Wednesday, January 18, 2012

If Realignment Had Taken Place in 2010: Schedule of Games

Along with the complete restructuring of the teams, the NHL also altered the schedule. Under the current model, teams play all other teams within their division six times a year, three at home and three away. All teams outside of the division but within the conference meet four times a year, two at home and two away. Teams outside the conference meet at least once a year home and away in alternating years and occasionally twice a year on a rotating basis with one home game and one on the road. Thus, the Edmonton Oilers play the Calgary Flames, Minnesota Wild, and Colorado Avalanche each six times a year. They play the San Jose Sharks, Vancouver Canucks, and all other Western Conference teams four times a year. They play all Eastern teams once (or twice) a year. All teams meet at least once a year, so everybody plays everybody. Teams play within their division the most, and many rivalries begin through these meetings.

Under the proposed alignment, the 82-game schedule changes. All teams not in the same conference will play each other twice, one game at home and one game away. In Conferences C and D (the seven-team conferences), teams will play each team within the division six times with six games at home and six on the road, just as before. In Conferences A and B, (the eight-team conferences), teams will play each other five or six times a year to be determined on a rotating basis. For example, the Nashville Predators might play the Detroit Red Wings, Chicago Blackhawks, and Dallas Stars six times, while only meeting the St. Louis Blues, Columbus Blue Jackets, Winnipeg Jets, and Minnesota Wild five times.

There is one problem with how the schedule works for Conferences A and B. These two conferences consist of the teams in the current Western Conference plus Winnipeg. Now, this is not a flaw in and of itself on paper, but it is a problem when considering the types of teams playing. In the Eastern Conference, the bottom teams are often scrambling to net a few wins, but for the most part, there are the stronger teams and the weaker teams. There is a great disparity, for whatever reason, in the East. It is also important to note that all the teams in Conferences C and D (the current Eastern Conference) will play each other the same number of times.

On the other hand, the Western Conference is a highly competitive conference, and most of the teams are within only a few points of each other and constantly struggling to maintain pace with the other teams. As former head coach of the Los Angeles Kings Terry Murray once said, "Playoffs start day one." This is even more true in the Pacific Division in which four of the five teams made the playoffs, and Dallas was just one spot and two points (or one win) from the cutoff. I remember sometime in February or so, the Kings started the day in tenth place. They played the Red Wings in Detroit and won. They shot up all the way to third place. Since this was on EST, the game finished around 7 p.m. PST, and the West Coast games were under way. By the end of the night, they had sunk down to fifth place. The standing become whacky depending on who is playing and what time it is. But back to my initial point. Under the proposed realignment, Conferences A and B face a problem. Since they do not play each team an equal number of times as in Conferences C and D, the schedule might be key to who will and will not make the playoffs. Certain teams match up well against a few others. For example, the San Jose Sharks match up well against the Phoenix Coyotes. Last season, they won five of the six games played. However, the Sharks struggle against the Los Angeles Kings and only win three of the six meetings. If the Sharks are scheduled to play the Coyotes six times and can win five games and play the Kings five times and win three, this might put them over the edge to win a playoff spot. However, if the Sharks if the Sharks play the Kings six times and only win three and only win four of five against the Coyotes, they might be one win shy of a playoff spot depending on the schedule and match-ups for the other teams. When the teams are neck-and-neck in points, the match-ups will be decisive in determining who will and will not make the playoffs.

What the proposed alignment schedule allows is for fans to see every team at least once a year. It is no secret the NHL has been trying very very hard to attract more fans (i.e. shootouts, the Winter Classic, etc.), and this is one of their strategies. Fans will have the opportunity to see the stars and up-and-comers every year. For a Philadelphia Flyers fan who lives in Vancouver, this is extremely exciting. Now, that fan is guaranteed to see Giroux's toothless grin every year. For the casual fan, this might be an opportunity to catch the great Sidney Crosby (should he be able to permanently get off IR). Of course, on the flip side, if you're a misplaced Calgary fan living in Dallas, rather than seeing the Flames stop through twice a year, you'll have to settle to once a year. I would say that if you're a Thrashers fan, then you'll just have to move to Winnipeg like the rest of the team. However, that would have required that their fans had actually attended the games.

Fans (and players) can also still enjoy the rivalries. The NHL was careful to preserve established team rivalries. For example, the Canadiens and Bruins are still in the same conference. I think at some point in the near future there will be arrangements and/or new rules regarding what to do when there aren't enough seats in the penalty box. Chicago and the Wings are still in the same conference and will be likely battling for playoff spots for a long time to come whether in the current structure or under realignment. Philly and Pittsburgh are still in the same conference. The Kings will still be Duck hunting, and just about every team in Conference A has it out for the Canucks.

This schedule also is appealing to Henry and Linda Staal. For those of you unfamiliar with hockey families, here is a current one. Not as big as the Sutter family but definitely a hockey family of the future. Currently, they have three sons all playing for three separate clubs. Eric is the captain of the Carolina Hurricanes. Marc is the alternate captain of the New York Rangers (and most recently has been taken off the IR list after suffering a concussion for which Eric isn't entirely responsible but couldn't plead innocent). Jordan is a forward for the Pittsburgh Penguins (and also had a short stint on the IR list for an "upper-body injury"). It should be noted that their fourth son, Jared, plays for the Carolina Hurricanes's minor league affiliate, the Charlotte Checkers. I read an article somewhere a year ago that Henry and Linda Staal start planning the games they will attend and arrange their travel schedule the day the NHL schedule is released. Under the current NHL structure, Marc and Jordan are both in the Atlantic Division, so they play each other quite often. However, Eric plays in the Southeast Division and doesn't play the brothers as often. Under the proposed realignment, all three Staal brothers would be playing in Conference D (unless they get traded). This would help streamline their schedule since the brothers would be playing each other more often. At the same time, the boys tend to go after each other, so maybe this will just raise poor Henry and Linda's stress.

So who doesn't like the proposed realignment schedule? Teams under the previous Eastern Conference not named Winnipeg. Eastern teams are concerned with increased travel. Let's say you're the New York Rangers. Under the current NHL structure, you're in the Atlantic Division and play the Philadelphia Flyers, the Pittsburgh Penguins, the New Jersey Devils, and the New York Islanders. You literally have to cross a bridge to play the Devils and Islanders, and you could probably take a bus to Philly and Pittsburgh if you were like John Madden and refused to fly. All these teams are really close, and you don't have to travel much. Under the new proposed realignment, you're in Conference D, and your travel increases slightly as you will now have to play the Carolina Hurricanes, but it's not such a big deal. What does concern you is that you will now have to play every team in the NHL in an away game, and this includes the entire former Western Conference. This is a huge change in travel plans. One of the reasons the NHLPA rejected the proposed realignment was that teams on the East Coast will have increased travel. Well, the West Coast teams will have to make the trip out East as well, how are they not concerned? I'm sure that the West Coast teams aren't thrilled about the travel, but they are more accustomed to it since the teams on the West are far more spread out geographically speaking. As mentioned before, the Eastern teams aren't used to having to travel so far as often.

The schedule of games has its advantages and disadvantages. I like that all teams will play each other in a home-and-home series because I like having the opportunity to have more access to the players. For example, I like Tampa Bay, so instead of seeing them every other year, I would be able to see them every year. However, I'm not a huge fan of the five or six game matchup in Conferences A and B because as a fan of the Kings, it's possible that the schedule could put the Kings at a disadvantage before the season even starts. I think players would be more comfortable with having an idea of what the travel schedule would be for games, and this is part of the reason why they rejected the realignment. I read somewhere that the players had asked for a mock schedule to have an idea of what was being proposed. And I can see their point. Sometimes there are long road trips because the home arena is being used for another event. I think the Sharks had an especially long road rip last year, something like eight games or maybe more. That's unusually long, but if you're also having to be across the country for most of it, you probably want to have an idea of what that might look like. The NHL refused to do so which lead to their uneasiness about such a change. In any case, I would really really really hate to be the NHL scheduler of games!

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