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NHL Realignment: Hockey Should Look To NFL, MLB Model To Solve Problems

The NHL will likely announce realignment in December. In order to solve travel and economic imbalance, the league should shift to a model that mirrors the NFL and MLB.

CHICAGO - MAY 28: National Hockey League Commissioner Gary Bettman speaks at a press conference at the United Center on May 28, 2010 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
CHICAGO - MAY 28: National Hockey League Commissioner Gary Bettman speaks at a press conference at the United Center on May 28, 2010 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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In the wake of Atlanta's move to Winnipeg, Gary Bettman and the NHL have set a December deadline for a decision on realigning the existing divisional structure.

"Obviously we have to make arrangements to move Winnipeg west, and we had an opportunity to explore the issues. No conclusions were reached, but it's something I'm hopeful we can resolve at the December meeting."

There is a significant sticking point in these negotiations -- membership in the Eastern Conference -- that may force the negotiations into a prolonged battle, as Detroit, Nashville and Columbus would all like to gain access to strong Eastern Conference fanbases and the all-important Eastern Time Zone.

But despite the inability to please everybody, the league doesn't have to renege on a promise to Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch or force the Predators and Blue Jackets to play in Western time zones. The owners could take a cue from the NFL and Major League Baseball and end their East-West conference alignment. If the league were to include an Eastern, Central and Western Division in each conference, the stress of playing so many games against conference foes thousands of miles away and out of local time zones can be spread throughout the league rather than heaped on only 15 teams Western-based teams. Geographically balancing conference alignment also gives each team an equal amount of games in the Eastern Time Zone, gives each team a shot at attracting out-of-market fans, and gives each team access to the Eastern media and national television opportunities.

But a balanced alignment also solves another issue: the balance of revenue and profits between the two conferences. Putting On The Foil is an Edmonton Oilers blog operated by a few gentlemen who appreciate the physical side of the game. That doesn't mean the business side escapes them, however. They recently published an analysis of league-wide pre-tax operating incomes stretching back to 2006. The numbers are based on Forbes' annual NHL valuations and it should be noted that Forbes admits the numbers are estimates.

From those numbers we know the NHL made $706.1 million over the past five years. The six Canadian teams have generated $634.8 million, the other 24 teams have generated $71.3 million total. Of course, that includes the 13 teams operating at a loss, which totaled $348.9 million. The other 11 teams generated $420.2 million. This isn't going to be an anti-South screed, as many NHL journalists tend to do when numbers like these are published. Instead, I believe the NHL can address some of their income issues through realignment and specifically by using a balanced approach.

I took the numbers from Putting On The Foil's article and broke them down by by division. Those numbers are listed below.

2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 Total
New Jersey Devils -6.7 -15.3 1.9 1.4 6.9 -11.8
New York Islanders -9.2 -11.6 -8.8 -5.6 -4.5 -39.7
New York Rangers 17.7 25.4 30.7 27.7 41.4 142.9
Philadelphia Flyers 0.9 5.7 -1.8 3.1 13.3 21.2
Pittsburgh Penguins 4.8 8.1 5.1 3.3 -1.6 19.7


Boston Bruins 4.8 -0.6 -3 11.6 2.6 15.4
Buffalo Sabres 4.6 -4.9 -8.9 -5.2 -7.9 -22.3
Montreal Canadiens 17.5 25.2 39.6 31.3 53.1 166.7
Ottawa Senators 4.2 10.4 4.7 -3.8 -3.8 11.7
Toronto Maple Leafs 41.5 52.7 66.4 78.9 82.5 322


Carolina Hurricanes 0.5 -7.5 -11.5 -4.6 -7.3 -30.4
Florida Panthers -1.9 -7.1 -9.4 -13.6 -9.6 -41.6
Washington Capitals 4.6 1 -6.9 -4.9 -9.1 -15.3
Tampa Bay Lightning 5 0.6 1.2 -2.2 -7.9 -3.3
Atlanta Thrashers -5.4 -6.5 -6.1 -1.8 -8 -27.8


Chicago Blackhawks 3.1 -3.6 1.4 20.9 17.6 39.4
Columbus Blue Jackets -4 -5.6 -7.1 -9.9 -7.3 -33.9
Detroit Red Wings 5.8 14.4 13.4 27.4 15.3 76.3
Nashville Predators -1.1 -9.4 -1.3 -5.7 -5.5 -23
St. Louis Blues 1 -5.5 -8.6 -2.7 -6.2 -22


Calgary Flames 2.3 -0.7 7.4 -0.8 4.6 12.8
Colorado Avalanche 5.9 6.6 2.3 3.4 2.3 20.5
Edmonton Oilers 10.7 9.9 11.8 9.4 8.8 50.6
Minnesota Wild 4.7 -1.7 0.7 1.3 -2.3 2.7
Vancouver Canucks 1.1 12.8 19.2 20.3 17.6 71


Anaheim Ducks -0.2 6.6 1 4.8 -5.2 7
Dallas Stars 10 10.5 14.2 12.4 6.4 53.5
Los Angeles Kings 7.1 2 1.2 10.6 0.7 21.6
Phoenix Coyotes -6 -11.4 -9.7 -18.5 -20.1 -65.7
San Jose Sharks 1.8 -5.1 2.4 -5 -6.2 -12.1


What conclusions can be drawn from these numbers? Firstly, there was an enormous income disparity between the two conferences -- the Eastern Conference made $507.4 million while the Western Conference made $198.7 million. The numbers from the Eastern Conference are more striking when the Southeast's $118.4 million loss is taken into account. The east contains more major media markets, a larger population base (by 10+ percent) and a larger economic base (by 20 percent). The franchises in the east are also closer to one another, giving them both travel advantages and the ability to easily attract fans from neighboring metropolitan areas.

If the league were to adopt an alignment like the one listed below, the disparities between the two conferences would disappear. The number at the bottom of each division is the income earned over the last five seasons.

*For the rest of this article, assume the Winnipeg Jets will generate income at or near Ottawa Senators' levels.

New Conference #1
Eastern Central Western
Carolina Hurricanes Buffalo Sabres Anaheim Ducks
Florida Panthers Chicago Blackhawks Colorado Avalanche
Philadelphia Flyers Detroit Red Wings Los Angeles Kings
Tampa Bay Lightning Ottawa Senators Phoenix Coyotes
Washington Capitals Toronto Maple Leafs San Jose Sharks
-69.4 427.1 -28.7

Each division still maintains geographical proximity to ease travel costs. There's still divisional imbalance in income, but with so few teams making up such a large percentage of league income, divisional imbalance is difficult to overcome. Travel distances and conference incomes are balanced, however.

New Conference #2
Eastern Central Western
Boston Bruins Columbus Blue Jackets Calgary Flames
Montreal Canadiens Dallas Stars Edmonton Oilers
New Jersey Devils Nashville Predators Minnesota Wild
New York Islanders Pittsburgh Penguins Vancouver Canucks
New York Rangers St. Louis Blues Winnipeg Jets
273.5 -5.7 148.8

The Central Division in Conference No. 2 is the weakest of the divisions currently, but Dallas is a sizable market and St. Louis is a traditionally strong market. Pittsburgh has a new arena and should generate significant income in the coming years.

As with all suggested change, traditionalists will decry the suggestions above. Splitting a few existing rivalries will likely be the primary criticism, but it's worth remembering that the NHL has previously undergone four significant realignments since 1967 and rivalries depend on on-ice play, specifically playoff matchups, much more than they depend on geography. Just ask the Blackhawks and Canucks.

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