NHL Board of Governors approve radical realignment; Welcome to the Snowbird Division

Following a lot of speculation, the NHL Board of Governors approved a radical reworking of the conference system for the league. Starting next season, the league will abandon the two-conference format used since the 1993-1994 season in favor of a four conference format. Under the new format, the league will return to a schedule that will see each team play a home and away game against every team in the league, with the remaining games being played in-conference. The playoffs will feature in-conference play as well, with the top four teams in each squaring off for two rounds before meeting the winners of the remaining conferences.

If this all sounds familiar, it's because it is. The league used a similar format from the 1981-1982 to 1992-1993 seasons. In that format, the first two rounds of the playoffs were played within the four divisions, and then the winners of the Patrick and Adams Divisions played for the Wales Conference title and the winners of the Norris and Smythe Divisions played for the Campbell Conference title. The conference winners would then play for the Stanley Cup. This last part is what would be different under the new format. The league wants to change the league semifinals from a set matchup to one that would change depending on the regular season records of the four teams involved. This would potentially pit any team from one of the four conferences against any team from any other conferences in the finals. This change is the reason for the league insisting that the four groupings are "conferences" not "divisions," however strange that terminology seems.The scheduling is familiar as well. It was only in 1996-1999 with the introduction of the two-conference, six-division format that the teams stopped playing a home game against every other team. And even then, teams still played two games against most of the others until the number of division games was bumped from five to six in 2003-2004.

The New Conferences

Conference A

Conference B

Conference C

Conference D

The four, as yet unnamed conferences, are based on time-zone rather than geography. From a league organizational standpoint, this is much more flexible than the previous arrangement, which is the likely reason the league pushed it as hard as they did. The Atlanta Thrashers' move to Winnipeg seriously disrupted the league's organizational system and it is natural to want to fix not only the current problem, but future ones as well. Under the time zone system, any team movement or expansion would be easy to handle. If the Coyotes do end up moving, they can easily be moved to any of the other conferences. If any team needs to be added to the Central/Mountain time zone Conference B, it would likely not be too difficult for the league to convince either Columbus or Nashville to join one of the Eastern time zone conferences. If Quebec City gets an expansion team or a relocated team, there is room in both of the Eastern time zone conferences (though they would certainly be added to the three Canadian team Conference C).

Aside from fans of the Panthers and Lightning who are unhappy about the loss of the Capitals (Lightning fans) or some of the Atlantic Division teams (Panthers fans and New York and Pennsylvania expats living in South Florida) from the schedule and the addition of more home games against the Leafs and Habs, the big losers here are probably the CBC. Winnipeg will remain in a grouping with no other Canadian teams and they will have to deal with the Leafs and Habs playing a serious number of games against the Florida teams and the western Canadian teams playing the California teams. On the other hand, it's a dream for NBC, who in addition to keeping the Atlantic Division together and the Wings and Blackhawks together, also have an additional pair of games between the Capitals and Penguins on the schedule.

Quite a bit has been made of the additional travel. Keeping the Florida teams together was probably done for the sake of the travel schedule more than anything. It's a lot easier for the northern part of the conference to get their games in with fewer miles if they have to play both the Panthers and Lightning when they come to Florida. For their part, the Lightning and Panthers are likely to play multiple in-conference games on every trip north. With every team playing every other team, there should be a lot more four or five game road trips and a lot less of the two home, two away, two home, three away, one home thing that we have this season.

Changes to the schedule

There are two major changes to the scheduling: the conference adjustment and the home-and-home series against every team in the league. The changes in opponents for the home schedule are summarized below.

Team Current New Net Change
Anaheim Ducks 0/1 1 Even/+1
Boston Bruins 2 3 +1
Buffalo Sabres 2 3 +1
Calgary Flames 0/1 1 Even/+1
Carolina Hurricanes 3 1 -2
Chicago Blackhawks 0/1 1 Even/+1
Colorado Avalanche 0/1 1 Even/+1
Columbus Blue Jackets 0/1 1 Even/+1
Dallas Stars 0/1 1 Even/+1
Detroit Red Wings 0/1 1 Even/+1
Edmonton Oilers 0/1 1 Even/+1
Los Angeles Kings 0/1 1 Even/+1
Minnesota Wild 0/1 1 Even/+1
Montreal Canadiens 2 3 +1
Nashville Predators 0/1 1 Even/+1
New Jersey Devils 2 1 -1
New York Islanders 2 1 -1
New York Rangers 2 1 -1
Ottawa Senators 2 3 +1
Philadelphia Flyers 2 1 -1
Phoenix Coyotes 0/1 1 Even/+1
Pittsburgh Penguins 2 1 -1
San Jose Sharks 0/1 1 Even/+1
St. Louis Blues 0/1 1 Even/+1
Tampa Bay Lightning 3 3 Even
Toronto Maple Leafs 2 3 +1
Vancouver Canucks 0/1 1 Even/+1
Washington Capitals 3 1 -2
Winnipeg Jets 3 1 -2

The executive summary is: in return for guaranteeing a home against every team in the league, we lose one home against the Devils, Islanders, Penguins, Rangers and Flyers, two against the Jets, Capitals and Hurricanes and gain one against the Bruins, Leafs, Sabres, Senators and Canadiens. While I would rather gain one than lose one against the New York and Pennsylvania teams rather than the eastern Canadian teams, overall this isn't a bad package. All Snowbird Conference jokes aside, I'd rather have my team in a conference/division with three original six teams than one that's mostly expansion teams in "non-traditional" markets. Splitting up the Southeast Division makes sense, even if the geography is goofy.