We’re talking about improved odds of roughly 7 per cent in reaching a playoff spot, which may not sound like much. But when numbers are at the centre of a discussion involving NHL owners and players, things are rarely simple.
The NHL has unveiled a new realignment proposal that addresses long-standing geographical inanities – such as having the Detroit Red Wings play in the west and Winnipeg Jets in the east – but also creates a new kind of inequity: a competitive one.
That’s the price the players and the league are apparently willing to pay to redraw the conference map, and reduce the number of divisions from six to four.
Realignment, however, is a zero-sum game.
Should you have the good fortune to play in the Western Conference’s two divisions under the NHL’s latest plan, you will be one of seven teams vying for up to four playoff spots.
Play in the East’s two divisions, and you’ll have to fight with an extra club to get there.
The league is proposing to mitigate some of that imbalance by keeping the existing intra-conference playoff format, guaranteeing postseason slots to the top three seeds in each division, with the remaining two spots occupied by wild cards – the teams with the best records.
So in that sense, the strongest division in hockey could send up to five teams to the playoffs.
The wild-card provision is seen as a significant concession to the players, whose biggest worries are competitive balance and punishing travel (a situation that won’t improve for the Western teams, although improved playoff prospects will ease the pain).
While the plan would surely dampen some long-standing rivalries – Detroit/Chicago Blackhawks to name just one – it would rekindle others, such as the Wings’ battles with historical foes such as the Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins, who would be in the same division.
The Central Division would consolidate four of the biggest-revenue teams. (As a side issue, surely the NHL can come up with better names than Atlantic, Central, Midwest and Pacific?)
An NHLPA spokesman said the union will reserve comment until all the players have been contacted about the arrangement, which it has been working on furiously with the NHL for several weeks.
In theory, the two sides could adopt the plan, which will be subject to review after three seasons, in a matter of a few days.
Can it really be that simple?
It’s hard to imagine some big-revenue teams won’t kick up a fuss at the competitive imbalance, and on the face of it, the plan makes no allowances for eventual franchise relocation or expansion to Quebec City and Southern Ontario.
At the same time, the new divisional line-up would be a boon to prime-time television viewers – a calculation that is top-of-mind for the NHL.
So what’s the bottom line for Canadian hockey fans?
Winnipeg would move into a division in which the Jets would play more games against geographically proximate teams such as the Minnesota Wild and Chicago.
Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa Senators gain an old Original Six divisional foe.
The Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks will continue to play in the same division, which will be augmented by the addition of the three California-based teams and Phoenix.
That means fans in Alberta will be seeing a lot less of Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars and the Wild, although the proposed scheduling matrix – 29 games within the division, another 21 versus conference opponents – means they’ll still be able to nourish old rivalries with Western teams.
Teams in the East will play each team from the West twice (home and away), they’ll face their own division 30 times, and the rest of the east teams 24 times.
The math doesn’t quite add up in terms of home and away balance, teams will rotate the extra game from year to year.
There are significant drawbacks to the new plan, but unlike the one the NHLPA shot down in 2011 – which provided for an unbalanced Western Conference – the league has gone to the trouble of involving the players.