The NHL took a bold step today, doing major division realignment that will differentiate it from every other North American sports league. The NHL will move from 6 divisions and 2 conferences to a new 4 conference format. The top 4 in each division makes the playoffs, with #1 playing #4 and #2 playing #3. The four teams that make it to the third round will then be re-seeded, with the #1 team playing the #4 team. This means that it will be possible for two teams from the west or east to play each other in the Stanley Cup Final.
So what does this mean for the Vancouver Canucks? Firstly, it means less travel. The other 7 teams in their conference are the closest 7 teams to them geographically, with the exception of Winnipeg. They will have to travel to eastern conference based teams more often, but will travel to teams in the central division (Detroit, Chicago, St Louis, Nashville, Columbus) less.
The new four conference format isn’t all great for the Vancouver Canucks, and in fact, it’s likely to hurt them. The Canucks are in an 8 team conference, while two of the other three conferences contain only 7 teams. The Canucks were also in the weakest division under the old format, and would move to arguably the best conference under the new format.
The new conference format is seen to be keeping all of the important rivalries in tact. While this is mainly true, this isn’t the case for Vancouver. The Canucks’ best rival in years is with the Chicago Blackhawks, which now stands to be in trouble. Instead of playing each other four times a year, they will play each other only twice.
Another problem with the new conference format is potential for gross unfairness that is more likely to occur. What happens if there are 5 strong teams in an 8 team conference? What happens if there are 4 weak teams in a 7 team conference? What happens if the 2 best teams in the NHL have to play each other in the second round of the playoffs (just like Calgary and Edmonton had to do for years in the 1980s)?
Imagine what last year’s playoffs would have looked like (assuming the point totals remained unchanged):
#1 Vancouver vs #4 Phoenix
#2 San Jose vs #3 Anaheim
Under the new format, the Los Angeles Kings (98 points) would miss the playoffs while the Chicago Blackhawks (97 points) and Dallas Stars (95 points) would make the playoffs because they were in an easier conference.
#1 Detroit vs #4 Dallas
#2 Nashville vs #3 Chicago
Detroit and Chicago would have benefited greatly with this new format. Instead of being the #3 seed, Detroit would play a team not in the playoffs under the old format. Chicago avoids playing the Presidents Trophy winners and instead gets to play the Nashville Predators in the first round.
#1 Boston vs #4 Buffalo
#2 Tampa Bay vs #3 Montreal
Boston benefits quite a bit from this format, becoming the first seed in the new conference when they were the third seed under the old format.
#1 Washington vs #4 NY Rangers
#2 Philadelphia vs #3 Pittsburgh
The same eight eastern based teams would remain unchanged with the new format, but the path to the conference final would be much less equal. Three of the best four teams would play in this conference.
If the NHL was using this format last season, the conference finals would have likely featured Vancouver vs Boston and Washington vs Detroit.
The new conference format solves some problems but it also creates new ones. For years the Canucks, Jets and Kings had no chance of winning a playoff round because they had to play the powerhouse Oilers and Flames in the 1980s. At the same time, every year a really good team would miss the playoffs from the 6 team Patrick Division while a terrible team would make the playoffs from the Smythe or Adams Division (case in point: in 1991 the Canucks made the playoffs with only 65 points while the Flyers missed the playoffs despite having 76 points). This new format brings back that possibility.
Canucks fans will see less of the Blackhawks, but more of the Leafs and Canadiens. Canuck Nation will also get more opportunities to invade California and Phoenix. The prospect of a Canucks-Blackhawks Stanley Cup Final is pretty intriguing, as would be the prospect of a Canucks-Penguins conference final. I don’t think the new format is as fair as the old one, but it certainly will spice things up in the short term.