By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
The NHL is looking to get creative with its scheduling next season to maximize safety and ensure a work-life balance for teams, and one of their ideas is to implement a temporary realignment of the divisions.
One of the biggest problems with realigning is, as Ty Anderson and I discussed in the newest episode of the Sports Hub Sidelines podcast, that some teams inevitably will have to make compromises that other teams won’t. According to NHL.com, commissioner Gary Bettman said in a call with team execs that the goal is to accommodate teams geographically and minimize travel amid ongoing COVID-19 restrictions.
The easiest thing for the NHL to do in the temporary realignment is to move all of the Canadian teams to an All-Canada division, since travel between the U.S. and Canadian border is the most dicey of all propositions when it comes to COVID. It gets complicated when you try to realign the American teams.
Ultimately, a few teams in the northeast or midwest (or a combination) will be kind of screwed. They will either have to travel between time zones more often or fly longer distances than others. In the case of the Bruins, it’s as simple as it gets – they’d be grouped with several other teams nuzzled by the Atlantic.
In fact, keep the “Atlantic Division.” But the others would likely need some re-branding. And there are multiple avenues for the NHL to take in the realignment, but for the purpose of this idea, let’s start with a four-division setup.
NHL Realignment: Four Divisions
If they want to keep it at four divisions, one of which is Canada, then this is how it might have to look. According to Pierre LeBrun of The Athletic, league governors are moving toward three U.S. divisions and one Canadian division, plus series of 2-3 games at a time to limit travel, baseball-style.
Northern Division: Bruins, Rangers, Islanders, Sabres, Devils, Flyers, Penguins, Blackhawks, Red Wings
Southern Division: Lightning, Panthers, Hurricanes, Predators, Stars, Blues, Capitals, Blue Jackets
Western Division: Sharks, Kings, Ducks, Golden Knights, Coyotes, Avalanche, Wild
Canadian Division: Canadiens, Maple Leafs, Senators, Jets, Flames, Oilers, Canucks (obviously)
Since there are seven Canadian teams and a high concentration of clubs in the northeastern part of the U.S., you’d inevitably need to jam-pack the Northern Division and create a real imbalance. And even still, the Caps and Jackets get the short end of the proverbial stick as they now have to travel to Florida, Texas, and Missouri as a “southern” team.
The Minnesota Wild, however, may get it worst of all. Stuck in no-man’s land geographically, they’re relegated to the Western Division and have to travel to California and Arizona for the majority of their schedule. That’s the thing when you go by pure geography: for some teams (the Bruins) the travel gets easier, and for others, it gets more challenging.
If you’re a fan of the former six-division format, which Ty and I are, then you may take a liking to this version of the NHL realignment. In fact, maybe you’d want to lobby for this to be permanent. That’s a sneaky risk for Bettman and the league, because the current division/playoff format is debatable and controversial at best. Aaand that’s why this isn’t likely, but hey it’s fun to imagine.
Atlantic: Bruins, Rangers, Islanders, Sabres, Devils
Northeast: Flyers, Penguins, Capitals, Blue Jackets, Red Wings
Southern: Lightning, Panthers, Hurricanes, Predators, Stars
Midwest: Blackhawks, Blues, Avalanche, Wild
Pacific: Sharks, Kings, Ducks, Golden Knights, Coyotes
Canadian: Ahh well ya know
Teams clustered in the northeast, southwest, and of course, Canada have an easier go of it. The midwest and southeast teams are inevitably going to have to compromise. But in this format, only four American teams – the Predators, Stars, Avalanche, and Coyotes – would have to travel between time zones.
This setup certainly seems more doable. And it may also play into the NHL’s objectives, which is to minimize travel between different cities and regions. The compromise is that the midwest division would have to settle for just four teams, while the seven Canadian teams would have themselves a good-old-fashioned seven-team battle royal.
Either way, it’s an interesting proposition for the league, if arguably more of a delegitimizing factor than the bubbles were. In the case of a realignment, not every NHL team is dealing with the same challenges across the board like they were in the bubbles. So it’ll be interesting to see if there’s any pushback from teams and/or players on the idea.
Anyway, Ty and I discussed this topic at length on our latest podcast. You can listen to that below.
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Yell at him on Twitter @mattdolloff or send him a nasty email at firstname.lastname@example.org.