Here's our realignment plan.
It's all based on growing grudges (that being a good thing in hockey). Remember, familiarity breeds contempt. If teams have to play their way out of their divisions in the playoffs, the agony and ecstasy will carry over into the regular seasons and the most frequent matchups in the schedule.
Eastern realignment is based on keeping the Boston-Montreal rivalry intact (which means Toronto and Ottawa have to come along in the Northeast, and Buffalo cross-pollinates). The Rangers/Islanders/Devils triumvirate has to stay together, as does Philadelphia-Pittsburgh in the Atlantic. We put Washington in the Northeast purely by geography — it's the northernmost team of the soon-to-be-defunct (we hope) Southeast Division.
Columbus will complain loudly, but Detroit should go where it wants to go, and common sense would put the Red Wings in the East. Imagine if about half of the Bruins' conference games began at 8, 9 or even 10 PM. That's what Detroit has to deal with. The improved start times alone should account for a significant bump in TV ratings in Detroit, a step to increase Hockey Related Revenue — which is the collective goal of the NHL business model. I don't see Columbus pulling bigger TV numbers than Detroit under any circumstance in the foreseeable future.
Western realignment is based on geography as much as anything. The Midwest teams belong together, so from Dallas north to Winnipeg there's a sensible grouping. Columbus –- an eastern time zone team -– has to suffer, but that's the lingering cost of being an expansion team. The Western Canadian teams belong together, so we stack them with the three California teams and Colorado. Now, if Phoenix moves to Quebec, it's an elephant-sized fly in the ointment — but we'll deal with that another day.
For seven-team divisions: six vs. divisional rivals (36 games), three vs. non-divisional same-conference teams (24), one vs. each of the non-conference teams (15), and seven wild-card assignments by whatever formula (or random) the league wants. It adds up to 82.
For eight-team divisions: six vs. divisional rivals (42 games), three vs. non-divisional same-conference teams (21), one vs. each of the non-conference teams (15), and four wild-card assignments equals 82.
If and when the NHL expands to 32 teams, it could have four eight-team divisions playing this schedule:
Six games against divisional rivals (42 games), three vs. non-divisional same-conference teams (24), one vs. each of the non-conference teams (16) equals 82. Nice and neat.
Yes, the odd number of games against non-divisional in-conference teams is bothersome, but the last research we read showed that those are the toughest tickets to sell overall, and it's tough to make the math work otherwise without really diluting the divisional schedules. We think the divisional schedules have to be an even number because we're raising the stakes for a division champion — as you'll see later.
The top three from each division automatically make the playoffs and are seeded 1-2-3 in their divisions. The next-best two teams from each conference make the playoffs. If a 5th-place team is the last qualifier, it flips to the other division in its conference and is the fourth seed in that division.
For instance, say the Bruins, Wings, and Leafs qualify 1-2-3 out of the Northeast and the Penguins, Rangers, and Flyers qualify 1-2-3 out of the Atlantic. The next-best two records get in. If it is, for instance, the Sabres and Caps (in that order), both from the Northeast, the Caps would flip to the Atlantic playoff bracket as the four-seed. And then it's 1 vs. 4, 2 vs. 3, winners play for the division, winners of the divisions play for the conference, winners of the conference play for the Stanley Cup.
This hypothetical situation, graphically:
5. Washington (qualifying because of a better record than the 4th-place team in the Atlantic)
2. NY Rangers
1. Boston vs. 4. Buffalo
2. Detroit vs. 3. Toronto
1. Pittsburgh vs. 4. Washington (the Caps flip to the Atlantic as the 4-seed)
2. NY Rangers vs. 3. Philadelphia
But wait, there's more: real incentive to play hard to the wire. We provide a meaningful bonus for finishing first in the division.
For the top seeds in the first round only, instead of a 2-2-1-1-1 format, it goes two at home, one on the road, two at home, one on the road, one at home. That's 2-1-2-1-1, with just Games 3 and 6 on the road.
That means four of the first five at home and five out of seven if the series goes the distance. That's the reward for finishing first: More money for the regular-season division champs (don't underestimate the lucre of those playoff gates), less possibility of a first-round upset, and plenty of reason to keep the horses running hard through March and early April for the top teams that have their playoff spots clinched.