Expansion is Coming
The NHL has expanded multiple times since the original six swelled to the original twelve in 1967. There are good reasons, from the economic health of some (sun belt) franchises to the quality of the on-ice product, not to expand ever again but there are about a billion reasons, by which I mean two $500 million expansion fees, why I am convinced that the NHL will be expanding again and soon.
Nothing will be official but shortly after the NHL Awards are handed out this June in Vegas the NHL will give a nod and a wink to Bill Foley's group to apply for a franchise even if the formal announcement is still a year away. The only question for the NHL Governors is do they want to go with a single team or with two? Please refer to the $500 million expansion fee, money that does not need to be shared with the NHLPA by the way, should you be curious as to why the answer will be two teams and not one.
Las Vegas and... Quebec City
The unstated hope had been to put two teams into the current Western Conference, Las Vegas and Seattle, so you can proceed to play with two now equal 16 team Conferences (ending the unbalanced 16-14 East/West split). One reason to hold off making any formal announcement this summer is the faint hope that Seattle politicians will approve a hockey-usable arena in the Emerald City but absent an NBA franchise shaking loose in the next few months, which could prompt the public funding of a Seattle arena, hockey fans in Washington State will continue to wait for the NHL.
Kansas City has a nice arena, but no prospective owner (or hockey fans), so it will continue to be a plan B for any team that needs to go look at a shiny new arena in the hopes of one being built at taxpayer expense in their home town. Alternatively, it may be the next stop for the Coyotes when the people losing money in Arizona decide they will lose less money in Kansas.
No, if there are to be two expansion teams the NHL will need to go north of the border for one of them. The Leafs have made it very clear that they will exercise the territorial veto, that the NHL denies they have, ensuring that no NHL hockey is played anywhere near (or within) the ACC for years to come so Gary and his Governors will need to find another hotbed of pent-up hockey demand with an NHL ready arena set to come online. Enter the return of the Nordiques and the new Centre Videotron and the legal tender of Quebecor CEO Pierre Peladeau, spelled Pela-dough by Bettman and friends.
How to Square the East-West Circle
The "problem" with Quebec is that it is most clearly NOT in the Western Conference. The NHL has been prepared, in the past, to make geographic sacrifices with respect to divisional and conference alignment if it means that underserved hockey fans get to experience NHL hockey (read, if the NHL can cash expansion and relocation checks). Recall that the Winnipeg Jets were in the same division as the Florida Panthers only two years ago. Still, the competitive balance question is real as are the desires of certain franchises, most notably Detroit and Columbus, to remain in an "Eastern" conference after so many years being "trapped" in a conference where many games are two to three time zones away. My proposed solution is to move beyond an East-West Conference model to one with eight divisions and four conferences.
Eight Divisions of Four Teams, 6 Games Against Division Rivals (18 Games)
The eight divisions are geographically tight and will enhance the regional rivalries that fuel the passion of hockey fans. For example the Pacific Division would have the three California teams and the new expansion Las Vegas (insert your preferred name here, I went with Posse). The New York area teams are joined by historic rival, Boston, in a revamped Metro Division. Nashville moves into a new South East division and can regularly compete with boarder state rival Carolina. Teams would play divisional rivals 6 times over a season, enough to develop a good hate but not so often that you get sick of seeing the same teams over and over again. For example Ranger fans would only need to out shout/out drink Devil or Islander fans three times per year at MSG.
Travel within divisions is quite manageable. The longest trip within these new divisions is the Arizona to St. Louis trip (2051km), dwarfing even the Vancouver to Winnipeg distance (1887km). That said, right now Montreal and Florida are in the same division (2302km) as are Anaheim and Edmonton (2251km). Also, with the exception of Vancouver and Winnipeg in the newly proposed Can West division, every divisional rival is no more than one time-zone away.
Four Conferences of Eight Teams, 4 Games Against Conference Rivals (16 Games)
For years the Detroit Red Wings fought to escape the travel and time-shifting necessitated by being, along with Columbus, an eastern team in the NHL's Western Conference. Quebec expansion money, even at $500 million US, is not going to make them any more eager to move back. The new set up creates three American conferences (West, Central and East) and one Canadian conference. With four games against each of the non-divisional rivals within each conference still builds on familiar rivalries developed through the current divisional set-up while still keeping travel and time-zone shifts, at least for the American teams, quite manageable. So Nashville and Chicago can continue their recent playoff tilt over four games in the new American Central Conference just as Flyer fans can continue to torment Ranger and Bruin fans in the new American East Conference.
Travel within the American conferences is better than the current set up. The longest trip in the America West Conference would be from San Jose to St. Louis (2784km); in the America Central it would be from Minnesota to Florida (2421km). While they are more than double the distance from Boston to Columbus (1062km), the longest trip within the America East Conference it still compares favourably to the distance from Chicago to Vancouver (2898km) in the current Western Conference. While St. Louis is still two time zones from California, that has been the case since the Blues were granted a franchise in 1967. Detroit, one of the teams who would be most opposed to any re-relocation into the current Western Conference, will actually play more Conference games against the Eastern time-zoned Hurricanes, Lightning and Panthers then they do within their own Great Lakes Division.
The Canadian Conference, admittedly, will get hit hard by travel and time zones. Vancouver to Quebec City is an incredibly long haul (3835km) over 4 time zones. Still, tell me that Canadian hockey fans won't relish the chance to see the Habs (or even the Leafs) come to town twice during a season. It can be done and the rivalries are already established, they will simply get a chance to flourish under the new set up.
Everyone Sees Crosby, 2 Games Against Non-Conference Teams (48 Games)
One of the changes that was enshrined in the NHL's most recent re-structuring of the schedule was an assurance that every team visits every NHL city at least once. The NHL deserves some credit for this, even if it is simply smart marketing, but knowing that Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin will be visiting Edmonton or Glendale is important to fans. That the Blue, Blanc et Rouge will be headed to Hollywood, if only once a year, does matter and my proposal maintains that set up from the current NHL schedule.
Playoff Set-up To Produce A Final Four
Playoff races, even in an NHL with both two point and three point (read: loser point) games, are fun and regardless of the system chosen to set up the NHL's playoff brackets, the races will be intense. While once the NHL playoffs consisted of 16 of 21 teams making the post-season, essentially reducing the regular season to an 8-month long seeding tournament, a 32 team NHL with half the league absent from spring hockey makes regular season contests and playoff positioning important from puck drop in October.
With the small, 4 team Divisions, rivalries as a result of Divisional play will, in my view, become even more intense. Battles of Ontario, New York, California, (and hopefully Alberta and Quebec) become amplified with less teams to "get in the way". Given the importance TV seems to place on such regional rivalries, I would presume focus on Divisional play would continue into the post-season. Option one would simply be to have the top two teams from each Division play in the first round. The second round would pit the Divisional winners against each other for the Conference crown. This takes us down to one team from each of the four Conference. Teams are ranked from 1 to 4 to establish the semi-final series with the winners off to compete for Lord Stanley. Based on this season's standings, the set up would look like this:
Option two would still ensure that regular season Division leaders make the playoffs but, especially with the addition of two expansion teams, some Divisions may be seen as markedly weaker than others. This problem addressed by simply adding a play-in game for those situations where the third-place team in the Conference's other division would play the second place team in if they had more points. Who doesn't love a play-in game? If, for example, San Jose finished with more points than Dallas (they didn't this year, but play along) the two would have a play-in game for the right to challenge St. Louis in the opening round. The effect of this undermines Divisional rivalries somewhat but not as much as simply taking the top four teams in each Conference - presumably still seeding Division leaders 1 and 2, which would be a third option.
Advantages and Disadvantages, Ratings and Nationalism
The good people at Rogers just spent a mint on NHL rights in Canada. While they have not found the ratings bonanza they might have hoped for during the regular season, I suspect that their first round numbers will be (already are) fantastic - even with the "Center Of The Hockey Universe" (Leafs) on the outside looking in. Why wouldn't they be? Fully 5 of the 7 Canadian teams made the dance. The record is 7 of 7 (before Ottawa) in 1982-83. One of the downsides of my proposal is that 5 or 6 or even 8 Canadian teams will NOT make the post-season. While the NHL Offices in New York might like the idea of selling their NBC and FoxSports partners less Canadian content, the fact remains that a quarter of the league is Canadian and even a larger number of its fans are. My proposal ensures that there will always be a Canadian based semi-finalist, there will be no Calgary-Montreal Cup finals. Last season, only Montreal played post-season hockey. CBC and TSN did a fine job selling an almost exclusively American based NHL playoff product but what does the money want?
If you are Rogers, having spent more cash than God on a decade plus of NHL rights, do you want a guarantee that every Canadian team will get 34 all-Canadian regular season games each and every year; a guarantee of two opening round all-Canadian first round match-ups, each and every year; a guarantee of an all-Canadian second round all-Canadian match-up, each and every year; and one guaranteed Canadian semi-finalist each and every year?
Now NBC and the American Regional networks do not pay as much as Rogers, but if you were told that American teams would play only 16 regular season games against Canadian teams. That no American team would play a Canadian team until, at the earliest, the semi-finals. Would that be a selling point? I think so, and selling - and the money involved - is going to guide this discussion as the NHL expansion train moves forward. Just remember, adding Quebec doesn't have to force Detroit (or anyone else) into a Western Conference. There is an alternative option.