NHL Plans Conference Realignments for Next Season

When the Atlanta Thrashers were relocated to Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, in 2011, it became clear that the NHL would need a plan to realign its divisions and conferences.

Since the move, the renamed team, the Winnipeg Jets, have remained in the southeast division with the Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Lightning, Carolina Hurricanes and Washington Capitals. One could only imagine what travel for the Jets is like, playing each of these teams three times on the road during an 82-game season.

“It’s a crazy amount of travel for the team,” Ramapo College sophomore Kevin Wilson said. “It’s clear that the league needs to do something to fix it.”  

However, Winnipeg is not the only team with a chaotic travel schedule.

The Dallas Stars, who are in the Central time zone, must constantly re-adjust their clocks as they play three teams from the Pacific time zone; the Los Angles Kings, Anaheim Ducks, and San Jose Sharks all face one team from the Mountain time zone, the Phoenix Coyotes, on the road three times a year each.

On Feb. 26, the NHL proposed a realignment that would feature two conferences, East and West, each including two divisions instead of the current three.

However, the new divisions can’t possibly have an equal number of teams. With today’s format, the NHL is divided into the two conferences consisting of 15 teams each. The conferences are broken into three divisions, each with five teams.

The NHL has moved to create an Eastern Conference of 16 teams while leaving 14 in the West. Geographically, this makes sense, as teams in Columbus, Ohio, and Detroit, Mich., are considered Western Conference teams.

Yet both of these teams move east in the new realignment. In the 2013 season, the Eastern Conference will be home to the Central and Atlantic Divisions.

The Atlantic will consist of the Carolina Hurricanes, Columbus Blue Jackets, New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals. The Central division will be comprised of the Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabers, Detroit Red Wings, Florida Panthers, Montreal Canadians, Ottawa Senators, Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs.

The Western Conference’s Pacific Division will feature the Anaheim Ducks, Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, Los Angeles Kings, Phoenix Coyotes, San Jose Sharks and Vancouver Canucks. The Midwest Division will be home to the Chicago Blackhawks, Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars, Minnesota Wild, Nashville Predators, St. Louis Blues and Winnipeg Jets.

To fix the unbalanced number of teams in each division, the NHL will introduce a wild card in the playoffs for the first time.      

The top three teams in each division will qualify for the playoffs automatically and be seeded one through six in the conference. The remaining two playoff spots in each conference will be open to the next four teams in the league with the best record, regardless of their division. The four wild card teams would play against the four division winners in the first round of the playoffs.

All of this is pending approval by the NHL’s players.

The NHL’s decision to create unbalanced conferences leaves room for the NHL to expand from 30 to 32 teams without another drastic realignment. This is a likely possibility since Quebec City, Toronto and Seattle have shown interest in housing an NHL franchise.

“I would be excited to see two more teams come into the league,” Wilson said. “It seems like the NHL is trying to model its new divisional and playoff format off other major sports leagues.”