Radical Realignment Hits the NHL. How Will it Impact St. Louis?

Radical Realignment Hits the NHL. How Will it Impact St. Louis?

It’s official. The NHL’s crazy scheme to dramatically turn the current format fans are used to on its head has passed. Surprisingly, the vote passed with little argument or hesitation. The NHL is notorious for tinkering with its game, perhaps a little too much, but this is the biggest change we’ve seen since the induction of the shootout. Personally, I’ve been firmly against shifting to a four conference system, but the vote has passed which means its time to start analyzing how the change will impact the Blues.

The NHL has approved a new four conference system which will take the place of the current two conference, six division system. So long Central Division, it was fun while it lasted. I can only hope I won’t miss you as much as I fear I will.

New Conferences

Conference 1: Vancouver Canucks, Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks, Colorado Avalanche, Phoenix Coyotes and Anaheim Ducks.

Conference 2: Winnipeg Jets, Detroit Red Wings, Chicago Blackhaweks, St. Louis Blues, Nashville Predators, Columbus Blue Jackets, Dallas Stars and Minnesota Wild.

Conference 3: Toronto Maple Leafs, Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators, Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres, Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers.

Conference 4: Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers, New York Rangers, New York Islanders, New Jersey Devils, Carolina Hurricanes and Washington Capitals.

If you follow me on Twitter, you’re likely aware of my thoughts on the new alignment. The talk of realignment only became relevant when the NHL moved the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg, which is a whole story itself. Obviously, Winnipeg doesn’t belong in a division with the Tampa Bay Lightning, etc, so the realignment talk kicked off.

The theory with the most sense behind was to shift one team from the Western Conference, one within the Central Division, over to the Eastern Conference and shift Winnipeg to the West. One obvious solution would be to flip Columbus to the East and have Winnipeg partner up with the Blues, Blackhawks, Red Wings and Predators in the Central. No massive changes, no need for a complete overhaul.

But you see, that’s not how the NHL does things. The NHL loves to take a small issue, complaint or group of people and make a massive change based on their feelings. Yes, currently the realignment idea has been passed by the Board of Governors, but honestly, how will they feel when there team misses out on the playoffs due to the new format change?

The new four conference (Do we really have to call them conferences? Can’t we call them divisions?) system will feature two conferences with eight teams and two with seven. There will be home-and-home games, plenty of new matchups, retained rivalries, blah, blah blah. I feel the NHL has covered up the biggest issue, playoffs, under mindless talk about the regular season. (More info on the new format can be found here)

Huge Negative #1

Four teams will make the playoffs from each conference. Which means, a team in a conference with eight teams has a tougher road than a team in a conference with seven teams. That’s basic math. The Blues are in “Conference B” with Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Detroit, Minnesota, Nashville and Winnipeg. Yes, the Blues will be a team in a conference with eight teams, meaning they could miss out on the playoffs while a team with a worse record sneaks by in a different conference. It may not seem like a big deal now, but we’ll wait until it actually happens to a base of fans.

I’m a huge advocate of fairness. The above sentiment is simply not fair. One team, or a group of teams, should not have a mathematical edge in making the postseason.

Huge Negative #2

After the teams climb into the playoffs, they’ll find a format that eliminates some of the best teams immediately. For those of us in St. Louis, imagine the Blues finish 4th of eight teams in “Conference B”. For the sake of the argument, let’s say Chicago finishes first, Detroit second and Dallas third. The first seed will play the fourth, the second plays the third. Theoretically, barring a major collapse from either franchise, the Blues will have to best either Detroit or Chicago – in the first round.

Keep in mind, this new format would allow for a team that win’s the President’s Trophy, to be paired up with the Blues in the first round, where a finish under the current (or now old format) would grant the Blues an easier path. If they finished with enough points to be 5th under the current format, a format where they’d play the squad with enough points for 4th, the Blues would lose that advantage and have to take on a tougher squad due to the new alignment.

Now, I understand that to win a Cup there is no easy road, but from a neutral fan’s angle, the new format will squander some of the best matchups early in the playoffs.

Under the same example, let’s say Chicago bested the Blues and Detroit bested Dallas. The two would then collide in a “Conference” showdown. Under the old format, these two might have met in a best of seven that would have sent the winner to the Stanley Cup. Instead, they would meet a round earlier and battle in the second round for the right to face … the winner of the other conference.

The new format will eliminate better teams, quicker. If a conference is loaded with good teams, not only will some deserving sides be left out but some will be forced to play the cream of the crop in the playoffs … before they even exit their own conference.

Next, each conference winner that is left standing is seeded by total points, and the matchups are set. Theoretically, this means a Stanley Cup could come down to two teams from the “West” or “East”. For example, this means the Blues could face the Canucks for the Cup, hypothetically.

This is a point I’m divided on. Sure, a Cup against the Blackhawks would be a ton of fun, but it loses some of the luster of playing the best from the other side of the league. As for ratings, I don’t think the East coast bias would enjoy seeing two Western teams battle it out.

Anyway, back to playoff talk…

As we are all too familiar, the Blues currently play in a Central Division that has posted some solid talent in recent years. There have been years where the Central could field four playoff squads and have the fifth just missing out. At times the Central has been labeled the toughest Division in the league. Whether or not that is still true is up for debate, but the fact the Blues still have all the familiar faces AND the additions of the Stars, Wild and Jets … well, things aren’t looking very pretty.

So there you have it. The new play, now approved, in all of its glory. Gone is the Central, gone is the Western Conference as we know it. The NHL took a seemingly minor issue, ignored the obvious and least controversial solution and instead blew up the NHL as we knew it. In case it’s not clear, I feel the NHL make a huge, huge mistake. Smaller teams and smaller markets will be crushed under the new format (Columbus for one). Honestly, barring HUGE changes, can you picture Columbus making the playoffs?

Can you picture the Blues making the playoffs now that they have to not only contest with Chicago and Detroit, but battle the current division-leading Dallas Stars and league-leading Minnesota Wild for a playoff spot?

Honestly, this is a crushing result for St. Louis fans. The team is on the up & up, yes, but even a fantastic year in 2012-13 may result in us looking on the outside in due to the new format, while a weaker team advances.

Voice your opinion in the comments below. Would love to hear your view, whether in favor or against the new format.