In case you haven't heard yet, the NHL's Board of Governors has adopted a radical new league alignment that abolishes the existing Western and Eastern conferences and instead creates four smaller conferences that consist of seven or eight teams. I'll save all of the gory details, but the relevant info for the Ducks is that they will now be in an 8-team conference (with Los Angeles, San Jose, Phoenix, Colorado, Vancouver, Calgary, and Edmonton) and that only the top four teams in each conference make the playoffs. The other big talking point is that every team will now play a game in every other team's barn.
I have three words to describe this: Do. Not. Like.
The biggest issue I have with this new conference alignment is that it limits the Ducks' chances to make the playoffs moving forward. The Ducks currently enjoy a 53.33% chance of making the playoffs in today's format. Under the revised alignment, the Ducks will only have a 50% chance of making the playoffs. These odds are sttill better than most other professional sports, but what really pisses me off is that existing Eastern Conference teams (save Winnipeg) get an unfair boost in their odds of making the playoffs. Instead of the same 53.33% chance that every team currently has, the realigned structure will give clubs in the seven-team conference a 57.14% chance of making the playoffs. So while the Ducks' odds of making the playoffs decreases by 3.33%, Eastern Conference teams actually see their odds raise by 3.81%. That's just not fair.
One of the arguments I've seen in favor of the new alignment is that Western Conference teams will somehow benefit by forcing every team to visit their arena at some point during the year. While that's true, this new alignment will only further exacerbate the already-biased media coverage of teams like the Ducks. If you think Montreal or Boston having to play in Anaheim once a year is somehow going to counteract the fact that every team in our conference plays in either the Pacific or Mountain timezone, you're insane. If you're a fan of baseball, you're familiar with this concept. The NL West and the AL West both receive significantly less attention and promotion than their brethren throughout the rest of the country. It was bad enough being in the Western Conference as it is. We're now going to be completely ignored, especially since the revised alignment lacks any meaningful TV draw (sorry Los Angeles and San Jose, but nobody really considers you all that important on a national scale). At least now we have four games a year against the likes of Detroit and Chicago to remind people that hockey exists on the West Coast.
The other argument I've seen supporting this new alignment is that it will create meaningful rivalries in the conferences. We've discussed rivalries here at AC, and I don't think this new structure is going to help our existing rivalries at all. For one, we'll be playing San Jose and Los Angeles the same amount we currently do (there's actually a chance under the new format that we will only play them five times a year instead of six) and our games against the hated Red Wings will be cut in half. I also don't necessarily buy that it's a good thing for the Ducks that the Penguins will come to town every year. I think the fact that you DON'T play every team at home every year adds to some of that mystique. Again, I use baseball as an example, but it makes it special when you play the Yankees at home because it only happens every so often. Now that this will be a yearly affair, I think it sort of cheapens that idea. When combined with the fact that Anaheim will actually lose some games against their existing rivals, I just don't see the positives.
But hey, I guess there is one silver lining. Instead of hearing from Predators fans four times a year how dirty and cheap we are, we'll only have to hear it twice. So there's that.
Chris, what do you think?
Well Robby, when you proposed this post to me, the first prerequisite was that we disagree. While I disagree in general, I can't COMPLETELY disagree with the points you make. Of course there is no arguing that there is inequity inherent in the fact that the conferences aren't evenly divided. But I've made peace with that by considering the benefits the new alignment will have on the league as a whole, especially when it comes to travel.
The teams from the East will always travel less than the West, but the current system only exaggerates the problem. Under the new four conference format, the Eastern teams will travel more and the Western teams will travel less. For example, this season Toronto has to take two trips to Florida to play the Panthers. After the realignment they'll have to take two extra trips south. Conversely, the Ducks will only have to make one trip to Dallas instead of their usual three. Also the relative distance for each trip is cut down for the West Coast teams. While the Ducks replace trips to Detroit with trips to Vancouver, Montreal has to go all the way to Tampa rather than a short jaunt to Philly.
Another thing I like about the new system is that it is essentially divided by time zone. One division includes Pacific and Mountain teams, one includes Central and Eastern teams, and the other two are entirely contained in the East. Columbus, Dallas and Detroit in particular will see increases in their local television ratings with more of their games in more accessible timeslots. Detroit may not need it a whole lot, but Columbus and Dallas will take any help they can get in marketing their product, especially to kids who wouldn't necessarily be able to watch a game that starts at 9 or 10 pm. Those kids become fans; they have their parents bring them to the games; they buy merchandise; they become future season ticket holders the possibilities are endless. Fewer late night games won't solve all of Columbus' problems, but strengthening a struggling market by any increment is good for everyone.
You claim this is a negative, because the Ducks will get less national coverage, but I don't see much changing. The biggest national coverage they've got recently was the coaching change and Bobby Ryan on the trading block. How much less could the national media cover the Ducks? It might even turn out to be beneficial to the Ducks exposure, as they'll be guaranteed to play under the media spotlight of, say, New York every year whereas under the current organization it's hit or miss.
Not only will the Eastern teams be able to see us more, they'll be in our building more which brings fans in. When I looked at the schedule this season the only game that stood out was Philadelphia. There was no Pittsburgh or Washington, not even the Rangers and we played them twice. There was nothing to circle on my calendar. While I understand that keeping their appearances in Anaheim rare makes them all the more special, one out of 41 is rare enough for me. Also, as annoying as it may be, the Ducks could use an extra sellout or two per season, when the opposing fans invade.
As far as rivalries are concerned, it's all about the playoffs. This new system enhances geographic rivals by making it twice as likely that they'll face each other in the playoffs, when the games take on a whole new meaning. I've heard the argument made that the divisional playoffs can become predictable and boring, but with the salary cap and the shootout, there is much more parity in the league now than there was in 1993, the last time the NHL saw a divisional playoff structure.
One of the aspects of the new system that doesn't get talked about a lot is the flexibility that it affords the league going forward. Phoenix is still up in the air, but it won't be long before something gives. If the league had gone with a simple one for one swap of Winnipeg for Detroit or Columbus, we'd be right back in the same place we are today if Phoenix is forced to move east. This way there is a simple solution. Only if they move to a city in the central time zone will another team be displaced, and even then, there is a buffer of two eastern time zone teams that are ready, willing and able to move over at a moment's notice. Then there's always the possibility of expansion in the (hopefully distant) future.
The new structure is certainly not perfect. I for one would have put Columbus in with Pittsburgh and the rest of the former Patrick Division, to maximize their gain. But it makes so much more sense in terms of geography and time zones, it has the potential for growth of the game on many fronts and like it or not, it's a reality.