NHL Realignment: What Can We Learn From 44 Years Of Seismic League Changes?

In the last 44 years of NHL history, the league has realigned in a significant way five times. Let's look back at that history and see what we can learn as we prepare for another round of change.

NHL realignment is happening next season, and it seems as though we're going to experience a major restructuring of the National Hockey League landscape when everything falls in place. 

This is kind of par for the course. There has been a major realignment of NHL teams five times in the last 44 years, dating back to the 1967 expansion. That would be an average of once every eight or nine years, and one could say that we're due for such a dramatic shift today, if the league's history is any indication. 

Let's take a look at that history and try to figure out what we can learn from it as we prepare for another round.

In 1967-68, the NHL first split into two divisions with the league's first ever expansion class. The so-called Expansion Six were grouped in a West Division, despite teams playing as far East as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, while the East Division consisted of the Original Six teams we all know and love. 

Very quickly, the teams realized that this wasn't all that fair. A look at the list of leading scorers in 1967-68 proves that fact pretty well: not a single one of the top 10 scorers in the league played in the West Division. There was disparity, and it would stay that way for three seasons.

In 1970-71, two new teams joined the league in Buffalo and Vancouver. The Chicago Blackhawks moved to the West Division as the league began to balance out a little bit. The two new clubs joined the East Division. Notice that there's absolutely nothing that resembles geographical alignment here to this point. Seriously, Buffalo and Vancouver are both in the East Division.

There was no change in the 1971-72 season, but prior to the following season, the New York Islanders and Atlanta Flames joined the NHL. One team was added to each division, creating a 16-team league with two eight-team divisions. Atlanta joined the West, the Islanders joined the East, and both teams were horrible.

Things stayed static for the 1973-74 season, but in 1974-75, in the eighth season since expansion, the NHL's first major realignment took place. The Washington Capitals and Kansas City Scouts joined the league, and both teams would finish in dead last place in their divisions. But the divisions were all new, as was this new "Conferences" concept.

Wales Conference

Norris Division: Montreal, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Washington
Adams Division: Buffalo, Boston, Toronto, California

Campbell Conference

Patrick Division: Philadelphia, NY Rangers, NY Islanders, Atlanta
Smythe Division: Vancouver, St. Louis, Chicago, Minnesota, Kansas City

It's not the best system, especially if you're looking to balance things geographically, but there clearly wasn't much of a need for that at this point. It was more about balancing the league in terms of competition, because lumping the expansion teams together hadn't really worked until this point. It was like the two divisions were two separate leagues.

These divisions would hold for several more years.

In 1976-77, Kansas City relocated to become the Colorado Rockies, while the California Golden Seals relocated to become the Cleveland Barons. They stayed in their divisions. After two seasons of play with those changes in effect, the Barons franchise folded, and the league's first real contraction took place.

The Barons would merge with the Minnesota North Stars and for the 1978-79 season, the Campbell Conference would house eight teams in contrast to the Wales Conference's nine.

That would all change again in 1979-80. Four teams joined the league: the Hartford Whalers, Edmonton Oilers, Winnipeg Jets, and Quebec Nordiques. Thanks, World Hockey Association. The Washington Capitals moved to the Patrick Division, while Quebec joined the Adams, Hartford joined the Norris and both Edmonton and Winnipeg joined the Smythe. 

The end result was a 21-team league, and suddenly the Campbell Conference was the group with the extra team: 11 compared to 10 in the Wales.

We still won't call this a major realignment, however. That would come a few years later. Atlanta moved to Calgary for the 1980-81 season, and in 1981-82, it became evident that a geographic realignment was finally in order.

The Wales Conference became what would someday become the Eastern Conference, while the Campbell Conference became what would essentially become the Western Conference. The divisions changed completely. Here's the full look:

Campbell Conference

Norris Division: Minnesota, Winnipeg, St. Louis, Chicago, Toronto, Detroit
Smythe Division: Edmonton, Vancouver, Calgary, Los Angeles, Colorado

Wales Conference

Patrick Division: NY Islanders, NY Rangers, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Washington
Adams Division: Montreal, Boston, Buffalo, Quebec, Hartford

Ah, now that's better, right? This is essentially the roots of what we have in the NHL today. You can kind of loosely see it, even though there are nine more teams in today's league.

The following season, in 1982-83, there would be a few relatively minor changes as the NHL felt things out.  First, the Rockies moved to New Jersey to become the Devils. Winnipeg moved from the Norris Division to the Smythe Division to help accommodate the move, as Colorado left the Smythe to move East and join the Patrick Division.

And that would be the last change in NHL alignment until the 1990s. The league stayed completely still in this system for nine seasons, with no relocation and no shifts in the divisional order. 

In 1991-92, the San Jose Sharks joined the league as the first in what would be a huge NHL expansion throughout the decade. The Sharks joined the Smythe Division, and in 1992-93, the Tampa Bay Lightning joined the Norris Division while the Ottawa Senators joined the Adams.

The NHL was now up to 24 teams, and they clearly weren't done. Not with Gary Bettman about to take the reins in February 1993. Two more teams were added for the 1993-94 season in Florida and Anaheim, and we had a somewhat-major realignment take place. One of Bettman's first tangible moves as the NHL's first commissioner was to rename the conferences and divisions based on geography.

The Wales became the East, the Campbell became the West. The Norris Division became the Central, the Smythe Division became the Pacific, the Patrick became the Atlantic and the Adams became the Northeast. Along with those changes, several teams swapped spots. Pittsburgh jumped to the Northeast, Tampa Bay moved to the Atlantic and Winnipeg moved to the Central in moves that accommodated the two new teams.

The Minnesota North Stars relocated to Dallas, too.

Here's what we were left with:

Eastern Conference

Atlantic Division: NY Rangers, New Jersey, Washington, NY Islanders, Florida, Philadelphia, Tampa Bay
Northeast Division: Pittsburgh, Boston, Montreal, Buffalo, Quebec, Hartford, Ottawa

Western Conference

Central Division: Detroit, Toronto, Dallas, St. Louis, Chicago, Winnipeg
Pacific Division: Calgary, Vancouver, San Jose, Anaheim, Los Angeles, Edmonton

A pretty substantial shift, indeed. There would be no change in the 1994-95 season, but things would feel themselves out over the rest of the next several years. In 1995-96, Quebec relocated to Colorado and the franchise moved to the Pacific Division (they also won the Cup). In 1996-97, Winnipeg relocated to Phoenix and stayed in the same division, and in 1997-98, the Hartford Whalers relocated to Carolina, also staying in the same division.

That brings us to the most recent major realignment we've seen in the NHL -- the shift to a six-division system for the 1998-99 season. A new team in Nashville, coupled with the various relocations that had taken place since the 1993-94 realignment, necessitated the changes. We won't outline every single move because it'd take all day, but here's how thinks looked once the dust settled:

Eastern Conference

Atlantic Division: NY Rangers, New Jersey, NY Islanders, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh
Northeast Division: Boston, Montreal, Buffalo, Ottawa, Toronto
Southeast Division: Carolina, Florida, Washington, Tampa Bay

Western Conference

Central Division: Detroit, St. Louis, Chicago, Nashville
Pacific Division: Dallas, Phoenix, Anaheim, San Jose, Los Angeles
Northwest Division: Colorado, Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver

A few of the major moves there: Toronto shifted to the Eastern Conference, two divisions were created, Washington was alienated in the Southeast, and Pittsburgh moved to the Atlantic Division.

Atlanta rejoined the NHL as the Thrashers in 1999-2000, shacking up in the Southeast. Columbus and Minnesota joined in 2000-01, and if you follow the NHL today, you know what divisions they joined. That gave us the 30 team league we essentially have today, and outside of this past summer's relocation of the Thrashers to Winnipeg, there has been no change in the alignment since 1998. 

What can we learn from this lengthy history of NHL realignment?

  • We've only gone, at most, 12 years without a major NHL realignment since the 1967 expansion. Right now, we're at 13 years since the most recent changes. Are we due?
  • Problems in the league's alignment forced each major change, whether it was competitive disparity or geographic issues or simple imbalance in numbers. The NHL is faced with big problems today that could call for such a major realignment -- economic disparity the chief among them. 
  • We don't necessarily need geography-based alignment. The NHL survived 14 years between 1967 and 1981 without alignment based on geography. For all the crying we hear today from teams about hefty travel costs that could bring teams down, it worked for 14 years in a time without the technology that exists today. Is geography-based alignment ideal? Yes, but it's not the biggest concern.
  • Perhaps most importantly: rivalries come and go. In this most recent debate about realignment, we've heard all about how rivalries will be lost and can't be taken away by change in league alignment. It's an emotional issue, as we tend to hate other teams just as much as we love our own. But these rivalries come and go. Toronto and Detroit aren't in the same division (or even conference) anymore, but they're getting along just fine. Washington, despite their isolation in the Southeast away from Philly and Pittsburgh, etc., has a nice little rivalry with Tampa Bay. 

I can't say that I was around for most of these changes throughout the league's history, but I can guarantee that fans were angry with just about all of them. That's just the way we are. We like things as they sit, especially when we've gotten used to them over the last 13 years, and we don't necessarily want them to change. But change is important, and it happens a lot.

We've been spoiled with no change in over a decade, but we all know this current system isn't perfect, and the NHL should and probably will do all they can next summer to make it perfect. 

Morning Skate runs weekday mornings. Check the archives.

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