There's been a lot of ink spilled (er, characters typed) about the pending re-alignment of the NHL. It's an interesting debate, that's for sure. The NHL is a massive league, with a long history, and cannot simply schedule a season the way they do in Sweden, for example, where every team plays each other an equal number of times (12 teams play each other 5 times for 55 games). To fill an 82 game schedule in a 30 team league, the schedule will be unbalanced. But that doesn't mean the NHL can't reach a better balance between local interest and league wide competitiveness.
Even with the move of Atlanta, an eastern team, to Winnipeg, a 'western' team, there remains an imbalance in the NHL geographically. 16 of 30 teams are based in the Eastern Time Zone, and the current conference format means that teams based in the East have a great advantage economically, and some would argue competitively, when it comes to travel. You can't necessarily level the playing field to such an extent where distance becomes a non-factor, and you don't want to eliminate completely the traditional and local rivalries that already exist. There is no perfect system, but that doesn't mean I'm not going to take a shot at this.
The NHL is currently a 30 team league. I have no doubt that expansion beyond 30 will occur at some point in time, but for now 30 teams have existed for 11 years, and with the current global economic situation and NHL economic situation 30 seems like a comfortable number for upwards of another decade. Having 30 teams makes the NHL, along with the affiliated 30 team AHL, the largest single major hockey league on the planet. Since we're at 30 teams, and don't forsee beyond 30 teams for a while, it is best to work with that number to divide up the divisions evenly. That means the current six division format stays in place to facilitate easy regional rivalries. But to alleviate the issue of travel, where the determination of what conference a team plays in could determine the team's very viability (hello, Columbus), I'm proposing a bit of outside the box thinking here: it's time to Ditch the idea of conferences altogether, be they geographically or economically determined.
Having conferences currently determines the playoff structure, which is problematic in and of itself. Historically, there have been great Stanley Cup match-ups between the New York Islanders and the Philadelphia Flyers, the Montreal Canadiens and the Boston Bruins, and even early round matchups between teams on opposite sides of the continent. The current structure means Detroit can play Los Angeles in the opening round, but Detroit can't play the New York Rangers. Why can't Detroit play any team in the NHL in the opening round, particularly teams that are geographically nearby? It's time to make a setup that allows the top 16 teams, regardless of location, into the NHL playoffs. And it is time to schedule the regular season in order to minimize the impact of the unbalanced schedule while allowing some creativity for regional and divisional rivalries.
I propose that every team visit every rink in the NHL once a season. That would make up 58 of any team's 82 game schedule. Beyond that, teams would play teams within their division four more times (2 home, 2 road), for an additional 16 games. The remaining 8 games would be divided up, negotiated by the teams with the NHL acting as a moderator, to hilight non-divisional rivalries. Due to the unavoidable lack of balance in the schedule, the six division winners would automatically be granted playoff spots, but I'd like to see those spots be assigned based on league wide standing: a division title would only guarantee a team the #16 seed, not a top 6 seed and home ice advantage.
So what are those divisions, you ask? Here you go (division names are up for debate):
|Boston Bruins||Carolina Hurricanes||Buffalo Sabres||Dallas Stars||Calgary Flames||Anaheim Ducks|
|Montreal Canadiens||Columbus Blue Jackets||Chicago Blackhawks||Florida Panthers||Colorado Avalanche||Los Angeles Kings|
|New Jersey Devils||Philadelphia Flyers||Detroit Red Wings||Nashville Predators||Edmonton Oilers||Phoenix Coyotes|
|New York Islanders||Pittsburgh Penguins||Ottawa Senators||St. Louis Blues||Minnesota Wild||San Jose Sharks|
|New York Rangers||Washington Capitals||Toronto Maple Leafs||Tampa Bay Lightning||Winnipeg Jets||Vancouver Canucks|
Conditions I worked with were making sure that no more than two time zones were involved in any division, making it easy to schedule games between the teams to maximize television audience. Currently, there are two NHL divisions which involve three time zones (Pacific and Northwest), this eliminates those late/early games for some regions. I also made sure that no divisions had more than three Canadian based franchises, as that seems to be a requirement of re-alignment floating around right now at the NHL level. Also considered: total air mileage and maintaining rivalries. This, of course, will not be an ideal re-alignment for everyone, but I think it remains acceptable. If Vancouver has the option of adding additional home and road games with teams like Calgary, Edmonton, and Colorado, I think they will be relatively satisfied.
There are geographically isolated areas of the NHL. Denver is the furthest away outpost from any single NHL club, at 944 km away from Phoenix, while Dallas is 879 km away from its nearest opponent, St. Louis. The old Southeast Division is severely compromised with no Atlanta team to bridge the gap between Washington-Carolina and the Florida clubs. This split makes it easier to place the Capitals and Hurricanes with the Pennsylvania clubs in a new division with Columbus, who get a real boost geographically. Montreal is split from the Ontario based clubs, but keeps the most important club rivalry they have with Boston and adding the NY area clubs, placing renewed interest in the Original Six rivalry with the Rangers. The old Detroit-Toronto rivalry is rekindled, as well as maintaining the Detroit-Chicago rivalry and the lesser Toronto-Ottawa-Buffalo rivalries. Winnipeg will get their rivalries with fellow Canadian prairie towns Calgary and Edmonton, while keeping in the same division as the team closest to them, Minnesota. Colorado loses Vancouver, but gets a slightly less cumbersome travel schedule as a result (though a better arrangement for them specifically would be found in the Pacific).
While Vancouver and Montreal get put in divisions without any Canadian based rivals, those two teams are economic powerhouses who probably can afford a bit of separation. Both teams would benefit from easy three or four game road swings within the division, minimizing travel concerns. The move would be undoubtedly tougher on Vancouver than Montreal, but perhaps the fans would enjoy the later game starts and the team would enjoy the fact that the flights to Minnesota are replaced with ones to Phoenix, a slightly closer destination.
The new South Division is awkward, admittedly, and the only team in a better situation than before (excluding the oddity of this current season with Winnipeg in the Southeast) are the Stars, but there is no way to arrange a real strong situation for a Southeast Division with such long distances to consider.
All of the wealthy Original Six franchises would be located in just two divisions in this proposal. While this might be seen as a massive concentration of wealth, it means it is graduation day for other franchises: the Pennsylvania franchises become the premiere clubs in their division, for example; while St. Louis and Dallas take over that status in the South.
In the end, the key compromise is not so much the divisions, but the end of conferences as a whole. This would result in a more balanced NHL schedule and allow for the very best teams to make the playoffs. This would reduce concerns about competitive advantage with regards to travel across the board. If we take the concerns of, say, Boston fans, this would mean that while Toronto visits would be lessened, they could be made up for with increased visits from Chicago, Detroit, and Vancouver, as well as increasing attention to the natural regional rivalry with New York. It would mean a game against a neutral team like Anaheim that may not be a big draw, but also mean one less game against Carolina than the current schedule would take. For teams out west, it would mean a guaranteed visit from the Eastern based stars, and of course would work the other way around as well.
I've done up a spreadsheet with regards to distances from cities, and how they would change within the divisions from the current arrangements. You can look at it here for background info. Here's a Google Maps view of the proposal.