The Detroit Red Wings are one of several Western Conference teams clamoring to move east. (Photo by Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images)
When the Atlanta Thrashers were moved to Winnipeg this summer, one of the ripples of consequence that came in their wake was the prospect of divisional realignment that eventually would move the franchise from its present-day spot in the Southeast Division to a more natural fit in the Western Conference. And when recent reports suggested the Detroit Red Wings were “promised” first crack at re-establishing equilibrium by moving East, the squawking and mocking from Western teams’ fanbases and pundits began in earnest as people made the case for their own franchises to leapfrog the Wings and move East instead.
I joined in the histrionics this week after venerable journalist and former THN editor-in-chief Bob McKenzie wrote a column on the likelihood of a straight-up, one-team-for-one-team swap wherein the NHL would shift Detroit to the Southeast and put the reborn Jets in the Central.
Let’s break that down for the simpler among you. The Red Wings would play in a division named for a geographic region they are nowhere close to. Their divisional “rivalries” would switch from traditional foes such as the Hawks and Blues to, uh, the Florida Panthers and Carolina Hurricanes.
In short, a Wings/Jets divisional trade would once and forever make geographically-named divisions obsolete. Now, if that meant reverting to former division names such as Norris, Adams and Smythe (or even a new twist that would give divisions names of modern stars: Gretzky, Lemieux, Orr) I’d be better with the decision.
That said, although teams such as Columbus and Nashville can make their own argument for moving East, I think the end result of a small-scale realignment like this – namely, that it would placate virtually nobody other than Detroit and Winnipeg – demonstrates what I’ve been saying for years:
The NHL doesn’t need divisions at all anymore.
What’s that? You’ve just done a spit-take and burst into tears only your team’s divisional championship banner can dry? Come off it. You know as well as I that nobody – not NHL players, not coaches or executives, and certainly not fan bases – give a rat’s rear where a team finishes in its division. These days, you’re either a top-eight team in your conference or you’re a slug looking at the playoffs from the outside. And even if you make the playoffs after having won your division, anything less than a Stanley Cup championship still will be considered a massive disappointment of a season.
Going to conference-only standings wouldn’t hurt divisional rivalries in the least. There’s nothing that says the teams that play each other six times a season right now couldn’t continue to do so. In fact, in an 82-game schedule, the league could continue traditional divisional team play at the present rate, have each team play a home-and-home series against all 15 teams in the opposite conference, and still have 28 games to address rivalries that pop up organically from time to time.
With that kind of arrangement, there would be far fewer qualms about a Jets/Wings flip-flop. Sure, you’d still have Nashville and Columbus clamoring to move East, but perhaps those extra 28 games could be allotted in a way that would give each franchise more games against the East.
Regardless, there has to be a better system than the one the league is looking at. Think about what ridiculous optics the NHL has going for its standings setup as it is: the Dallas Stars aren’t in the Central where they belong, but the Pacific; the Boston Bruins aren’t in the Atlantic where they belong, but the Northeast. And of course, there is the looming specter of further franchise relocation not far down the road, which could lead to even more absurd divisional composition.
By ditching divisions, you safeguard against all that nonsense. You do away with an antiquated system and embrace modern realities. You make it easier for fans to understand what really matters to NHL people. You streamline rather than complicate.
With the iceberg-like pace at which the league effects change, the end of divisions likely won’t come soon. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t absolutely the right choice. It is.
Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. Power Rankings appear Mondays, his blog appears Thursdays and his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays.
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.