipeg? Should this be considered even if they do not? Is this even a big enough problem to warrant a realignment?