NHL Realignment: Thinking Geographically about Divisions

With the NHL once again fleeing Atlanta for the Canadian prairie, a question has emerged:

How long until the NHL returns to Hartford?

Okay, maybe not that question, but with the Thrashers now the Winnipeg Jets, the divisions of the NHL are a geographically unbalanced; as if a random U.S.ian off the street drew up the divisions.  The new era of the Jets will play their games not only within the Eastern Conference, but also in the South Division.  Certainly being in the Central Time Zone is not a disadvantage, but having to travel over 1200 miles (or 2000 kilometers, if you prefer) to play your divisional “rivals” can be fairly taxing.

But the strange geography of the NHL divisions extends beyond Winnipeg’s placement.  The Detroit Red Wings, a team in the Eastern Time Zone, plays in the Western Conference.  While the other teams within their division, including the Columbus Blue Jackets (also located in the Eastern Time Zone), are within 500 miles of one another, they still must regularly travel to the Pacific Time Zone, something that is exponentially stressful for the Red Wings and Blue Jackets.

Here is the average distance traveled by division and conference:

  • Atlantic Division: 154 miles
  • Northeast Division: 262.7 miles
  • Southeast Division: 954.9 miles (565.3 miles without the Jets)
  • Central Division: 324.7 miles
  • Northwest Division: 841.6 miles
  • Pacific Division: 673.7 miles
  • EASTERN CONFERENCE: 603.6 miles
  • WESTERN CONFERENCE: 1146.2 miles

In terms of distance, the most isolated teams in the NHL are the Edmonton Oilers — the northernmost city in the NHL (53.5° North) — and the Vancouver Canucks.  Both teams have only three teams within 1000 miles of their arena, with each being within that radius.  The San Jose Sharks, which have five teams within 1000 miles of the HP Pavilion, has the largest average distance from other teams (1788.5 miles), just eight miles more than Vancouver.

The Columbus Blue Jackets are actually the most centralized team, with 21 of the 29 other teams falling within 1000 miles of Columbus (72.4 percent); the average distance is just over 800 miles.

However, if you decrease the radius, the teams with the highest concentration of other teams tends to be in the megalopolis of the Northeast U.S. and Southeast Canada.  The New York teams (Rangers and Islanders), the New Jersey Devils, the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington Capitals are within 250 miles of at least five other teams, as is Detroit.  Moving to 500 miles, those teams along with the Buffalo Sabres, Boston Bruins, Columbus, Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators, and the Toronto Maple Leafs have at least ten teams within that radius.

Nevertheless, in an age where team owners are looking to cut operating costs, and where the costs of traveling are increasing, geography matters when it comes to the smallest of the four major North American sports — hockey.  What follows below are a few suggestions that I anticipate will never be viewed the powers that be in the NHL…but I can at least pretend it would be.  The suggested divisions are, of course, hypothetical but in general use geography as is basis.  Some maintain the East-West divide in terms of Conferences, while others do not.  Some are balanced while others are more radical.

Of course, there is one problem: the NHL is heavily concentrated in the Eastern Time Zone.  Thus, as I quickly learned, it is not east to slot teams in the West without there being at least a couple of teams from that time zone.

First, a note on distance.  With these teams, geography is less important because they can be slotted into a division and still be geographically “accurate.”  Thus, history pulls a bit harder here with my divisions, although geography will still matter.

Now, the alignments!

  • EAST-WEST ALIGNMENTS

Four Divisions

In this case, the teams are still very much like the NHL’s current structure, with the exception, of course, of the four divisions.  I considered going to an unbalanced divisional format, with 14 teams in the West and 16 teams in the East.  This would allow for Detroit and Columbus to both remain in the East.  However, I opted against this format as Chicago would be the only “Original Six” in the West, losing its rivalry with Detroit.  Thus, I opted not to be too radical here.

Therefore, I chose to place Detroit in the West rather than Columbus.  The structure would look as follows:

WESTERN

EASTERN

Pacific

Midwest

Central

Atlantic

Anaheim Chicago Buffalo Carolina
Calgary Dallas Columbus Florida
Colorado Detroit Montreal New Jersey
Edmonton Minnesota Ottawa NY Islanders
Los Angeles Nashville Pittsburgh NY Rangers
Phoenix St. Louis Tampa Bay Philadelphia
San Jose Winnipeg Toronto Washington
Vancouver Boston

The issue that arises here is that Edmonton’s average distance of travel is over 1000 miles, as is the same for the Florida Panthers.  The Pacific Division would have the greatest amount of travel (837.21 miles), while despite Florida’s distance the Atlantic would have the shortest distance (421.17 miles).

  • Pacific Division: 837.2 miles
  • Midwest Division: 619.5 miles
  • Central Division: 307.8 miles
  • Atlantic Division: 556.7 miles
  • WESTERN CONFERENCE: 1122.1 miles
  • EASTERN CONFERENCE: 499.8 miles

Certainly the distances in each division will become larger because there are more teams.  And while the Eastern Conference becomes more compact, it is primarily due to the “trade” of Winnipeg and Columbus; the distance in the West only decreases slightly.  So, what about six divisions in the East-West alignment?

Six Divisions

Keeping with the six-division format, I ran through a few tests.  And initially, I came to have the Colorado Avalanche in a division with Jets, Oilers, Flames, and Canucks, nearly replicating the current Northwest Division.  This scenario would have Minnesota in the Central and Dallas in the Pacific.  But, to me, Dallas is more Central while a Colorado-Phoenix rivalry makes geographic sense.  And while Minnesota could be in the Central, someone else needed to be with those Canadian teams…sorry, Wild!

So, I played with those three teams and came up with the following:

WESTERN

EASTERN

Prairie Pacific Midwest Central Northeast South
Calgary Anaheim Chicago Buffalo Boston Carolina
Minnesota Colorado Columbus Montreal New Jersey Florida
Edmonton Los Angeles Dallas Ottawa NY Islanders Nashville
Vancouver Phoenix Detroit Pittsburgh NY Rangers Tampa Bay
Winnipeg San Jose St. Louis Toronto Philadelphia Washington

In this case, I considered moving Boston to the Central division in order to maintain the rivalry with Montreal, but since they are still in the same Conference, I opted to keep with the geography.  Columbus remains in the West while it is Nashville that moves, essentially flip-flopping with Winnipeg.

  • Prairie Division: 771.5 miles
  • Pacific Division: 510.2 miles
  • Midwest Division: 505.2 miles
  • Central Division: 320.3 miles
  • Atlantic Division: 149.2 miles
  • Southeast Division: 582 miles
  • WESTERN CONFERENCE: 1128.5 miles
  • EASTERN CONFERENCE: 528.2 miles

While there is a scenario where the averages for the Central and the Prairie could be smaller — with the former being much more compact — I went with a scenario where there is more balance in terms of the average distance.  Beyond the Winnipeg-Nashville swap, the teams in the Eastern Conference divisions are essentially the same, with only Pittsburgh and Boston swapping divisions.

So, while not a seismic shift in alignment, this appears to be the best set-up using the current structure.  But is it optimal?  The divisions are tight, but there is great imbalance in the Conference distances.  How about something a bit different?

  • NORTH-SOUTH ALIGNMENTS

Now, given that it seems impossible to create a conference format where at least one Eastern Time Zone team is not in the West (at least not without going radically unbalanced), why not try to go really radical and try a North-South alignment?

Four Divisions

With a four-division format, the only way for some semblance of geographic balance was to make uneven conferences, with the Northern Conference carrying 16 teams and the Southern Conference carrying 14 teams.  Of course, this format reflects the traditional geography of ice hockey, but ended up with teams like Pittsburgh and Columbus in the Southern Conference.

NORTHERN

SOUTHERN

Northwest

Northeast

Southwest

Southeast

Calgary Boston Anaheim Carolina
Chicago Buffalo Colorado Columbus
Detroit Montreal Dallas Florida
Edmonton New Jersey Los Angeles Nashville
Minnesota NY Islanders Phoenix Pittsburgh
Toronto NY Rangers San Jose Tampa Bay
Vancouver Ottawa St. Louis Washington
Winnipeg Philadelphia

Much like the four-division format for the East-West alignment, the distances are going to be high.

  • Northwest Division: 994.6 miles
  • Northeast Division: 239.2 miles
  • Southwest Division: 860.3 miles
  • Southeast Division: 555.5 miles
  • NORTHERN CONFERENCE: 943.5 miles
  • SOUTHERN CONFERENCE: 1197.5 miles

Thus, no real advantage here.  Yet, in terms of Conference travel, it is the most balanced.  If only the divisions were tighter.  So how about six divisions?

Six Divisions

Again, I went with an unbalanced conference format.  Debated making it balanced and placing the Flyers in the Southern Conference [they are technically further south than Pittsburgh], but opted not to do that.

NORTHERN

SOUTHERN

Prairie Central Northeast Pacific Midwest Southeast
Calgary Chicago Boston Anaheim Columbus Carolina
Edmonton Detroit Buffalo Colorado Dallas Florida
Minnesota Montreal New Jersey Los Angeles Nashville Pittsburgh
Vancouver Ottawa NY Islanders Phoenix St. Louis Tampa Bay
Winnipeg Toronto NY Rangers San Jose Washington
Philadelphia

Again…sorry, Minnesota.  But in order to keep the North-South alignment proper, Colorado had to be in the South.  But, at least the Prairie Division sounds cool.

  • Prairie Division: 771.5 miles
  • Central Division: 382.7 miles
  • Northeast Division: 181.5 miles
  • Pacific Division: 510.5 miles
  • Midwest Division: 510 miles
  • Southeast Division: 577.2 miles
  • NORTHERN CONFERENCE: 943.5 miles
  • SOUTHERN CONFERENCE: 1197.5 miles

The teams out west are really the ones that throw everything off.  Yet, in general, this is the best option in terms of distance.  Five of the six divisions have an average of less than 600 miles, and the average of the two conferences are fairly close, albeit nearly in the neighborhood of 1000 miles.

Still, is there a better solution?  Perhaps one that is a bit…radical?  Ah, I’ll save that for another blog entry.

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