(May 10, 2016) – As the National Hockey League inches closer to potentially playing with 31 or 32 teams (see articles from TSN or The Sin Bin for more on the timeline), another question for the NHL to figure out the answer to is just how the League will work with an additional team or two. Right now, the NHL sits with 16 teams in the Eastern Conference and 14 teams in the Western Conference, so it’d seem obvious that the NHL would look to add any expansion teams to the West to even things out.

However, with one of the two cities currently being looked at for expansion being well within Eastern Conference territory (and the Eastern Time Zone), that would make them an unlikely candidate to play permanently in the Western Conference (the Winnipeg Jets briefly played in the Southeast Division, after all).

Beyond that, deciding what division a team playing its home games in Las Vegas would land in isn’t as cut and dry as one might think, though the decision did recently become a little easier.

The one thing trend that we can all hope for is simplification. Primarily, if the NHL does add a team or two, let’s all hope that the Playoff format is simplified and made to a purely divisional structure (1v4, 2v3) in place of the needlessly complicated Wild Card format. To take nothing away from the Philadelphia Flyers and Minnesota Wild (neither of whom would have qualified for the Playoffs this year in a purely-divisional format), the current Wild Card format makes an already-complex standings system (comparatively-speaking) even stranger. And, again, the non-divisional matchups we got in the First Round were both very good (Islanders vs Panthers, Predators vs Ducks), but seeing Nashville face Dallas in Round 1 and a Ducks/Coyotes matchup along with Islanders/Capitals and Panthers/Bruins could have been fun as well (of those, only Anaheim vs Arizona would have looked truly lopsided on paper).

If you don’t like divisional playoffs, just return to a 1-8 format with the two division winners placed in the top two spots, though the divisional format has made for some fantastic matchups throughout the playoffs, as opposed to what can be semi-pointless and tedious matchups in the early goings that other major leagues end up having. Either way, simpler is usually better, especially when it comes to growing the game (that’s one reason why some fans kick and scream about the so-called “loser point” for an overtime or shootout loss, after all).

In the same vein, let’s start simple and look at scenarios if only one expansion franchise is granted, with that team going to Las Vegas.

The most obvious choice for a divisional home for this franchise would be the Pacific Division. They’d have natural, geographic rivals in Los Angeles, Anaheim and Arizona, with the Sharks possibly joining that mix as well. The division does feature three Canadian teams (Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton), but travel as a whole is significantly shorter in the Pacific than it would be in the Central Division, as this article from The Sin Bin points out.

That article also goes into great detail about the argument for putting Las Vegas in the Central, that being the possibility to expand to Seattle down the line. However, that idea took a hit earlier this month when the city of Seattle shot down a measure that could have helped pave the way for that to happen.

Because of that, if there is only a single expansion team granted this summer – and if that team is Las Vegas – it would only make sense to put them in the Pacific Division. Unless the NHL knows or learns something that the general public is unaware of at this point (or something changes) with regards to Seattle, it would seem that keeping the eighth slot in the Pacific open for a team in the Emerald City would be unlikely.

This would lead to one of three possibilities when the NHL would, eventually, even things up with a 32nd team: either expanding to a central city (Milwaukee? Houston? Kansas City?), moving a team from the Eastern Conference to the Central Division (Columbus?) or doing a complete realignment when that time comes.

Speaking of which…

If the NHL opts to grant a pair of expansion teams this summer (one to Las Vegas, one to Quebec City), the League would hit an even 32 teams. Adding Quebec to the East and Las Vegas to the West is the obvious call geographically, but would leave the NHL lopsided with 17 teams in the East and only 15 in the West.

The simplest answer here would be to simply bump a team like Columbus to the Central Division and give the new Quebec City team its spot. The League could also opt to then move Quebec and Carolina to the Atlantic Division in exchange for the two Floridian franchises in order to keep the Canadian clubs together (because how could Quebec and Montreal NOT be in the same division?).

However, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has said before that neither the Blue Jackets nor the Detroit Red Wings would move back to the Western Conference because of realignment.

So what can the League do?

Well, that would seem to leave only Carolina as a real option for swapping Conferences, as the Hurricanes are the only Eastern Conference club without a true geographic and/or longstanding rival in their own division (Tampa/Florida, Buffalo/Toronto, Penguins/Flyers, Rangers/Islanders/Devils, Boston/everybody). While Raleigh is merely an eight-hour drive from Nashville, that may not be the best option.

So, again, what can the League do?

If the Blue Jackets aren’t the answer and the Hurricanes aren’t the answer, either, then things are going to get complex. What could be an interesting solution is one that would see a dramatic shift in alignment, but should make fans north of the border very happy.

This proposal would do away with the East/West monikers for the Conferences (hooray!) and shift to either Northern Conference and Southern Conference (boo!) or back to a traditional name like the return of the Campbell Conference and Wales Conference (HOORAY!), though these divisions will hold little resemblance to the previous incarnations those names would suggest.

In the Campbell Conference – replacing the Western Conference – would be an all-Canadian division. Montreal, Quebec, Toronto, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver. While the travel worsens for every team (except, perhaps, Winnipeg), the big selling points would be: constant all-Canadian matchups throughout the season and four guaranteed playoff spots belonging to Canada (including one spot in the Conference Finals every season). Since the NHL shouldn’t name a division after an active franchise (ruling out the Canadian Division, Maple Leaf Division, True North Division), this can be called the Gretzky Division for now.

Joining the Gretzky Division in the Campbell Conference would be the NHL’s far west American franchises: San Jose, Los Angeles, Anaheim, Las Vegas, Arizona, Colorado, Dallas and Minnesota. Of those eight teams, only Los Angeles and San Jose existed in their current forms when the NHL last used the traditional Conference and Division names, making this the Smythe Division.

That leaves sixteen teams for the former Eastern Conference, now, once again, the Wales Conference. Nashville, St. Louis and Chicago all move East, which makes sense geographically. Those three will be kept together to preserve their long-standing rivalries. Joining them will be fellow former old Norris Division teams Detroit and Tampa Bay, reviving the Norris Division name. The final teams added to this division would be Florida, Carolina and Buffalo (Carolina, then Hartford, and Buffalo were formerly members of the Adams Division with Boston and three Canadian teams).

In our final grouping, we look to the old Patrick Division for the name and the base layer of franchises. Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Washington, New Jersey, the New York Rangers and the New York Islanders made up the old Patrick Division. Newcomers Boston and Columbus join those six to round out the lineup.

This new format would keep most traditional rivalries intact (save for the Boston/Detroit feuds with Canadian teams) and the all-Canadian division would be a major selling point for getting the League even more money in exchange for TV broadcast rights north of the border in the next go-round. Pitting that Division in the same Conference as some of the League’s warmest markets (Arizona, Las Vegas, Dallas, southern California) creates an interesting dichotomy, as well. Meanwhile, every American team playing east of the Mississippi River ends up together in a single Conference. That eliminates the 9:00 p.m. CT start times for in-conference games for Nashville, Chicago and St. Louis, replacing them with the much more reasonable 6:00 and 6:30 p.m. CT puck drops.

The lineup isn’t perfect by any means (see: Boston/Montreal playing in different Conferences), but if the NHL is set on not bumping Columbus or Detroit back West (and the League does grant expansion teams to Las Vegas and Quebec City), this might be the best bet. 

 

WALES CONFERENCE

Patrick Division: Boston, Columbus, New Jersey, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Washington

Norris Division: Buffalo, Carolina, Chicago, Detroit, Florida, Nashville, St. Louis, Tampa Bay

CAMPBELL CONFERENCE

Gretzky Division: Calgary, Edmonton, Montreal, Ottawa, Quebec City, Toronto, Vancouver, Winnipeg

Smythe Division: Anaheim, Arizona, Colorado, Dallas, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Minnesota, San Jose