NHL realignment: League tinkers with plan, changes half the good stuff

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The NHL has changed its realignment plan a bit, and they got rid of a bunch of the good stuff.

We're slowly learning more about the NHL's realignment proposal, and I think the NHL has ruined what could have been a really great thing. At least in part.

In technical terms, the NHL has scrapped the four-division format, but the same divisions that leaked over the weekend are still in effect. The Flyers will be in a division, likely called the Atlantic (mistake) according to CBC, with Pittsburgh, the New Yorks, New Jersey, Washington and Columbus. This is a good thing.

Also the same is the schedule format. The Flyers, for example, will play the teams in their division either five or six times a piece and they'll play every other team in the league twice -- once at home, once on the road. I also like this a lot because Flyers fans in every NHL city are guaranteed to see the team at least once, every other opponent comes to Philly at least once, and we still get to play our rivals a ton.

Nhl-realignment_medium

Here's where things change, and why I hate the changes:

* Instead of having a "four conference" format where the playoffs would decide four conference winners that would advance to a re-seeded "final four," the NHL is sticking with the East vs. West divide. The green conference and the blue conference on the map above will form the East and the yellow and orange conferences will form the West.

(They're also calling the blue conference -- the one with teams in both Montreal and Miami -- the "Central" division. What the fuck, NHL? This is Reason No. 1 to switch from geographic division names to historical names like Patrick or Norris. You can't base things off geography when you have teams from Florida in the same division as teams from Quebec or Michigan. Just look at the map. There's nothing "Central" about any of these places.)

The playoffs will be aligned along an East vs. West divide as well. We'll have an Eastern Conference Final and a Western Conference Final, and those teams will play for the Stanley Cup. I was really looking forward to the opportunity to see a Boston vs. Philadelphia final, or a Toronto vs. Detroit final, or a Nashville vs. Phoenix final. One of those things is not like the other, but you get the point.

Here's the full read on how the playoff format will work, via the CBC:

The top three teams in each division are automatic qualifiers. They will be seeded 1, 2 and 3.

The No. 4 seeds have some potential for crossover. Those spots will be given to the next two teams with the highest point total. (The club with fewer points would play the higher-seeded No. 1.) That is on a conference, not a league-wide, basis, which prevents a cross-continent matchup along the lines of Vancouver-Florida in the first round.

There is divisional basis here, but the crossover ruins any chance of there being a "divisional" playoff champion, which is something I was really looking forward to. Divisional playoffs were amazing in the Patrick days. I want them back.

This can be sort of difficult to grasp in the abstract, though, so let's use an example. Let's say the season ends this way next season in the East:

Rk Atlantic Pts "Central" (dumb) Pts
1 Philadelphia 111 Detroit 107
2 Columbus 108 Montreal 104
3 Carolina 102 Toronto 101
4 NY Islanders 96 Ottawa 99
5 Washington 94 Boston 97
6 New Jersey 90 Tampa Bay 89
7 NY Rangers 84 Florida 86
8 Pittsburgh 68 Buffalo 73

Here are the first round matchups we'd see:

(1) Philadelphia vs. (4) Boston

(2) Columbus vs. (3) Carolina

(1) Detroit vs. (4) Ottawa

(2) Montreal vs. (3) Toronto

The "Central" division would send five to the playoffs and the Atlantic would send just three because the 5th seed in the Central (Boston, in this case) had more points than the fourth seed in the Atlantic (the Islanders).

So while we're keeping a divisional playoff breakdown, it's really only quasi-divisional. If you're going to do it this way, you might as well just take the best eight teams regardless of division, right? Or just the best 16 teams regardless of conference, right? This is all so very NHL.

I get that it's tough to do divisional playoffs when some have eight teams and others have seven, but I was really looking forward to that.

Nothing builds up hate more than grueling playoff series, and having the first two rounds of the playoffs played every year inside tightly compacted regional zones would be amazing. It would create a true regional champion every year, too, instead of just a regular season title that nobody cares about. Winning the first two rounds of the playoffs would create a divisional champion. Make a trophy. Worthy of a banner. Bragging rights over Pittsburgh and New York and Washington. What a concept.

The imbalance problem could have been fixed by a wild card system. Have the No. 4 seed and the No. 5 seed in the two eight-team groupings compete in a play-in round (best of three, perhaps) and then the winner plays the No. 1 seed in the first round. It'd be exciting hockey, it'd loop two extra teams into the "playoffs" and it would be a ratings bonanza. Oh, and it would basically solve the problem of imbalance. Not perfect from that perspective, but it would be a lot of fun.

My guess is that this is the plan the NHL preferred to go with, but that the NHLPA said no. Remember back to early last year when the NHLPA shot down the original realignment plan the NHL wanted to push through for 2012-13? The players' chief concern was the imbalance and the playoffs, so it's not far fetched to think they shot the plan down and the NHL appeased to what we have now.

CBC reports that the league and union will revisit the realignment situation after the 2015-16 season, and who knows what will happen then. I'd put my money on two more teams entering the league to balance things out at 32, and from there we will have full-fledged divisional playoffs and maybe even the complete elimination of the East vs. West split.

But for at least the next few seasons, we'll have to deal with this. At least the Patrick Division (plus Carolina and Columbus) is back.

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