According to a CBS Sports report Saturday, Feb. 23, the league and its players association (NHLPA) are considering the latest NHL realignment proposal that would put the San Jose Sharks in what could be described as a super-conference. Unlike the NHL lockout, the two sides are expecting to get a deal done quickly—perhaps even by the end of the week.
The current proposal under consideration is a slight improvement on the one rejected by the NHLPA in December of 2011. It also breaks the league into four conferences rather than six divisions. The scheduling break down would thus remain intact from that proposal.
So why would this proposal pass? First, the atmosphere between the NHL and NHLPA is not of two competitors trying to gain advantage anymore. Second, the league came to them with this proposal before announcing it. Finally, what few details have been leaked seem to be a slight improvement over the last proposal.
In the old model, the Winnipeg Jets were essentially added to the pool of Western Conference teams, which was then split into two eight-team conferences. This left two Eastern Time Zone teams, the Columbus Blue Jackets and Detroit Red Wings, apart from all the others.
The updated version correctly has them both in the two eight-team conferences that now include all Eastern Time Zone teams. One seven-team conference has the Mountain Time Zone Colorado Avalanche with all five Central Time Zone teams: Winnipeg, the Minnesota Wild, Chicago Blackhawks, St. Louis Blues, Nashville Predators and Dallas Stars.
That leaves the best division in hockey for the Sharks. The defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings, the defending Pacific Division champion Phoenix Coyotes and current Pacific Division-leading Anaheim Ducks all remain rivals. The two-time defending President's Trophy winners, the Vancouver Canucks come over from the Northwest Division with the talent-laden, improving Edmonton Oilers and the perennially outside-looking-in Calgary Flames.
While this realignment does set up an imbalance of conference strength, it does establish shorter travel. Assuming the schedule would set up the same as the previous proposal, the Sharks would play home and away against every non-conference team and play three each home and away against conference rivals. Every team but Edmonton is a natural rival, having more than one playoff match or a previous division rivalry to draw from.
The likelihood is that four teams from each conference make the playoffs. This gives teams in the two conferences outside of the Eastern Time Zone a slightly higher chance of making it to the playoffs (57.1 percent instead of 50 percent), but that is fair given they will still have to travel more.
It would peak interest to be the only sport with a final four feel, so the first two rounds should work to establish a post-season conference champion. Keeping all conferences in it until the final four helps maintain the regional participation by having conferences not meet until the Stanley Cup final.
To reduce the travel even more, the next round can match the two Eastern Time Zone conferences in one semi-final and the two west of there in the other. Seeding would be compared between conferences the same way it is now.
But there is still a way the conferences could be better balanced for travel. Rivalries can be maintained without putting the two Florida teams in a division with Detroit and the current Northeast Division.
The Columbus Blue Jackets should go in the same conference as their only remaining Central Division rival Red Wings. That way there need only be one slightly misplaced team—either the Washington Capitals or the Carolina Hurricanes.
The difference between their regional proximity is too narrow to worry about. Keeping the Alex Ovechkin-Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin rivalry intact. That means putting Carolina in with the St. Lawrence Seaway teams.
The NHL could actually give the conferences names with flair like they had in the early days of the Sharks. The Lawrence Conference is an ideal name for every team but Carolina. Even they were once the Hartford Whalers and at least not much further than Boston from the long-time, major trade route.
The other conference in the east has three teams within a couple hours of the Statue of Liberty, another with the Liberty Bell and one more in the nation's capital. Thus, the Liberty Conference is the perfect name for most of the division.
The conferences west of there should be as the league proposes. The one with only the Colorado Avalanche outside of the Central Time Zone would be aptly named the Heartland Conference, while the western-most conference hugs both sides of the Rocky Mountain range, providing the perfect name for the division with San Jose.
Of course, what should happen and what will happen are likely two different things. One just hopes some good opinion gets legs before final agreement is made.