Lacing Up: Post-lockout NHL Geography
In remembrance of the late Ashley Gallant, originator of “Lacing Up,” Matt Paul, Joshua Neal, and, at times, guest writers will hold a week-long email discussion, which will be published on FF Monday mornings. If you have any topics you would like to see us discuss, or if you would like to be a guest in our series, please let us know through the comments section below or on our Contact page, linked at the top of FF.
Matt Paul: Good morning all. This beautiful Monday morning comes with a surprise. Okay, so I have no idea what this morning looks like, as this conversation started last Tuesday — but hopefully it’s a nice morning and you’re enjoying it just fine as you read this. Anyway, back on track. Today marks the return of a writer from FF past. Many of you will “hate” this — and that includes the writer himself — but I think he’s an addition that will mix in well. He’ll be joining Josh Neal and I for “Lacing Up” and will return to regular duties on hump day. I’ll allow him to reacquaint himself in his response.
But, for now, let’s get to our topic. If/when the NHL season resumes, we’re once again looking at a funky division/conference alignment that will put the Winnipeg Jets on the Eastern Conference and Southeast Division, while the Columbus Blue Jackets and Detroit Red Wings remain in the Western Conference. Only in the NHL, eh? The last time I checked the map, Winnipeg is not among the 15 Eastern-most NHL cities and certainly is not among the southern-most cities. Did I miss something on the maps episode of “Dora The Explorer” while watching with my daughter? Oh, and by the way, the creators of that show may know a thing or two about maps, but maybe we should attempt to teach them a bit about how to rhyme. Am I right?
Mike Wilson: Boy, is it great to be back! Thanks for having me back, Matt! And Josh, I forward to working with you in the future, as well. All you rascally readers can find my column, the Humpday Hater Report, back at, and only at, Faceoff Factor, Wednesday, Dec. 12. And this time, I hope it’s for as many Humpdays as possible!
But now to business. As Matt pointed out, the NHL realignment plan was one of the major issues in the league before the lockout (you know, that really major issue) came upon us. Before last season even ended, the league proposed a four-conference plan. Conference A was essentially merged the Northwest and Pacific divisions, minus Minnesota and Dallas. Conference B was the Central, plus Winnipeg, Minnesota and Dallas. C was the Northeast, plus Tampa Bay and Florida (for some God forsaken reason). And D was the Atlantic, plus Carolina and Washington.
The NHL went on to announce with trumpets and garlands that this would be the way it is forever…until they remembered they actually need the players’ consent (not that it’s stopped them before). Thus, the lockout occurred, and here we sit with an unresolved realignment plan. Talks about the plans resurfaced as recently as the end of October that kept the Eastern and Western Conferences, but retained only two divisions. What the NHL appeared to try was carving vertical lines into the map (no maps were harmed), and had basically a division each for eastern coastal cities (minus Boston), inland eastern cities (plus Boston), mid-American/Canadian cities, and west coast cities.
No one has yet to agree, obviously. In fact, the most recent proposal received a lot of criticism from Pittsburgh, since it split up its rivalry with Philadelphia. Yoy, that’s a lot of proposals. Josh, what do you see being the most sensible option, and will anyone ever agree on this?
Josh Neal: A pleasure, and same to you, Mike. To answer your question, I think there are a combination of the different plans that all bring something nice to the table. First, the idea of travel distances being a huge issue, to me, is pretty irrelevant. Travel expenses are miniscule in comparison to the gaudy salaries these players make, and from an ownership standpoint, the costs have to be pretty negligible. From a fan standpoint, I don’t think many people travel to barns outside of their own unless its for a hated rival that happens to be a few hours away. No matter how we cut it up, the teams in the West are going to have to travel further, and that makes things tough on them. But the equalizing factor here is that they play a lot of home games against teams from the East coming the same distance. If anything, Winnipeg holds an advantage being where they’re at now – in that the number of games they play against the East is much higher than any other teams that demand that kind of travel distance.
Personally, I really liked the 4-conference proposal for several different reasons. It was not perfect, but I’ve come to learn that few things are. First, the Penguins got to keep the same division plus the rival Capitals and a potentially growing rivalry with Carolina all things considered now. Second, the whole “naming each conference after a hockey legend” idea sounded pretty awesome – not sure if that was just a rumor or had some clout to it. Third,this format seemed most appealing from a playoff standpoint. The four divisions would have to play their own champion out, which would cause rivalries like Philly/Pittsburgh or Detroit/Chicago to happen more frequently, even if earlier in the playoff picture. Now, the Midwest and the Atlantic would essentially be like “Hell in a Cell” even in the first round of the playoffs, but television ratings would doubtless be amazing with that in mind.
Matt, many disparaged this particular realignment model because it was too “extreme.” Are you too “conservative old time hockey” to be a fan of this version of realignment?
Matt: Josh, I actually think those who are for old time hockey would be for this version. Think about it. If we look back to our “Glory Days” piece from last week and consider the conference and division alignments of the early 1990s, you’ll notice a very similar approach. For starters, we had the Wales and Campbell Conferences divided into the Patrick, Adams, Norris, and Smythe Divisions — all named after NHL greats. Secondly, we had two Conferences divided into two divisions each. It’s a strong idea that, as you said, allows for increased rivalries, particularly by means of having to fight the gauntlet in the playoffs. To me, this is a traditionalist idea, and one I’m all for…except that it presents a major issue in that 30 does not divide into 4 equal parts.
So, as we dig deeper into this alignment, what we see is two eight-team divisions and two seven-team divisions. Depending on how the divisions are picked, and depending on the balance of power (which can shift from year to year), it could present an unfair advantage to teams in the smaller divisions, who have less competition to make it to the playoffs and once in the playoffs than do the teams in the larger divisions. For that reason alone, I feel like a six-division alignment makes most sense — but I still want to see the return of conferences and divisions named to honor hockey greats. Mike, if you were tasked with re-naming the conferences and divisions, would you take the names mentioned above and add two (such as Gretzky and Lemieux, for example) or would you reach for eight new names — and what would they be?
ou know, the use of legendary names for divisions and conferences is one of the things I thought the NHL never should’ve gotten rid of in the first place. Should the original four conference plan end up being the one the league and players agree with, I would like to see them reinstate names of legends for divisions.
Given that things have changed drastically in the NHL since the days of the Patrick, Adams, Norris, and Smythe divisions, I would adopt new names, perhaps updating them every generation or so. If I were the commissioner (which, really, it’s a shame I’m not), I would bring back the Campbell and Wales conferences. We already have the trophies, why not keep them? If we were to go to four divisions (or conferences, as originally planned by the NHL last December), with Boston, Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Edmonton, all in different conferences, I would propose the Orr, Lemieux, Howe, and Gretzky divisions.
Not only does it honor players and traditions from the past, but it also takes the geographical burden off teams in the future should another realignment discussions resurface. Even in the current six division structure, I’m sure the Winnipeg Jets would have an easier time playing in the Bure or Vanbiesbrouck Division, as opposed to the Southeast, until things got straightened out.
Of course, using those names would draw criticism from fans who don’t a division named for their team’s legend. Flyers fans would want the Clarke Division, the Rangers could make a case for Messier, Montreal for Richard, the Islanders for Jay-Z. My point is, it would never end, and fans would never be satisfied.
But, as far as the numbers go, Matt’s point about six divisions being the most sensible couldn’t be more true, in my opinion. Unfortunately, our brilliant minds won’t be the ones making the decision to realign the league. So Josh, which option to you see the NHL ultimately choosing when, and if, the lockout comes to an end?
Josh Well, Mike, I think that the first thing we will be in for is at least a season of what we’ve got now. As nonsensical as it may be to have Winnipeg in the Southeastern Division, at this point the league and its players are much more concerned about key financial issues including player contract terms and owner/player revenue split. The fortunate news here is that I believe Winnipeg is a city that will be able to sustain a profitable franchise this time around.
Anyway, when it all settles out, I do think the six division, two conference model will hold with a few adjustments. Namely, I believe that Winnipeg will move into the Northwest Division and Western Conference. This will push Minnesota to the Central to hold form. Lastly, one team from the Central will need to move to the Southeast to keep everything neat and tidy. Geographically, I think Nashville makes a lot of sense there. I also think a built in rivalry with Carolina would be mutually beneficial.
One thing’s for sure, there are a lot of things in the league that are ready for and in need of a change. While realignment takes its forms in the extreme and conservative formats, I think that each one of those approaches brings something to the table here. I’m glad that Winnipeg once again has a franchise and am in full support of whatever changes need to be made in order to maintain some semblance of sensibility with divisions and conferences. In the end, I think those changes will fall to a more conservative side, simply because of the mentality of the league at this point in time. But there’s certainly nothing wrong with getting back to your roots. Speaking of, Mike, it’s been great having you on. I think I speak for all of us in saying that we’re looking forward to a “return to our roots” of our own sort, with the imminent return of your Hater Report column. It’s been a pleasure. Until next time…