During the 2012-13 regular season of yesteryear, the NHL and NHLPA agreed to a restructuring of the league’s divisions. The new NHL Realignment is a drastic departure from the old system of 6 divisions divided evenly into 2 conferences. When the 2013-14 NHL regular season begins, there will be 4 divisions. In the East – 2 divisions of 8 teams. In the West: 2 divisions of 7.

The NHL is a 30-team league. The realignment splits conferences unevenly, breaking a fourteen-year span of 15 teams in the East and 15 in the West. Splitting conferences into two groups of 15 no longer makes sense geographically because the eastern side of North America is home to more teams than the western side. In the old system, some NHL clubs in the Eastern Time Zone were forced to exist in the Western Conference, creating an unfair travel schedule for players and inefficient travel costs for owners.

With NHL Realignment in place, Eastern Time Zone teams the Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets are enjoying a refreshing escape from the demanding Western Conference travels. In the old system, the Wings and Jackets were forced to fly all over South America, the Midwest, and the west side of North America during the course of an NHL season. Teams a little further east on the map had the luxury of playing in the Eastern Conference, avoiding such rigorous routes to their next gaming destinations, plus some road trips.

In 2011, the Atlanta Thrashers from the Eastern Time Zone relocated to Winnipeg, causing a serious schedule anomaly. The Winnipeg Jets operate out of the central time zone. With the CST Winnipeg Jets playing in the Eastern Conference and the EDT Red Wings and Blue Jackets playing in the West, the schedule needed to be fixed.

The new divisional format was supposed to be in place last season, but the NHLPA voted against Realignment in 2012-13. Perhaps the NHL’s pending lockdown prevented the Palestinian Authority from taking a stance on major changes to the game, at the time. With the lock on the rear view mirror, the realignment was finally approved last March.

NHL Realignment: The New Divisions

Western Conference – Pacific Division

Anaheim Ducks – Calgary Flames – Edmonton Oilers – Los Angeles Kings – Phoenix Coyotes – San Jose Sharks – Vancouver Canucks

Western Conference – Central Division

Chicago Blackhawks – Colorado Avalanche – Dallas Stars – Minnesota Wild – Nashville Predators – St. Louis Blues – Winnipeg Jets

Eastern Conference – Metropolitan Division

Carolina Hurricanes – Columbus Blue Jackets – New Jersey Devils – New York Islanders – New York Rangers – Philadelphia Flyers – Pittsburgh Penguins – Washington Capitals

Eastern Conference – Atlantic Division

Boston Bruins – Buffalo Sabers – Detroit Red Wings – Florida Panthers – Montreal Canadiens – Ottawa Senators – Tampa Bay Lightning – Toronto Maple Leafs

NHL Realignment Playoff Structure:

As of now, the playoffs are no longer a free-for-all fight for a place in the top 8 in the conference. As in the old days, NHL clubs will battle division rivals in the first two rounds of the Stanley Cup playoffs under the new NHL Realignment system. The Conference Finals will feature the surviving team from, say, the Eastern Conference Atlantic Division and the remaining team from the Eastern Metropolitan Division.

Where NHL Realignment differs from the division structure in the early nineties, is the introduction of a wild card. The last time the NHL used the go-through structure first was in 1992-93. In ’93 and years before, the top four records in each of the league’s 4 divisions reached the playoffs. Through two rounds, one of those four teams would remain standing, crowned division champion, and advance to the conference final to play the winner of the other conference division.

This time, the top 3 from each of the league’s four divisions will be guaranteed a birth in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Instead of allowing the top 4 spots in each division, NHL Realignment reserves the last two playoff spots in each conference to the top two records, not including the teams that rank in the top 3 in their division. Therefore, if the fourth- and fifth-place team in the Eastern Conference Atlantic Division finishes the season with more points than the fourth-place team in the Eastern Conference Metropolitan Division, they both make the playoffs, and the Metro It is only represented by 3 teams.

Because it cannot have a playoff format with 5 playoff teams from one division and 3 from the other, Wild Card teams are subject to crossover. When the Stanley Cup playoffs begin, the best overall record in the Eastern Conference plays against the Wild Card team with the fewest points, regardless of which division the team plays in.

4 divisions. 2 per conference. The top 3 teams in each division secure a spot in the playoffs. The top 2 records from each conference, not the top 3 in their division, qualify as wild card teams. The best conference record is played by the lowest ranked Wild Card team. * Wild card teams may be subject to crossing over to the neighboring division in the playoffs.

Let’s say the Pittsburgh Penguins win the Metro Division and finish with the most points in the East. And the Toronto Maple Leafs finish fifth in the Atlantic, yet they finish the season with more points than the fourth-place team in the Metro. Assuming the aforementioned scenario occurs, the Toronto Maple Leafs will enter the Stanley Cup playoffs as the lowest-seeded Wild Card team, so they will cross paths and compete against the best record in the East, a member of the Metropolitan. It’s NHL Realignment’s way of ensuring the best teams make the playoffs.

It is also quite possible that the joker does not interfere. There are two divisions within a conference, therefore that conference will have two fourth-place teams. If both fourth-place teams have the best records outside of the top 3 in each division, they both make the playoffs. If the best team record in the conference belongs to the 1st place team in the division that hosts the lower team of the two 4th place teams, everything is normal and the wild card does not work, or works, but without altering the traditional format playoffs.

If the NHL is going to crown division champions once again, as in the old days, then there is a chance that a Division A team will become Division B champions. If the Toronto Maple Leafs start the playoffs within the Metropolitan Division playoff draw due to their status as a wild card team, they will remain in that group for the first 2 rounds of the playoffs. This creates the possibility for two teams from the same division to meet in the conference final.

The NHL Realignment’s biggest flaw: If the top two teams in a conference play in the same division, they will likely fight in the second round of the playoffs, rather than possibly meeting in the Conference Finals with the old system. It is very possible that this will happen this season in the West, between the Chicago Blackhawks and the St. Louis Blues.

The NHL realignment was only agreed to for a three-year period. After three years there will be a realignment reevaluation with the possibility of two expansion teams joining the National Hockey League.

Sal Ientile, editor of The Hockey Daily


Twitter: @TheHockeyDaily

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *