The NHL is realigning after this season, and starting in 2013-14, the league will be divided into two conferences of sixteen and fourteen teams, respectively. It's such a glaring imbalance that if only for a moment, I wondered if the whole thing was orchestrated just to accommodate the oft-discussed expansion of the league by two teams. Part of me, knowing how much money the NHL could rake in on one-time expansion fees, couldn't help but wonder whether this was all some brilliant, evil plan, dreamed up by Gary Bettman and Jeremy Jacobs in a secret lair underneath Sixth Avenue, to add more teams to a league that already has too many, putting money ahead of everything else.
Of course, reason soon prevailed. I knew that in reality, the catalyst for the realignment was the relocation of the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg, which meant they'd eventually need to move out of the Southeast Division. That move, in turn, caused some other dominoes to fall: The much-needed shifting of the Blue Jackets into the Eastern Conference, as well as the Red Wings' move to the East, fulfilling a promise Bettman made to Detroit owner Mike Ilitch. Geography and rivalries had to be taken into account, and as long as you're not associated with either team in the Sunshine State, there's a lot to like about the plan--enough that the league could live with the imbalanced conferences.
But even if that flaw wasn't consciously included with the understanding that expansion would soon rectify the issue, it might have been the smartest thing the league could have done if they're looking to add teams in the near future. And it's not because it would be easy to just slip a couple new franchises into the new format. (It actually wouldn't be). It's because the plan as approved by the Board of Governors last week might just help the NHL win the p.r. battle with regards to expansion.
Ask yourself the following question, without considering what the league will look like after realignment: Is it a good idea for the NHL expand in the near future? Or to ask a related question: Should the NHL really have as many teams as the NFL, and more than either Major League Baseball or the NBA? Unless you live in Quebec City, Seattle, or the greater Toronto area -- the most commonly rumored locations for expansion franchises -- you'd have many valid reasons for responding with something like, "No," or "Are you freaking kidding me? Of course not."
The NHL last added new franchises around the turn of the century, completing a decade-long process of expanding from 21 teams to 30. The most recent round of expansion was aggressive, and I'd argue too aggressive: One of the four teams added in the batch has already relocated, to say nothing of the struggles some of the other newly-minted franchises experienced. Part of the problem had to do with the scope of the league's southern strategy, but that wasn't the only issue. The league grew too quickly, adding too many players over too short a time period, without allowing the new franchises to get their fair share of attention.
The NHL already faces enough challenges with its existing franchises, and adding two more teams would spread the talent out even thinner. Hockey fans know this, and if Bettman is going to try to sell the idea that the league can and should be bigger, it'll help if the Tweeting, Facebooking masses are on-board with the idea, or at least aren't totally against it. And there's a path to that sort of public support in the new conference alignment.
By creating a situation where one conference is bigger than the other -- meaning eight out of 14 teams earn a playoff berth in the West, while eight out of 16 make it in the East -- fans might see expansion as a way to balance things out, to make the system fair again. Expansion could be seen as a solution, and not necessarily a problem. If nothing else, expansion might become a bit easier to swallow for those who'd otherwise oppose it.
In fact, the particulars of the 2013 version of realignment could help build support over the next few years. Under the plan rejected by the players in early 2012, the league would have been divided into four distinct conferences. But under that plan, the two "eastern" conferences would have had seven teams each, while the ones farther west would have had eight. In other words, the teams on the eastern side of the country would have had an easier time qualifying for the playoffs. But under the plan that will go into effect next season, that's reversed: The two divisions of the Eastern Conference have eight teams each. And so if an east-coast bias does exist in the hockey media, you can bet the flaws of the uneven conference system will be repeated a lot more now that teams in Toronto or Philadelphia or New York could be adversely affected. It might not lead to overwhelming support for a 32-team league, but it could help build the case.
The new four-division format goes into effect next season and will be in place through at least 2015-16. Or at least, as Bettman said last week when the plan was finalized, it'll be in effect through 2015-16 "barring another relocation or expansion, neither of which are being contemplated at this time." Yet I can't read that sentence without the words "at this time" jumping out like they're lit up on a Broadway marquee. The league doesn't have concrete plans to expand right now, but that could change in the next few years. (If it does, it may very well screw up the new alignment, since it's the Western Conference that's short on teams and two of the rumored destinations for an expansion team or a relocated team are in the east.) In The Instigator, his book on Bettman's NHL, author Jonathon Gatehouse writes that a second Toronto-area team "could provide a one-time cash infusion of $400 million or more." Bettman and the league owners surely know what kind of cash expansion could bring in, and the imbalanced conferences may help them sell the idea.
Last week, Sidney Crosby was asked about possible NHL expansion, in light of the realignment plan. "It's only two more teams," Crosby said, using a phrase that Bettman ought to print onto T-shirts. "The league's found a way to stay competitive with 30. It can do 32." Now that the realignment plan is official, the NHL surely hopes its fans eventually use a similar line of thinking: It's only two more teams, and if it'll balance out the conferences, maybe it won't be so bad.
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