By Steve Silverman-
(CBS) Realignment is proving to be a sticky issue in the NHL.
The powers that be feel forced to shake things up and move teams around, primarily because the Atlanta Thrashers moved to Winnipeg and became the Jets two years ago.
Winnipeg, in Canada’s vacation province of Alberta, is decidedly not in the East. So the league wants to ease the burden on the team and put them in the Western Conference.
But it also wants to make the Eastern time zone Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets happy by moving them to the Eastern Conference. It seems the Red Wings are not happy with their TV ratings when they have to play so many road games in Los Angeles, San Jose, Vancouver and Calgary.
So realignment has been one of the league’s primary issues since the lockout ended and it appears that the NHL is pushing a plan that includes two eight-team divisions in the Eastern Conference and two seven-team divisions in the Western Conference.
The Chicago Blackhawks would remain in the Western Conference, but they would be the only Original Six team in it since the Red Wings are moving to a division that includes the Boston Bruins, Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs.
The Red Wings are arguably the Blackhawks’ biggest rival—although you can make a case for the St. Louis Blues or Vancouver Canucks. However, losing the Red Wings hurts Chicago quite a bit.
Much of realignment has been discussed with an eye towards saving teams money when it comes to travel. That’s understandable, but it’s not really forward thinking.
Remember, the NHL has a 10-year, $2 billion television contract with NBC at its disposal and it is not operating on the cheap. It also won a huge financial victory during the four-month lockout. Starting with the 2013-14 season, the owners will pay out 50 percent in revenues to the players. Prior to arriving at that figure, the NHL paid 57 percent of its revenues to players.
The NHL should have its eye on the fairest competition and creating the most exciting playoff situation. Here’s a radical suggestion on how you do that:
Scrap the whole conference/division system. You have 30 teams and all groupings and divisions need to be eliminated.
There are 29 opponents to play. During the regular season, you play 24 teams three times each. Twice at home and once on the road or vice-versa. Switching home-ice advantage every other year. You have five opponents that you play twice a year, home-and-home.
That adds up to 82 regular-season games.
At the end of the regular season, the top 16 teams make the playoffs. Once the playoffs begin, the No. 1 seed plays the No. 16 seed, the No. 2 seed plays the No. 15 seed and you proceed in that fashion.
The idea is to create the best, fairest and most interesting matchups.
In the previously proposed four-conference setup, the advancing team would have to go through its conference in the first two rounds before advancing to the semifinals.
As it is now, there is a sense of sameness to the playoffs. While there is nothing boring about the Blackhawks meeting the Canucks nearly every year in the playoffs, the matchup will eventually get old.
You can have too much of a good thing and fans will stop appreciating it if the same two teams meet in the playoffs every year.
If you think the playoff proposal outlined above seems wacky, the NHL actually used a similar system in the late 1970s. During the latter half of that decade, the Blackhawks actually played teams like the Bruins, Canadiens and New York Islanders in the first round of the playoffs.
That’s what fans want to see. They want variety in the early rounds of the playoffs and they want the best teams to meet in the semifinals and Stanley Cup Finals.
By playing similar schedules, the final regular-season standings will represent a more accurate distribution of teams. It will also assure that the teams that deserve to compete in the playoffs actually get there.
When the Blackhawks beat the Flyers in 2010 to win the Stanley Cup, they were facing an undeserving opponent. The Flyers had 88 points that year and finished seventh in the Eastern Conference. That season, four Western Conference teams (Dallas Stars, Anaheim Ducks, Calgary Flames and St. Louis Blues) had 88 points or more and none of those teams even made the playoffs.
Give the fans the best product and quit whining about travel costs. You can do that with a (relatively) balanced schedule and a No. 1 through No. 16 playoff system.
It’s not what hockey fans are used to but it would be the best and most exciting thing for the game.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy) and read more of his CBS Chicago columns here.