Over the weekend, details of the NHL's tweaked realignment plan leaked, thanks to the fine reporting of Elliotte Friedman at Hockey Night in Canada. It's roughly the same as the league's plan from late 2011 but with a few very clear tweaks.
Here's a look at the new plan in map form:
Surely, there are some definite problems with this. Sean Gentille at the Sporting News goes over some of them here. Half of the league would have a more difficult shot at the post-season than the other half. It makes it slightly more difficult to maneuver this stuff when the eventual (if you listen to any Canadian media type) teams in Toronto and Quebec City (and some who believe Seattle) teams join the league, as we'll have to make changes again. It also creates some travel problems.
I don't care about any of those. Just looking at it from a TV perspective, I think this realignment plan is the best the NHL has come up with yet. If I had a vote (which I never will), I would approve it right now. I think this improves the health of the league on television, at both the national and local level.
Lets take a look at a few boldfaced reasons why.
Eastern conferences are basically made for TV.
Here's Gary Bettman pitching this to NBC: "Hey there, NBC. I see you've been having a lot of success with your Wednesday Night Rivalry series. Well, what if I basically gave you an excuse to manufacture a half-dozen more?"
I mean, look at some of these. It's expected that teams will play teams in their own conference -- remember, there are four conferences now, not divisions -- five or six times a season. That's five or six Penguins vs. Capitals games; five or six Red Wings vs. Maple Leafs showdowns, etc.
For better (ratings-wise) or for worse (fans get sick of the TV schedule being too much of the same), this pretty much takes every NHL team that gets a regular slot on NBC -- with the exception of Chicago and Los Angeles -- and gives them more guaranteed matchups every season.
The CBC and TSN won't shy away from this either. You can potentially (if you work it out right) have the Red Wings play on Hockey Night in Canada every week of the season. They also get increased focuses on Canada vs. Canada rivalries. It could bring Canada's insatiable viewing habits for hockey to an even greater level.
It forces NBC to create new rivalries out West.
As I said, save for Chicago and Los Angeles (and perhaps Minnesota, San Jose and St. Louis), the defection of Detroit doesn't leave the western part of the U.S. with a lot of big time heat in terms of TV ratings potential. NBC, however, will get killed by everyone around the league if they don't keep the same focus that they had on the West with Detroit in it. That'll force them to add new match ups, and perhaps pump up some new teams that don't get the attention they deserve.
For example, NBC Sports Network (and VERSUS before it) has been notoriously bad at doing doubleheaders. Outside of last Wednesday and this Wednesday, the network will air one doubleheader for the rest of the season. They need to pick up the slack on that. This new alignment forces NBC to air games between the Ducks and Sharks and Coyotes and Kings, or else they'll be ignoring an entire "conference". Just in the spirit of fairness, you'll see a few more late games, a few more doubleheaders, and a better viewing experience for hockey fans.
It also brings teams like Dallas and Colorado -- clubs that used to be gateways to the West for the league but lately have faltered -- back closer to some of their more traditional rivals (something we'll discuss more in a bit), and perhaps improves the local support for the teams on national networks. They could certainly use it.
Local ratings will likely go up.
Nowadays, increasing the value of local television rights is a big motivator for professional sports that aren't football. This schedule will do that all around. In the East, what it will do is simply give teams more of the most valuable matchups. With more total games against local rivals, and with the playoff format likely to be intra-conference to start, local hatred will build and more games against those local teams will be hyped. Teams like the Capitals certainly stand to benefit, for example, going from six games a year against the Southeast to six games a year against, essentially, the Atlantic.
The teams this realignment helps the most (besides Winnipeg) are the Western Conference teams who switch into more time zone appropriate conferences. Detroit and Columbus won't have to make multiple long trips to the west coast for games that start at 10 p.m. ET or later, no more than any other team on the "East Side" at least. Plus, as I already mentioned, Columbus gets more games against teams like Pittsburgh -- who will no doubt increase their ratings -- and Detroit gets a plethora of marketable teams.
Who gets an even better shake from this? Dallas, Minnesota and Colorado.
Those three teams all had to play numerous division rivalries after 9 p.m. local time throughout the season. Currently, the Stars have to play no fewer than 18 games at 9 p.m. CT or later, plus the four games a year in Columbus or Detroit that would start at 6 p.m. CT or earlier. Those don't make for great TV ratings. Having those three teams in a conference with St. Louis, Chicago and Nashville will put a lot more of their games in that 7 to 8 p.m. range, which are the best for local television.
Oh, and wild card games.
Yes, many people will cry foul at how these wild card games end up getting worked out, but you know what? I'm okay with that. Let's reward the teams that go for the top seed with more than the President's Trophy. Give them an extra day off and a series at home against a team that had to play an 83rd game (or a short three-game series) just to get in.
From a ratings standpoint, depending on the markets involved, the proposed wild card games could be a real game-changer. The NHL has never had a made-for-TV one-game playoff. It'd be something else to see the league test it's mettle at something like this. Perhaps you end the season on a Friday night, play the two wild card games on Sunday, with one game airing in the 3 p.m. ET NBC slot, and one in primetime for NBC Sports Network. CBC and TSN would likely take one each as well. In my mind, the post-season proper should begin the next day (Monday) with the two wild card teams having to travel and play Game 1 against No. 1 seeds on Tuesday.
We don't know if the wild cards would still be there by the time the next TV deal comes up early next decade, but having events like this and the Winter Classic and the All-Star Game makes the NHL more and more attractive as a television property. You're simply adding more value to it.
The Stanley Cup Playoffs are already about half the reason any network wants in on the National Hockey League for TV reasons (give another 30 percent to the Winter Classic, and 20 percent just for the inventory it gives you).
Why not take that, and add two one-game, made-for-TV playoff showdowns? You could get multiple networks involved on the bidding. You could split up the TV package between NBC and another network, and a stipulation of the deal would be one network each getting a wild card game? There's a ton of things you could do here. I'm most excited speculating about this than anything else involved with the new alignment.
I'm guessing you can tell from reading this, but I'm very pleased with this realignment. If we have to figure out another way to make it work a few years from now, so be it. The worst that can probably happen is Detroit and/or Columbus heads back to that central and they start most of their games no later than 8 p.m. local time. There are very few detriments beyond increased travel for some teams, but travel is going to be brutal for some clubs no matter what you do.
There's no perfect solution. This is the best we can do, and for television (and whatever future mediums on which we consume hockey games), this is absolutely the best we can do.