December 06 2011 09:06AM
The NHL's Four Realigned Conferences on Google Maps
We've now had a night to sleep on, and digest the four conference realignment plan that the NHL's Board of Governors approved yesterday evening. While there are some things I like, and a few that I don't in regards to the new alignment, I think Gary Bettman and the NHL deserve some credit for pushing through a plan that is admittedly ambitious, interesting and cogent. But how does the new plan impact the Canucks? I figured I'd take a quick look...
This is the big one for the Western Conference teams, who in theory will see their burden significantly lessened by the new four conference arrangement. Dirk Hoag of the Nashville Predators SBN blog "On the Forecheck" broke down average distance between the conference rivals, and points out that the "travel imbalances" for Western Conference teams "seem to be a little bit alleviated here." Dirk's chart is in miles, so the average distance between Vancouver and the other cities within the new most Western conference will be 1441 km, which, is actually greater than it is currently (1395 km).
That number is deceptive though, in the new four conference format, the Canucks lose the Minnesota Wild who play in Minneapolis which is well over 2000 km away as the bird flies. Their furthest rival in the new most Western conference will be Phoenix, which is just under two-thousand kilometers away, but is sunny during winter months, which, helps to cushion the blow.
Though the "average distance" between the Canucks and their conference rivals increases slightly with the new arrangement, we can be confident that the team will travel less overall because of the way the games will be scheduled. Three California swings per year is something the team has to be pretty excited about.
The jet-lag factor, something Mike Gillis has been famously obsessed with during his Canucks tenure, will also be reduced by this new alignment. As it stands at the moment, the Canucks are the only pacific time-zone team in their division. Minneapolis meanwhile is two time-zones over! With the addition of the three California teams, the Canucks will be in a division where half of the team's are in their own time-zone, and none of them are more than one time-zone over. I hope the Canucks sleep specialist isn't out of a job!
The new conference realignment includes a revised playoff format. Rather than competing against the 15 teams in the West for 8 available spots, the Canucks will now compete against the 8 teams in their conference for four available postseason births. The first two rounds of the playoffs will be played solely within the eight team conference.
One issue for the Canucks is that they'll be one of sixteen teams placed in an eight team division. As Jonathan Willis pointed out last night, this means the team will face longer odds to make the playoffs under the new alignment, than they do currently:
Last season, Vancouver finished first in the league, San Jose fifth, Anaheim ninth, Phoenix 11th and Los Angeles 12th in the NHL. Had the new playoff seeding been in effect last season, one of them would have missed the playoffs. Despite the new schedule, that sort of thing isn’t going to go away – some above average teams will be missing the playoffs while some poor teams will make the post-season.
The bottom line, for teams like Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Vancouver is that they’ll spend less money travelling, but that they’ll face a more difficult road to the playoffs every year – and once they’ve made the playoffs, they’ll probably play against higher-quality teams.
Despite this, the Canucks seem to be fond of the revised playoff format, Mike Gillis even told Jesse Spector of the Sporting News that the intra-conference playoff format was "one of the reasons we were in favor of [realignment]." So why is the team not worried about having a reduced shot at a postseason birth? As he often does, Tony Gallagher has a theory:
On the surface of it, that seems radically unfair given that 16 teams in the west will be vying for eight playoff spots while in the eastern section just 14 teams will have the luxury for the same eight playoff spots.
But while nobody seems to want to announce anything for fear of fans in Phoenix totally taking their leave, this uneven number of teams is not what it seems. For starters the League says it hasn't determined when the new format will come into play and that is presumed to be because they are not prepared to announce that Phoenix will be leaving to go to Quebec City as soon as their building is ready.
Though realignment is settled, clearly there are still some "flux" as regards the status of the Canucks new eight team division. It seems likely that at same point in the medium-term, the disparity between the 8 and 7 team conferences will be addressed, either through relocation, a wild-card set up or expansion.
The single best part about the NHL's realignment plan? The Minnesota Wild get booted into a new central division, and will be seen far less frequently around these parts. That means no more surefire blow-outs at Excel, and no more snoozer games against this historically dull team. From next season on, if you want to simulate the excitement of a Minnesota Wild game, you can always go back and re-read David Hume's A Treatise on Human Nature.
On the other hand, the revised playoff format will put a lamentable halt on the burgeoning rivalry between the Canucks and the Blackhawks. The rivalry between Chicago and Vancouver has been a highlight of the last few seasons, and it's clear that both team's and fanbases dislike each other to the extreme. Whenever realignment goes into effect, the Blackhawks and Canucks will need to make the final four to play a playoff series against each other, which, won't happen often and isn't ideal.
Luckily there's a fresh new bitter rival waiting in the wings. The new playoff format will definitely accelerate the rivalry between the Sharks and the Canucks. With the speed and skill level of both clubs, Sharks v. Canucks games have been must watch for a couple of years now, but this grudge match is ready to take the next step.
If their first meeting of the season was any indication, the bitterly contested Western Conference Final between these two team's last May served to add that extra dash of animosity that threatens to put this rivalry over the top. Already, I think I dislike Joe Thornton just as much as I dislike Jonathan Toews, and Joe Pavelski is basically a less objectionable (and more talented) Dave Bolland. The Sharks aren't in Blackhawks territory yet, not by a long shot, but they have the tools to get there.
Finally, I love the idea of a regional bracket. I think it'll be great for the rivalries between the Oilers, Flames and Canucks and for the California teams (who already dislike each other) as well. The idea of a season in 2015, when the Canucks are long in the tooth and limp into the postseason as the fourth seed, only to knock off an Oilers team with expectations in the first round makes me giddy.