NHL Realignment Explained

Gary Bettman, NHL Realignment

Image Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

During the 2012-13 regular season of yesteryear, the NHL and the 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 split equally 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. Realignment divides the conferences unevenly, breaking a fourteen year span of 15 teams in the East and 15 in the West. Splitting the conferences up into two groups of 15 doesn’t make sense anymore from a geographical standpoint because the east side of North America is home to more teams than the west 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 enjoy a refreshing escape from demanding Western Conference travel. In the previous system the Wings and Jackets were forced to fly all over southern America, the Midwest, and the west side of North America throughout the course of an NHL season. Teams only slightly more east on the map were afforded the luxury of playing in the Eastern Conference, where they avoided such rigorous routes to their next game destinations, aside from a few road trips.

In 2011, the Eastern Time Zoned Atlanta Thrashers relocated to Winnipeg, creating 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 back in 2012-13. Perhaps the pending NHL Lockout prevented the PA from taking a stance on major changes to the game, at the time. With the Lockout in the rear view mirror, Realignment was finally approved last March.

NHL Realignment – The New Divisions

Western Conference – Pacific Division

Anaheim DucksCalgary FlamesEdmonton OilersLos Angeles KingsPhoenix CoyotesSan Jose SharksVancouver Canucks

Western Conference – Central Division

Chicago BlackhawksColorado AvalancheDallas StarsMinnesota WildNashville PredatorsSt. Louis Blues – Winnipeg Jets

Eastern Conference – Metropolitan Division

Carolina Hurricanes – Columbus Blue Jackets – New Jersey DevilsNew York IslandersNew York RangersPhiladelphia FlyersPittsburgh PenguinsWashington Capitals

Eastern Conference – Atlantic Division

Boston BruinsBuffalo Sabres – Detroit Red Wings – Florida PanthersMontreal CanadiensOttawa SenatorsTampa Bay LightningToronto Maple Leafs

NHL Realignment Playoff Structure:

From now on, the playoffs is no longer a free for all fight for a spot within the top 8 of the conference. Just like the good 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, let’s say, the Eastern Conference’s Atlantic Division, and the remaining team from the East’s 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 utilized the go-through-your-division-first structure was 1992-93. Back in 93′ and for years before, the top four records in each of the league’s 4 divisions made the playoffs. Through two rounds, one of those four teams would be left standing, crowned division champion, and advance to the Conference Final to play the winner of the conference’s other division.

This time around, 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. Rather than allow the top 4 from each division, NHL Realignment reserves the final two playoff spots in each conference to the two best records, not including teams which place top 3 in their division. Therefore, if the 4th and 5th place team in the Eastern Conference’s Atlantic Division finish the season with more points than the 4th place team in the Eastern Conference’s Metropolitan Division – they both make the playoffs, and the Metro is only represented by 3 teams.

Because you can’t have a playoff format with 5 playoff teams from one division and 3 from the other, the Wild Card teams are subject to crossing over. When the Stanley Cup playoffs begin, the best overall record in the Eastern Conference plays the Wild Card team with fewer points, regardless of the division that team plays in.

4 divisions. 2 per conference. Top 3 teams from each division clinch a playoff spot. 2 best records from each conference, not top 3 in their division qualify as Wild Card teams. Best record in the conference plays lower seeded Wild Card team. *Wild Card teams may be subject to crossing over to neighbouring division in the playoffs.

Let’s say the Pittsburgh Penguins win the Metro Division and finish with the most total points in the East. And the Toronto Maple Leafs finish 5th in the Atlantic, however, they end the season with more points than the 4th place team in the Metro. Assuming the above mentioned scenario occurs, the Toronto Maple Leafs will enter the Stanley Cup playoffs as the lowest seeded Wild Card team, thus, they will crossover 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 very possible for the Wild Card to not interfere. There are two divisions within a conference, therefore, that conference will have two 4th place teams. If both 4th place teams possess the best records outside of each division’s top 3, they both make the playoffs. If the best team record in the conference belongs to the 1st place team in the division that houses the lower of the two 4th place teams – all is normal and the Wild Card is non functioning – or functioning, but not altering traditional playoff format.

If the NHL is to crown division champions once again, like the old days, then there exists a possibility for a team from Division A to become champion of Division B. If the Toronto Maple Leafs begin the playoffs inside the Metropolitan Division playoff bracket because of their status as a Wild Card team, they will remain in that bracket throughout the first 2 rounds of playoffs. This creates the possibility for two teams from the same division to meet in the conference finals.

The biggest flaw of NHL Realignment – if the two best teams in one conference play in the same division, they will likely do battle in the 2nd round of the playoffs, as opposed to, possibly meeting in the Conference Finals under the old system. This may very well happen this season in the West, between the Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues.

NHL Realignment was only agreed upon for a three year period. After three years there will be a realignment reevaluation with the potential for two expansion teams to join the National Hockey League.