theknightswhosay

How the NHL Should Handle Divisions and Scheduling

In History, NHL, Realignment on December 8, 2018 at 7:07 PM

I do have various thoughts about the college football bowl games and also about a certain coach I’ve loved to hate for about the last 15 years.  However, since there is a full week before even the uninteresting bowl games start, my mind has wandered to other topics, like hockey.  (By the way, I updated my college football ratings site after the Army/Navy game.)

If you’re not familiar with my work here, college football is what I normally write about.  I watch a variety of sports at least on occasional, but sports like hockey don’t leave enough time between games to ruminate like I like to do, so I usually only write about the big-picture items for those sports.

I’m hoping people who actually somewhat follow hockey will read this, but I’ll try to make sure I cover all the bases (or the five hole or whatever the hockey analogy would be) for those who don’t.

If you haven’t heard, the NHL has recently decided to join the NFL at 32 teams (by expanding to Seattle). I hope the league takes this opportunity to enact some realignment like the NFL did when it went to 32 teams (except without adding divisions).

The logo and color pattern of the Seattle Metropolitans, who won the Stanley Cup in 1917. The logo of the new team has not been determined.

Historical Context

I did previously write about this topic in 2014; but as that was before the expansions to Las Vegas and Seattle, I no longer think that the Red Wings should be put back in the Western Conference.  I have a section below about what I would do if the geographic balance were to change in the future.

I also wrote about the topic in 2011, but (in addition to being before the expansion teams were awarded) that was before the most-recent realignment and the reduction to two divisions (which took place after the 2012 season).  At that time, it would have been necessary to have American teams from outside of the Pacific time zone play in the most-western division if they did go down to four divisions.  Part of that blog also had in mind expansion teams in the Midwest and Eastern Canada, which the NHL obviously chose not to do. 

I still think there may be some merit in splitting North America into four geographic quarters in the future (obviously with the Western ones being much wider); but with exactly half of the teams (once Seattle joins) being in the Eastern time zone, the border between the Eastern and Central time zones makes the most sense as a boundary between the Eastern and Western Conferences.  It also makes sense for continuity because that’s the current boundary.

I also think it’s a good thing that under my current suggestion three of the four divisions will have an “original six” (I’ll talk about what that means later) member.  The exception would be the West Coast/Pacific Division, but there were four teams from the West Coast who won or tied for the Stanley Cup (the 1919 Finals were cut short by the flu epidemic) between 1915 and 1925 (two represented Seattle, one represented Victoria, and one represented Vancouver). 

During that time, the NHL champion played the WCHL or WHL (for West Coast or Western Hockey League), which went out of business in 1926.  Thereafter, the NHL has had exclusive possession of the Stanley Cup.  For obvious logistical reasons, it did not make sense to add West Coast teams to the NHL at that time.  The NHL would not expand to the West Coast (with the Los Angeles Kings and Oakland Seals) until over 40 years later, and Vancouver did not have a team again until 1970.  The new team will be the first NHL team in Seattle, and there has not been one in Victoria.

Current Playoff Format and Western Conference

I’ll start with what makes sense right now.

The first thing I wouldn’t change is the playoff format.  I like that the top three teams in the each division make it onto each side of the playoff bracket, and I think it’s reasonable to have the two wild cards to address any imbalances between the divisions.  The early-round games are more fun when there are natural rivalries involved.

The current alignment in the west is fine except adding Seattle would give the pacific division too many teams, so Arizona makes the most sense to move over. This seems to be the NHL’s intention, but I’ll explain why.

Arizona is admittedly only partially in the Mountain Time Zone (for about 4 months a year since most of the year is now daylight savings, which Arizona does not have; so during daylight savings, Arizona is the same time as Pacific Daylight Time).  

Calgary and Edmonton (both in the province of Alberta) do have daylight savings, but it just makes too much sense to have the three western Canada teams together (with Seattle going forward), in my opinion. The Alberta teams are closer to Vancouver (in British Columbia) and Seattle than they are to Minnesota and Winnipeg (in Manitoba).

Arizona isn’t really driving distance to other teams either way.  Dallas and Colorado are short flights away, so it’s not a huge change in travel, although they will have more.  Playing more eastern teams may be better for Phoenix residents who moved from the Midwest, Texas, or Colorado.  I don’t know how long they’ll stay there since they’ve consistently been one of the worst-performing teams for attendance anyway.  For now, the NHL seems to want to keep them there so these are still things worth considering.

This is the current format. Except for Phoenix (black dot on purple), the NHL teams are represented by purple dots on the map. If you need labels, those are on the map of my suggested alignment below. Arizona is purple because it’s expected that Phoenix will be moving from the westernmost division to the more eastern division of the Western Conference.

Conference Alignment and Possible Changes

I already covered why I would want to keep the teams in their current conferences barring a new round of expansions or a team moving.

I did want to address the possibility of the Coyotes moving east.  If it were not to the East Coast or eastern Canada, they’d be fine where they are. If they (or another Western Conference team) were to move to the East Coast or to eastern Canada, I’d suggest moving Columbus to the Western Conference given relative proximity to Chicago, St. Louis, and Nashville.  Another possibility would be moving Detroit to the Western Conference, where they played until 2012; but I now think separating them from the New York (including Buffalo) and eastern Canada teams makes less sense.

It seems unlikely, but if a team were to move from east to west, the best team to change conferences would be Nashville given relative proximity to Columbus, Carolina,and the Florida teams (Florida [Miami area] and Tampa Bay).

Problems with Current Eastern Conference Alignment

Anyway, the only criticism I have of the current alignment is in the East. The extreme northeastern teams (the three Canadian teams [Montreal, Ottawa, and Toronto], Buffalo, and Boston) were added to Detroit and the two Florida teams.  I would prefer that these changes be made before the expansion since expansion won’t affect the Eastern Conference.

Columbus and Detroit

Detroit had previously been in a Western Conference division with Chicago, St. Louis, Columbus, and Nashville.

No one should worry about whether people will attend games in Detroit; it’s more about the interests of the players as far as travel and time.  As mentioned, it’s probably best for them not to be the only Eastern Time Zone team in the Western Conference.

I also think it’s a good idea for the Red Wings to be a representative of the “original six”in the more Southern division in the East. So one shouldn’t be worried about attendance for their home games like I said, but their presence on the schedules may help with attendance of their road games.

I would also note that none of the other major leagues have Detroit in the Eastern seaboard/Northeast division. They’re with Midwestern teams.  In the NFL, Detroit plays Chicago, Green Bay, and Minnesota in the same division.  In the NBA, they play Milwaukee, Indiana, Cleveland, and Chicago.  In the AL, they play Chicago, Cleveland, Kansas City, and Minnesota.

Columbus is kind of a stand-in for Cleveland, and obviously there are rivalries along the Michigan-Ohio border, so I like the idea of Detroit and Columbus being in the same division again.  I don’t think anyone currently in the same division places much priority on Columbus as a rival.  The Pennsylvania teams make some sense geographically, but I would keep them in the same division as Columbus anyway.

I’ll admit it made some sense to put Detroit with Buffalo and Toronto, but I still think on balance this is better.  Detroit also moved from the East (where they played Toronto and New York) to the Central at one point in baseball.

Proposed NHL divisional format. The two-letter combinations in black without punctuation are postal codes. The NHL teams are given three-letter abbreviations or initials mostly in white. Since it was hard to see white on yellow, those franchises are given black letters. There wasn’t room to mark New Jersey or the District of Columbia within the geographical boundaries, so I just put black boxes around those postal codes..

Florida and Tampa Bay

The Florida teams had previously been in a division with Carolina, Washington, and Winnipeg (who moved from Atlanta; about 20 years ago the previous Winnipeg team moved to Phoenix to become the Coyotes)

I think people should worry about Florida and Tampa Bay.  If you’re going to have teams in such places, an effort needs to be made to attract fans (like me) who have not grown up playing or following hockey.  Florida was a bad team for a long time; but the five years before divisional realignment they were no worse than 25th in attendance, and the last three years before realignment they were no worse than 22nd in attendance.  They did have a relatively high number of points (wins x2 + OT/shootout losses) in 2011 (94), but they had two of their worst teams (of the last 10 seasons anyway) in 2010 and 2012.

The year after realignment wasn’t really fair to judge on its own because it was the worst full season of the last 10 years (2012 was only 48 games, but they would have been projected to do worse over a full season), but the troubling thing is attendance has never gone back to 21st and 22nd.  The Panthers were last in the league in attendance in 2014 despite 91 points.  They recovered to 24th in 2015 when they would earn 103 points; but when they did almost as well in 2017 (96 points), they were only 28th in attendance. 

103 is the average number of points Tampa Bay has had since 2012, and their attendance has been in the top 10 consistently.  This is a significant improvement from the average of 80 points (by projecting the shortened season) in the five seasons before, but I think the increase is due to the better performance of the team.  It also helps that there isn’t an NBA team in the immediate area. 

I thought it would be interesting to divide attendance by number of points for the two Florida teams.  This isn’t a perfect measure because attendance will look good during really low number of appoints even if it’s one of the worst attendances in the league and bad during right high number of points even if it’s one of the best attendances in the league.  It’s a good measure for the more medium seasons, and I think five years on each side is a good sample.

Florida is represented by a thick yellow line with lighter blue dots over a field of red.  Tampa Bay is represented by a darker blue line.  In the two years in which Florida had a noticeably better ratio, I added black dots and a thin blue line to connect with the rest of Tampa Bay’s numbers. 

See the text above for the explanation.

You can see that they both peaked the year before realignment.  

Since it wasn’t a good year in points for either team, I’m not focusing on that one year though.  Two of the four other years on the left side of the graph for Tampa Bay are better than all five full seasons since realignment. 

Despite being a lot better the last four years, Florida’s worst three results on this graph are all in the last four years.

2016 was a little bit better for the Panthers’ ratio, but that’s probably because of the previous season.  They likely sold more season tickets (and early single-game tickets) in the wake of the 103-point season, so despite dropping 22 points there was not a corresponding decrease in attendance that large.

Tampa Bay is selling out its games, and I’m sure that would continue regardless of alignment if they keep winning at this rate (absent some drastic economic decline).  I still think it’s doubtful that if they return to the 80-point-per-year average that things would look like the left side of the graph again with the current alignment.

The Lightening’s 113 points last year is the only reason the Panthers’ dismal showing last season doesn’t look worse on here.  There wasn’t room for Tampa to add more fans to compensate for the increase in points.

So you can compare oranges to oranges (because Florida), I would note that 2008 and 2011 were about the same number of points for the Panthers as 2014 and 2017.  You can see the difference.

2010 was the only good year for the Lightening on the left side of the graph (and there are no bad years on the right side), so it’s harder to make a good comparison.  2014 and 2010 were similar in points, but I would say the reason 2014 was a slightly higher ratio was because it followed a four-year average of 89 points with 101 points the prior year while 2010 followed a four-year average of 78 points with 80 points the prior year.  I certainly don’t think it’s because fans were more excited to see Buffalo and Ottawa than they had been to see Carolina and Washington.  The 2010 season was kind of a turning point for Lightening fandom.  Even though the team wasn’t good the next couple of seasons, the successful 2013 season was just in time to keep fans from losing interest.

Anyway, I think it’s fairly clear that if you want to keep both Florida fan groups interested even in the relatively lean years, it would be better to have more games against teams that are closer geographically.

Other Teams

I already mentioned the Pennsylvania teams.  I think it’s important that they continue to play each other in the same division even though I don’t think the Flyers would be necessarily thrilled about the move since for obvious reasons Philadelphia teams generally play with teams like New York in other leagues.  In other leagues they don’t try to have a Pittsburgh team play a Philadelphia team (since Pittsburgh is more of a Midwestern city) divisionally, but I think it’s good that the NHL does.  Philadelphia is in the same division as the Washington teams in other leagues though, so that makes sense here.

Philadelphia/New Jersey was a particularly good series, but I think getting northern New Jersey interested is more important than southern New Jersey.  So the Devils would be in a division with the three teams from the state of New York instead.

Having a New York team play Boston is a no-brainer in other leagues, so why not hockey? 

The other two North Carolina teams (the Carolina Panthers and the Charlotte Hornets) play opponents in Florida in their division, so again, why not in hockey?  New Orleans and Atlanta don’t have NHL teams,so the North Carolina-Tampa Bay connection is the only thing that can transfer over from the NFL.

Scheduling Format

Whether it realigns or not, the additional team will mean a tweak to the scheduling format.

Even though I’m only more than a casual hockey fan, I’m a longstanding fan of enough sports to have some strong opinions about matters such as rivalry and scheduling. 

I also like to look at maps and numbers.  I’m more of a nerdy sports fan than one who drinks a lot during games and pounds on tables if you didn’t know or couldn’t guess…not that I’m above showing emotion.

One thing I agree with about the way the NFL schedules is every team has the same number of divisional games (6).  Even before expansion, every team played its divisional rivals exactly twice each.

I also agree with the NFL’s uniform rules about how many inter-conference games are played (4), and every team within a division plays the same opponents.  

With 82 games,the NHL has the luxury of having at least one home and home with every other team. It’s just a matter of how many (if any) more than that you have with teams in your conference and/or division.

Some prefer to have a divisional super rival, one you might play 5 or 6 times instead of 4, but I think there is more concern with playing other teams too few times than with not playing a divisional rival enough. It also should be a reasonably level playing field within the division since most playoff seedings are based on where you finish in your division.

For that reason, I think the easiest and best solution is to add two games. 82 games started in the 1995 season, when there were only 26 teams. I don’t think with six extra teams added in the 24 years since (by the start of next season) that adding two games is unreasonable.

If it stays at 82, that’s 32 games against the other division (each with the minimum of 2 games).

If they follow my suggestion and also have the uniform 4 games against each divisional rival,that would mean two of the eight teams in the other intra-conference division could only be played twice instead of 3 times.

They could just have a rotation regardless of proximity, success, or any other measure.  That’s basically what they do now, but that’s boring.

Another option is (also following the NFL principles) to punish success, but it would be relatively very minor: eliminating 2 games out of what would be 84 versus 6 games of 16 that change completely based on the prior year in the NFL (at least that’s how many games change if you finish in the top two versus the bottom two in your division).

If you don’t follow, the NFL has 6 intra-conference cross-divisional games. Those 6 are dependent on where you place the season before.  If you’re in the top 2 of your division, you’d play the top 2 of the other three divisions in your conference.  If you’re in the bottom 2, you’d play the bottom 2 of the other three divisions in your conference.

So applying this to the NHL would mean 1 and 2 wouldn’t play 7 and 8 an extra time, and 3 and 4 wouldn’t play 5 and 6 an extra time.

I think an even better solution would be proximity.  So even though Arizona still goes to another division, they can still play everyone in the pacific division 3 times except for Edmonton and Calgary.  Put Nashville in that boat too.  Dallas and Colorado can skip playing Vancouver and Seattle the extra time.  Anaheim and L.A. can skip Minnesota and Winnipeg.  San José and Las Vegas can skip Chicago and St. Louis.

In the East, Florida and Tampa can skip Ottawa and Montreal.  Carolina and Washington can skip Boston and the Islanders.  The Pennsylvanias (meaning Philadelphia and Pittsburgh) can skip Buffalo and Toronto.  The Rangers and Devils can skip Detroit and Columbus. It’s bad enough that Rutgers plays Michigan and Ohio St.every year now. (Had to get in my college football reference.)

Original Six

Evolution of logos of the “original six” NHL teams. Except for Toronto, I prefer the old ones.

I tried to pair up non-original-six with original-six so as not to take too many original-six opponents away from any one team.  

If you’re not an NHL fan, “original six” is a misnomer, but it’s the six oldest teams in continuous operation and who were the only NHL franchises between 1942 and 1967: Toronto, Montreal, Boston, Detroit, Chicago, and the New York Rangers.  I won’t go over the various permutations before that, but it’s interesting reading if early-20th-century professional athletics is your cup of tea.

Anyway, fans like to see these teams.  A lot of people have been multi-generational fans of one of them.  Others move around and may have become a fan by living in one of those cities even briefly.

It’s like how if you’re an MLB or NBA fan, it’s just different if you go to a game against the Yankees, Red Sox, Lakers, or Celtics, for instance.  Even teams around since the 1960s (there are a couple exceptions in the NFL at least) have trouble replicating that kind of impact and support when they go on the road.

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