Monday, January 16, 2012

If Realignment Had Taken Place in 2010: Cartography

As of the time of this post, the NHL has declared that the proposed realignment plan will not be put into place for the 2012-2013 season because it did not receive approval from the NHLPA. For those of you not familiar with the realignment plan, let me briefly explain.

First, let's rewind a little to the end of the 2010-2011 season. The Atlanta Thrashers had been a struggling franchise with a diminishing fan base despite attempts to attract followers. Winnipeg had once been home to the Jets who moved to Phoenix because of financial struggles, but with the economic situation changed, Winnipeg built a new stadium and was ready to house a new team. Hence, Atlanta become the Jets 2.0. However, the former Atlanta Thrashers had belonged to the Eastern Conference in the Southeast Division, which includes the Washington Capitals, Tampa Bay Lightning, Carolina Hurricanes, and Florida Panthers. With team now in Winnipeg, the Southeast Division became more of a geographical mess (and it's not like the Caps made a whole lot of sense in this category in the first place). So why not move them out? Well, it's not that simple. Winnipeg makes more sense if it were to be included in the Western Conference, but moving them to that conference would require a Western team moving to the East. Well, the Detroit Red Wings, Chicago Blackhawks, and the Nashville Predators, were all more than willing to be the one to move. In December of 2010, the NHL Board of Governors held a series of meetings in Pebble Beach (California seems an ideal place for this annual meeting but not for the Winter Classic, just saying Mr. Bettman) to discuss the situation. What they developed was an entirely new structure to the conferences and schedule of games, including the playoffs.

Current NHL Structure:

Eastern Conference
Atlantic Division: New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins
Northeast Division: Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres, Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators, Toronto Maple Leafs
Southeast Division: Carolina Hurricanes, Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals, Winnipeg Jets

Western Conference
Central Division: Chicago Blackhawks, Columbus Blue Jackets, Detroit Red Wings, Nashville Predators, St. Louis Blues
Northwest Division: Calgary Flames, Colorado Avalanche, Edmonton Oilers, Minnesota Wild, Vancouver Canucks
Pacific Division: Anaheim Ducks, Dallas Stars, Los Angeles Kings, Phoenix Coyotes, San Jose Sharks

Under the current structure, the 30 NHL teams are divided into six five-team divisions. Three divisions belong in the East and three in the West. Here is the proposed realignment:

Conference A
Anaheim Ducks, Calgary Flames, Colorado Avalanche, Edmonton Oilers, Los Angeles Kings, Phoenix Coyotes, San Jose Sharks, Vancouver Canucks

Conference B
Chicago Blackhawks, Columbus Blue Jackets, Dallas Stars, Detroit Red Wings, Minnesota Wild, Nashville Predators, St. Louis Blues, Winnipeg Jets

Conference C
Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres, Florida Panthers, Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators, Tampa Bay Lightning, Toronto Maple Leafs

Conference D
Carolina Hurricanes, New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals

Under the proposed realignment, there are four conferences. Now, if there are 30 NHL teams, how did Bettman divide 30 by 4? Now stop sweating if you were falling asleep during fourth-grade long division. It can't be done since half a team can't be playing another half a team. Instead, Conferences A and B are comprised of eight teams while Conferences C and D only have seven. This is one of the problems that the players have with this unequal division of teams, but it will be discussed in a later section regarding playoffs. Playoffs? Don't talk about playoffs! Playoffs? Are you kidding me? Sorry, I'll be discussing playoffs, and it's no joke, Jim Mora.

Looking at the new structure, this is a far more geographically friendly model than the current one. This case is more true for the Western teams. On the East, travel is slightly different. Most of these teams are so close to one another that travel is a virtual non-issue, even if it is to another state. On the West, since the teams are more spread out, travel is a major issue. And it's not only travel, but it is also times for games. For example, the Dallas Stars are in the Central Time Zone. Under the current NHL structure, they are in the Pacific Division and play the Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles Kings, and San Jose Sharks which are on Pacific Standard Time (hmmmm... maybe that's how they named the division?). Every time the Stars play these teams, there is a time difference of two hours, not to mention the travel (at least a three-hour plane ride). The Stars also play the Phoenix Coyotes, which are on Mountain Standard Time. The Stars must travel outside their time zone for every away game within the division.

So what's the big deal? Well, when it's a difference of two hours, it is an adjustment. Players have a regimented schedule, especially on game day. There is a morning skate, as the visiting team this would take place at around 10:30 a.m. Already this puts them at a slight disadvantage since they will have less time to recuperate from practice before game time. However, 10:30 a.m. is going to feel like 12:30 p.m. Your body is going to be hungry and maybe a little tired in preparation for the pre-game snooze. Visiting teams usually wrap up the morning skate by 12:30 and head over for lunch and time for players to nap and relax before the game. Most games take place at 7 or 7:30 p.m., and players head over to the arena around 4 p.m. for interviews, warm-ups, and whatever else. If game time is at 7 or 7:30, your body might feel like it's 9 or 9:30 p.m. So if you see the Stars looking sluggish at the start of game against the Anaheim Ducks, it might be because their bodies haven't quite adjusted to the time change. And if you're a Stars fan, you're hoping they'll wake up and find their rhythm. Stars players have to deal with this change in time when traveling to play the teams that they play the most. Not an ideal situation.

Furthermore, it becomes more difficult for fans to follow their team. When games are during the week, most people don't want to be starting a game at 9 or 9:30 at night and have it end three hours later, or longer if there is overtime and/or a shootout. Under the proposed realignment, they will not have to travel out of their time zone as often and will play teams much closer than teams literally hugging the coast, cannot get much further west than that. The Detroit Red Wings cited this as one of the reasons that they wanted to be placed into the Eastern Conference, to give their fans a better opportunity of seeing their games. However, if you're a Rangers fan living out in California, there is no "better" for you... unless you find a job ends before 4 p.m. or that allows you to watch a game via GameCenterLive or NHL Center Ice. I would think teacher or bartender might be career path for you if you can't hold out and watch a taped game.

The biggest winner in this proposed realignment is the Winnipeg Jets. Remember earlier in this blog when I explained what created this whole change in restructure? Well, Winnipeg Jets win big time. This year the Jets have to travel a whole heck of a lot since they're in the Eastern Conference but not geographically located in the East. Under realignment, their travel schedule would be reduced practically exponentially. In Conference B, they would be able to play teams much closer to them more often and not have to travel outside of their time zone for every Conference game as they do now.

The only teams that would have increased travel within their conference under the proposed realignment would be Tampa Bay and Florida. Under the current schedule, they are in the Southeast Division with the Winnipeg Jets (the other teams they play are listed above). Under the proposed realignment, they would have to travel much farther north to play the Buffalo Sabres, the Boston Bruins, the Montreal Canadiens, and the Ottawa Senators. Previously, they never had to travel farther north than Washington D.C. nor did they have to constantly have their passport in hand. Although these teams do have increased travel, the rivalry with Florida is preserved. Tampa Bay and Florida were a little less excited about the proposed realignment since they have so much more traveling. Perhaps they would have been better served by being placed in Conference D and not have to travel quite as far. They could take the place of the Washington and Carolina. However, I think the NHL wanted to place Ovechkin's team in the same conference as Crosby's team and increase that rivalry. And I can respect that because the NHL is not as popular in the states as in Canada. Most people are familiar with the two players especially after last year's Winter Classics and HBO's 24/7. If these are games that people are more inclined to watch and it allows the sport to become more popular, I think that it is worth that extra travel for Tampa Bay and Florida. Of course, I'm sure Yzerman would disagree. Who knows Jeremy Roenick may become America's Don Cherry, and we'll have Hockey Day in America (which NBC did for literally one day, despite the fact that HNIC is every Saturday night)!

All in all the proposed realignment does allow a more geographically and time-zone friendly arrangement of teams and conferences. Most teams will reduce travel within the conference, with the exception of Tampa Bay and Florida. Fans will also have a better opportunity to follow their teams. While there seems more of an upside to this realignment, the view begins to change as we look into other aspects of it. In the next section, I'll be discussing the change in schedule of games.

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