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Realigning and Renegotiating the NHL: Where the divisions will go from here

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Odds are everyone will hate at least one of my scenarios, and I want you to.

NHL: Arizona Coyotes at Columbus Blue Jackets Russell LaBounty-USA TODAY Sports

Seattle is coming.

It is no longer an if, but rather a when and the when is likely the 2019-20 season. Late last week, following the NHL Board of Governor meetings in Florida, Commissioner Gary Bettman met with the media to discuss the state of the league and answer questions on where current and future franchises stand.

On the Coyotes, he said they are not going anywhere despite Seattle’s situation finally coming into focus.

Furthermore, Carolina’s new ownership has a clause in their deal to prevent relocation for at least 7 more years while Florida remains a mute situation for the time being. Calgary is currently playing hardball with their city, but moving out of a Canadian market at this time, despite the tenuous nature of the Canadian dollar, is highly controversial.

Finally, the Islanders, who were a longshot to move at all, are reportedly closing in on a deal to move back out of New York City and into Belmont back out on the island where they truly belong.

And now, out of nowhere like a WWE wrestler from the stands, comes Houston after the current NBA ownership finally opened the door to sharing their facility with an NHL team. And while nothing is working right now according to Bettman, it remains a threat to any team on tenuous grounds for remaining in their current markets.

Outside of Seattle and Houston, the omnipresent force of a decently-sized Canadian market without a team still looms.

If you ask any Canadian fan or media outlet, they can’t believe Quebec City doesn’t have an expansion or relocation franchise yet. But as Darren Dreger and Pierre LeBrun put it, the current economic and political situations have a ton of influence on the league at the moment.

So Canadians will continue to moan and whine about not getting a team there but the bottom line is that the league is focused on a few critical things over a couple million Quebecois tears: the league is expanding, occupying key media markets and balance.

And as a fan, from a purely ethical standpoint, you should never root for relocation because it means someone else just like you just lost a team they sunk their time and support into. I’m glad to have the Coyotes, but boy did I feel for Winnipeg to not have a team again until 2011. And when they got a team back, that anguish shifted to all of the now disowned Thrasher fans. It isn’t a fun process- for players or fans- and we shouldn’t ever wish that on people.

So in this article, there will be zero accounting for relocation. Every scenario presented will be purely expansion.

There are currently 7 total non-relocation scenarios at play, with some far more likely than others. Quebec expansion to 32, Houston expansion to 32 and any dual combination of Quebec and Seattle or Houston are all not happening.

Quebec was blocked by the league during the Vegas admission process and any combination before a previously unexplored city such as Houston seems entirely unlikely.

That leaves 3 remaining scenarios: all three come in either together or in some succession of years, Houston and Seattle come in but Quebec continues to be a non-starter, or Seattle comes in and Bettman caps expansion at 32 teams for the foreseeable future.

In this analysis, a few things will be held in great importance: effect on travel, proximity to divisional opponents and puck drop times. Rivalries are important, and were given consideration, but not always saved yet often times worked into the scheduling rules to meet on a middle ground.

32 Teams

Seattle Expansion

In this case, the number of teams in each division was the guiding method for grouping as Seattle created a disbalance in the number of teams straddling the Pacific within the Western Conference.

Based on Bettman’s current conference balancing act, the conferences would be balanced by the Pacific would be too lopsided to schedule anything properly. In this pattern, travel remains an issue for a lot of teams like Dallas and Colorado but as is the case for the current situation, they are fatalities of their own geographies.

Despite the crossing of time zones in the Southwestern and Northwestern Divisions, the rest of the league was emphasized to have relatively common start times.

But where I made up for crazy distances, I compensated in a unique and probably controversial scheduling pattern.

Each conference plays their own conference members a total of 4 times in alternating 3/2 home-away patterns every season. Each team plays the other conference’s teams once and split in half on the road and half at home. The remaining 6 games to be distributed among divisional opponents as 3 home and 3 away games.

In this world, the playoffs would be the top 8 teams from each conference, and while each divisional champion must play in the playoffs, divisional champions do not carry seeding priority.

By resetting the scheduling and playoff seeding in this way, the emphasis is renegotiated onto the strength of conference and while travel in the Western Conference is more strenuous, the travel would be far less taxing on internal clocks.

This strategy also places additional strain on Eastern Conference teams that head west, as they may play shorter road trips and in turn even the playing field. Traveling east for a team is playing earlier and often easier than traveling west and playing later, so by creating a situation where eastern teams traveling west have harder times taking longer trips will even out the fatigue felt by Western Conference travel schedules.

33 Teams

Seattle and Houston Expansion

In this scenario, the easiest optimization was to group teams geographically overcompensating for travel or time zones. With 33 teams present, Nashville moves to the Eastern Conference, making travel for that organization far easier despite the time zone differences.

Every division is composed of 4 teams, minus the Southwest which is comprised of 5. The issue with this scenario is the highly dense pattern of teams in the Northeast, then relative spread elsewhere across the continent with the exception of the Southwest, where teams become far denser.

Because of this, the 5 team conference had to be the Southwest otherwise one team (San Jose or Arizona) would ultimately have to travel far more than any other peer in their conference.

In this case, each team plays one game at home and away in the opposing conference, and 3 games (2 home/1 away alternating pattern every year) against the rest of their conference. The balance of the games would be played against division rivals.

Playoff setups would optimally be the division winners and four wild cards regardless of location/division.

34 Teams

Seattle, Houston, and Quebec Expansion

(Forgive the change in the map, but I made this one earlier than the others.)

At this point, I can’t take Bettman’s traditional Eastern and Western Conferences. I could force the current divisional setups but I just don’t like the patterning. It gives such a massive advantage to half the league by maintaining the E/W system.

So I blew it up. Screw Bettman’s cardinal direction fascination.ntThis is widespread, NFL/MLB-stylized mixing. But instead of American and National League, the league are [insert famous historical player’s name here] in red and [insert famous historical commissioner's name here] in blue. The divisions can be regional or named in a similar way- makes me no difference.

None the less, things are still fairly regional, but travel sucks for everyone because when you build a league covering 60% of a continent. Road trips are set up like baseball, where you do a roadie through a lot of your conference’s other divisions at one time, and do additional road trips against the other conference’s divisions.

This, in turn, stimulates the travel far more evenly for opponents as travel for western teams on the east coast, regardless of conference, is less stringent because of the increased market density while more taxing on eastern teams. This also makes travel in the playoffs harder, and therefore evening the playing field as eastern teams ultimately playing later games.

Playoffs alone would be the division winners 3 division winners from each conference, and 5 at-large births. Regular season schedules emphasize divisional play on a 3:2:1 ratio; that is 3 divisional games to 2 non-divisional conference games to 1 non-conference game, leaving room for scheduling ease by not setting matchup requirements. Each eastern team will play the other conference’s eastern teams every year but will rotate between the other 3 divisions every 3 years.

Does this set up mess up TV broadcasts?

Ya.

Will this set up further annihilate Steve Dangle’s sleep schedule?

That’s a given.

Does this set up make things more competitive and incredibly different?

Certainly, and that’s what I’m going for.

Conclusions

I came at this whole exercise as a geographer trying to analyze and develop groups under a set of conditions. I was focused on solving the problems more so than appeasing fans or maintaining rivalries.

Some teams, for better or worse, are geographic outliers. Given my typical analytical tools, I could give you statistical proofs, but teams like Colorado, Nashville and Winnipeg are difficult to put in divisions, because of how far they ultimately have to travel for the rest of their conference or even divisions.

While the Western Conference covers 3 time zones and a half dozen traditional puck drop times, the Eastern Conference remains entirely in the eastern time zone. If Gary Bettman weren’t so focused on maintaining the conference status quo, you’d have seen me really shaking things up way more like I did with the 34 team combination.

But given the situation, I tried to even the field in the East by creating more travel while minimizing the Western Conference movement.

The glory of being a geographer, unlike other academic fields, is that there is room for disagreement and unlike math or chemistry, everyone’s point of view and analysis has some form of merit and reason.

Attached are templates for all 7 scenarios, even the unlikely ones, and I want people to take them and mark them up. Tweet me your maps @temesy24 on Twitter or email them to my managing editor @sarahhowling, tell me why you did what you did and I’ll write a follow-up post using the responses.

Drawing borders is an arbitrary experience for many, but for people like me, it’s an exercise only comparable to a sudoku puzzle.

Have fun!