There are still some rumblings by certain members of the media that the NHL might balk at going back to Quebec. Gary Bettman did leave himself and the League an out when the process was announced and with the Canadian dollar under 75 cents and headed lower some owners may pause to consider if expansion to Quebec is as prudent a plan as it might have seemed a year ago. Still, by almost every metric one could come up with, Quebec should outshine the far riskier move into Las Vegas and Quebecor is already a significant business partner with the NHL. Everyone talks about the big money that Rogers shelled out for the Canadian National NHL rights. The TVA French-language TV deal is a substantial sum of money in its own right.
Garry Bettman is much maligned by hockey fans, particularly in Canada, who are upset about multiple work-stoppages and a perception that he's been too focused on non-traditional hockey markets but he has also shown himself to be very committed to those who have been good partners for the NHL - like Quebecor. I also suspect that, as with Minnesota and Winnipeg, he has a personal stake in restoring the NHL to those cities who lost teams on his watch. Les Nordiques, and their rabid fans, will be back in the NHL come the 2017-2018 season. But where do they go?
If, as many commentators had thought prior to the NHL's July 20th deadline for expansion applications - and $2M non-refundable fees - the two finalists turned out to be Seattle and Las Vegas then the realignment issue would be no issue at all. Seattle and Vegas would move into the Pacific division and a team or two shuffles between the Pacific and Central divisions to balance the numbers. Voila, two equal 16 team conferences. Familiar East-West structure and everyone goes on their way none the worse for wear. Quebec, well, that complicates things.
Realignment is always a challenge, particularly for teams that find themselves drawing the short straw and having to sacrifice natural geographic or historical rivalries (and the $ those factors generate) for the need to satisfy the scheduling needs of their business partners - and competitors. Time zones and travel distances aren't just issues for the players (who, frankly, with first-class hotel rooms and chartered flights, are far less impacted by the divisional and conference set-ups than ever before). Time zone shifts impact local TV numbers, and your ability to build your fan base. Similarly, teams are very mindful that travel costs are not chump change - airline fuel adds up.
Reality, however, is that you need to find a set-up that is minimally inconvenient and bears some semblance of rationality. The history of NHL expansion and divisional alignments is not always driven by such considerations. We all remember that the Jets were recently in the South East Division but what about the Habs and Kings both being in the Norris division from 74-81.
The most recent realignment, from 2014, was used to resolve the oddity of the Winnipeg Jets being in a South East division but it also afforded the NHL the chance to redress a long-standing complaint by both Detroit and Columbus that being in the Western Conference all of there divisional and conference games (save and except those against each other) were out of their time zone, sometimes 3 time-zones away. A 7:00pm start time in LA is a 10:00pm puck-drop in Detroit. How does one add two teams and not create the same problem all over again? Maybe you can't.
Before offering some possible suggestions, here are some of the assumptions I am going to make. The NHL (and NHLPA) will not want to increase or decrease the number of games played by teams. For now we are going to assume an 82 game schedule. Secondly, the policy of ensuring that everybody, regardless of division or conference, will play at least one home and one away game against every team - the Crosby/Ovechkin rule. Where at all possible the goal would be to minimize additional games across multiple time-zones and to maintain existing geographic and historical rivalries.
It might be useful to review how the NHL sets up the schedule based on the current conference and divisional alignment. If you haven't committed the schedule rules to memory, here they are as per the NHL's site. See, clear as mud. Suffice it to say that there is a general principle that you play your opponents within your division more than those within your conference more than those out of your conference. Those schedules are NOT, however, balanced between teams in the same divisions let alone different conferences.
As we go through the options, lets look at a pair of example schedules from the current format to keep in mind as we compare the alternatives. At the center of the Hockey Universe, we have the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Leafs schedule includes 54 games within Conference (all Eastern time zone) and 28 games with the Western Conference - 14 of which are at home so the Leafs only play 14 games out of their time zone: 6 in the Central; 4 in the Western; and 4 in the Pacific. Pretty sweet. The Western conference teams are more difficult to calculate but last year the Vancouver Canucks had a schedule that included 34 games out of the Pacific time zone: 16 games in the Eastern time zone; 9 games in the Central; and 9 more games in Western time zone. There is a reason Vancouver hired a sleep specialist. Still, that's what the league is doing now so keep this standard in mind as we examine alternate options.
Steady As She GoesOne option, that has the virtue of some simplicity, would be to maintain the existing 4 Divisions (Pacific, Central, Atlantic and Metropolitan) and just tweak them a little. Vegas is easy, just add it to the Pacific and now you have an 8 team division. Done. The time-zones line-up and you maintain the existing rivalries within the division with the prospect of generating new ones between Vegas and Arizona. I live in Edmonton and yes, I could easily see grabbing some friends and a flight to Vegas centered around a Connor McDavid-led Oiler road-trip to Sin City.
Ok, now for the hard part. We add Quebec to the 7 team Central division. As with Detroit and Columbus before the last realignment, we are placing an Eastern time-zone team in the Western Conference. Using the existing schedule template (with the Crosby/Ovechkin rule), Quebec would have a total of 26 games outside the Eastern time-zone. They would have 12 road games against Pacific division teams (6-9 against Pacific time-zone teams and 3-6 against Western time-zone teams) and 14 road games against Central division teams (12 in the Central time-zone and 2 in the Western time-zone). Yes, that would be against "historical" rival Colorado Avalanche.
The map would look something like this:
The playoff format looks like it does now. Top three teams from every division seeded 1-3 and two wild-cards per conference. Understand, however, that the possibility exists that with the existence of the wild-card, Quebec could potentially play a West coast team in the first round. Last year Pacific champ Anaheim faced off against Winnipeg in the first round. As the series was a sweep, and because the return of Winnipeg to the playoffs was such a great story, nobody mentioned that Anaheim's "reward" for being the top point-getter in the West was to open the playoffs with the longest road-trip of anyone. Imagine if the series had gone seven, do you doubt that we might have heard something about the travel then? Now replace Winnipeg with Quebec and one begins to see the problems with this option.
Back To The Future
The Red Wings fought tooth and nail over many years to finally escape the Western Conference. To borrow a phrase: "Just when you think you're out, they pull you back in!" Still, better the devil you know. As we are working with a familiar problem perhaps the solution is to simply make an effort to return Detroit to the Central Division. As we have noted, this jumps Detroit's number of road games outside the Eastern conference from 15 (remember we now have Vegas) to 26. A jump of 11. It does restore some traditional divisional rivalries in Chicago, St. Louis and Colorado but, as discussed, creates the potential, with the wild-card, to have Detroit opening the playoffs against a team from the West Coast. Here is how that map would look:
A Jump To The Left
I think there will be considerable sympathy for Detroit (or Columbus) being asked to return to the Western conference based on the long history of trying to get into the East that the NHL might be open to more radical options, which we will discuss in Part Two, but one potential tweak that I have not seen before would be to put Detroit into the Metropolitan division and move Carolina into the Central. At first blush this would seem as ridiculous as Quebec and more so because Carolina is struggling at the gate and wasn't just gifted an expansion franchise with the small-print advising the new owners to take what you are given and be happy about it. The reason I think this shift might work is that Carolina doesn't have a natural rival with the current arrangement even though one is sitting just across the state-line in Tennessee.
Watching an out of market Predators game one night I noticed that the local broadcast rights holders, Fox Sports South, was advertising upcoming games. Normal enough, except that in addition to the upcoming Predator games they were also advertising the upcoming Hurricane games. I live in Edmonton and my Sportsnet package includes both Oilers and Flames games so on the surface this didn't seem strange to me until it hit me, about a second later, that these two teams with overlapping fan bases only play each other twice a year. This should be a tailgate rivalry to threaten the barbeque pork surpluses of both states. All of the out of market issues remain but maybe the prospect of an outdoor game in the deep south between two non-traditional markets is enough to get the ownership group in Carolina to look at the idea. Here's how it would look:
Time To Break The Mold
Whether the NHL choses Quebec, Detroit, Columbus or even Carolina, somebody in the Eastern conference and, perhaps more importantly, the Eastern time-zone will be shifted out of their comfort zone. Western GMs probably aren't too sympathetic to their Eastern colleagues complaints about time-zones given that that is just part of the reality for every Western conference team but it is a real consideration. Couple that with the additional travel burden, especially at playoff time, and the issue becomes even more notable.
This is not an unusual problem for sports leagues in North America. The bulk of the population, and hence sports teams, are in the Eastern time-zone. Even relatively close teams in the West, Calgary and Edmonton or San Jose and Los Angeles, are much further apart than the NY area teams that are all within a commute ride from each other.
In the next Part I am going to reprise an option proposed in my April piece and throw out some variants on it with an aim to rethink how the NHL should look at realignment by borrowing from the most financially successful league in North American pro sports - the NFL. Four team divisions.