The NHL announced the realignment plan. Given some of the previous plans, it’s a fairly good option. But it does have several problems that just can’t be overlooked. Since the NHL has declined at this time to publish the
divisional conference names, I’ve penciled in some provisional ones.
The soon to be former Northeast Division is getting the Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers added to the Boston Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs, Buffalo Sabres, Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators. For the league with the new/old playoff format, the two Florida teams finally have a chance to build the type of rivalries that exist elsewhere in the division. With both teams finally out of the lottery at the same time for seemingly the first time ever, and both likely to stay there a couple years this has the potential to be the best division in the NHL for several years. The name that occurred to just about every hockey fan upon hearing it announced is: Snowbird Conference/Division
Also in the east is the current Atlantic division, plus two teams from the soon to be defunct southeast division. The Washington Capitals and Carolina Hurricanes are the new blood, the New York Rangers, New York Islanders, New Jersey Devils, Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers. Any player not wanting to travel to much should sign here, three of the teams are close enough you could do the bars in all three cities in one good night. Fans and media flying to the games will have to deal with some of the worst airports in the country. Carolina is the biggest loser in this group, even with the Devils recent financial issues, and the Islanders quest for an arena, they have been bad enough not to win much over the last few years and good enough to stay out of the lottery, add that to shallow pockets and it won’t be a surprise if there is a change in ownership or location here in the next three years, particularly if the salary cap floor keeps rising. Not so obvious name for the group: Crosby, Brothers (Staal), and Crime.
Moving westward, we have the team that caused the realignment, the Winnipeg Jets, possibly the happiest team in the NHL with the realignment the Dallas Stars, and the expiring central division. While I think Columbus had a better claim to a spot in the east than the Red Wings, both will stay put and both should be content with it. Lots of wins in this group. Columbus and Nashville retain their division rivalries. Minnesota might have the biggest complaint about this as they are joining a division that doesn’t do much for them and is a lot tougher than their old one. Dallas doesn’t have to leave their time zone for every divisional road game. Chicago, Winnipeg and Detroit get a division where there fans know and dislike their rivals already. The Blues are pretty much status quo. This sets name is both obvious: Flyover Conference.
Furthest west the Pacific and Northwest remnants are the last, and group. The Battle of California’s Anahiem, San Jose, and Los Angeles lose a little without the Stars as they can now really only hope for prime time east coast games on Friday and Saturdays, which could have a revenue impact. As a bonus for all the former pacific The Battle of Alberta stays together, as it should with the Flames and Oilers, in this conference. Also joining the fun are Phoenix, Colorado, and Vancouver. There aren’t really any big losers or winners in this part of the shuffle. Naming possibilities: Funky Green Conference or Hippy Check Division.
The biggest pitfall of for attendance challenged teams is less visits from stars outside their new arrangement. The Panthers, will see Crosby and Ovechkin less. The Coyotes will see less of Toews, Kane, and assuming he stays put Weber. Ideally this will workout as new stars rise, and maybe, just maybe the NHL’s marketing figures out you don’t promote thirty teams by pushing one or two players. With eight teams in two divisions, the odds of getting into the playoffs are a bit higher. Oddly at present both of the large divisions are in the west. With so few teams getting regular east coast primetime starts I’d be nervous about the impact on ratings and hence advertising revenue.
The biggest concern marketing and attendance wise is the playoff race. The impact of two less titles, and less teams being in the hunt can’t be understated. Last year the Pacific Division lead was held at some point after October by every team. Likewise in the east the Southeast division was led by the Thrashers-now-Jets, the Lightning, and the Capitals from November forward. I can’t imagine that being in sixth place in one of these new conferences on November twentieth inspiring too many fans on who are on the fence about buying tickets for a holiday gift or spring vacation treat to go ahead and do so. Without the ticket sales, the in arena revenue disappears, and games can get blacked out. Related to this is the merchandise sales for divisional championships, and the additional money teams can squeeze out of local advertisers for winning their division(s).
Currently we don’t know how the playoffs will work and I’m not sure how reseating after each division plays, but I can’t imagine the NHL letting the possibility of say a Toronto-Carolina or Anahiem-Minnesota Stanley Cup Final come to pass. From a ratings standpoint either of those would be a huge disaster.
One positive, even if it doesn’t come to pass immediately is the four division platform lends itself to expansion readily. If for example Quebec City or the greater Toronto area gets a new team, the Snowbird Division adds a team, and the league goes about business as usual. If Kansas City adds a club, Nashville or Columbus might get shunted to the CBC. A new Hartford franchise would also slide into the CBC. Equally if the Arizona fans are unfortunate enough to have their team uprooted to the east, it leaves room for a later expansion into Vegas or Seattle.