NHL Atlas: A Primer on League Alignment, or “Why Are All the Cartographers Weeping?”

Map of NHL Teams no colours no boundaries

O n today’s trip to the NHL reference library we’re going to bypass the dictionary and look instead at an arcane, mystical text that transcends humanity’s understanding of physical space: The NHL Atlas. If you seek to travel through a strange land where Ottawa is on the Atlantic Ocean and Raleigh, North Carolina is considered “metropolitan,” then this is the chapter for you. Your journey starts…

…in the beginning, when there were 6 teams,* and it was good.

Then, expansion began. And continued. And continued. And soon the NHL was a complex system of rivalries and scheduling conflicts, time zones  and cross-continental “road trips.” There were quirks, sure, but on the whole it made sense. It was intricate and delicate, and it was good.

And then the Atlanta Thrashers moved to Winnipeg and it wasn’t so good. An adjustment was needed. But rather than make an adjustment, Bettman and the Board of Governors decided to cast the league into utter chaos, sucking us into a cyclone of confusion and inequity and something called the “Metropolitan Division.” Truly this new NHL world is incomprehensible to mere mortals but, intrepid traveller, we’re going to try anyway.

North America’s time zones. Or, as North Americans call them, “All the time zones we understand.”

First, you’ll need to brush up a bit on your North American geography. Most** of this continent is divided into four time zones: Eastern, Central, Mountain and Pacific. The NHL has 30 teams, 16 of which are located in the Eastern time zone. Six teams are in the Central time zone, one hour behind Eastern time; four teams are in the Mountain time zone, one hour behind Central time; and four teams are in the Pacific time zone, one hour behind Mountain time.

North America is also pretty sizable from north to south, and the NHL has franchises located at the extremes there, too: Specifically, the Florida Panthers are located near the southernmost boundary of the continental United States, while the Edmonton Oilers dwell significantly further north than any reasonable person would want to live.

Here we encounter the first major impediment to creating a simple, logical league alignment: The geography of the NHL is both sprawling and imbalanced. If you want to establish an Eastern Conference and a Western Conference (and the NHL seems married to that format) then you either have to make one team from the Eastern time zone play in the Western Conference or you have to create conferences of unequal size. The NHL, fan that it is of disarray, has tried both.

Now that you have a fix on the geography, let’s get into the history. For the sake of simplicity (HA! Hahahahaha!), we’re going to start just prior to the 1998-99 season, when Gary Bettman made a promise he would actually have to keep (no, really). The NHL was expanding from 26 to 27 teams that season, and had plans to further expand to 30 teams by 2000-01. This necessitated a shake-up, including the need to move one team from the Western Conference to the East. That lucky team was the Toronto Maple Leafs, which got the call in no small part because it actually belonged, geographically speaking, in the East.

Slightly to the southwest of Toronto, though, the Detroit Red Wings were pining to move into the Eastern Conference as well, especially since the Leafs’ departure left the Wings as the only Eastern time zone team left in the Western Conference. The Red Wings agreed to refrain from throwing a gigantic tantrum in exchange for a promise that the next time the league realigned, Detroit would finally gain its rightful place in the East.

Then, for about a decade, all was quiet. The NHL had thirty teams organized into two conferences of three divisions each, and everyone was more or less content with where they were. Well, the Red Wings might not have been, but they were a legitimate powerhouse that had Steve Yzerman and Nicklas Lidstrom and Pavel Datsyuk and a brigade of aging superstars who had jumped ship from everyone else’s team to take a last shot at the Cup and nobody felt sorry for the Wings one bit.

Of course, it couldn’t last. Sooner or later some team had to ruin things for the rest of the league, and as usual that team came from the (now defunct) Southeast Division. The Atlanta Thrashers, a warm-weather, ‘non-traditional hockey market’ club that couldn’t sell tickets because even in that market fans could recognize a truly dreadful team when they saw one, was sold to a group that moved the team from the southeastern corner of the United States to north-central Canada. For two seasons (if you can count ’12-’13 as a season) the Winnipeg Jets played in the NHL’s Southeast Division, a situation that was so geographically offensive that it simply could not stand.

The NHL needed to realign before the ’13-’14 season, and to an outsider the solution might have looked simple – after all, there was one team in the Eastern Conference that needed to move to the West (Winnipeg) and one that been promised a move from the Western Conference to the East (Detroit).

Why not just flip those two teams? Mostly because no sane definition of “southeast” includes Detroit, not to mention that Winnipeg is too far north to make much sense in the Central Division. A straight swap was out.

The next idea was to keep the existing format but move teams around so that each division made sense from a geographical perspective. This was never going to happen. Never ever. Not a chance. Which brings us to the second major concern when it comes to realignment: Preserving rivalries.

Here are some sets of Eastern Conference teams that absolutely must be in a division with one another:

  • Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators
  • Toronto Maple Leafs, Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins
  • Toronto Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres
  • New York Islanders, New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils
  • Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers
  • Philadelphia Flyers and New Jersey Devils
  • Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning
.....

WTF, NHL?

Go ahead and take a look at the map. There is no way to keep all those rivalries intact and also make the Eastern Conference mathematically and cartographically sound. It can’t be done. No, really, it can’t. You say you want to try it? Fine, go ahead. Just don’t forget to step away periodically to eat and bathe.

Give up yet? Yup, so did the NHL. Realizing that there was no way to make the old structure work, the league decided to establish two conferences of two divisions each, which would have been just fine except that 30 does not divide evenly by 4. This new system is either a. Dumb, or b. Really really really dumb, depending on whether the NHL just forgot how to count or whether it plans to expand to 32 teams in the near future. (Spoiler alert: It’s probably b.)

...

Eastern Conference, why can’t you be more like the West?

That brings us to today, and a system that tangibly favours the Western Conference while retaining the crucial quality of still not making geographical sense in the East.  How does it favour the West? Each Western Conference division has 7 teams while each Eastern Conference team has 8, meaning that only 6 Western Conference will miss the playoffs vs. 8 in the East. Luckily, the teams on each side have thus far accommodated this imbalance by making it much harder to beat Western Conference clubs than Eastern Conference teams (because the Eastern Conference has been comparatively putrid).

As mathematically infuriating as the NHL’s newfound Western bias is, though, at least fans of Eastern Conference teams can comfort themselves with the knowledge that teams in the West have always had, and continue to have, exponentially less-favourable travel requirements than their counterparts in the East enjoy. Also, the West is severely bummed out to have lost the box office draw that is the Red Wings,*** so the East can gloat a little there, as well.

But that’s where the good news ends in the East and the farce begins. The two Eastern Conference divisions are nonsensically called the Atlantic Division and the Metropolitan Division, and there we begin our orgy of illogic. First, and bear with us and Gary Bettman on this, the current Atlantic Division contains exactly zero teams from the Atlantic Division that existed from ’89-’90 through ’12-’13.

All those teams are now in the Metropolitan Division, presumably**** named for the three former Atlantic Division teams located in the New York metropolitan area (the New York Rangers, New York Islanders and New Jersey Devils). Of course, those teams represent less than half the clubs in the division, the rest of which probably aren’t overjoyed at being lumped into a group named for their pampered opponents.*****

Make no mistake: The Metropolitan Division name is far from even-handed, in that some of it’s member teams’ locations are well short of “metropolitan.” The Carolina Hurricanes, for example, play in a city so far under the radar that neither its name nor even the name of its home state is specified in the team’s title.****** The Columbus Blue Jackets are at least named after an actual city, but it’s one that most Americans couldn’t find on a map. Of Ohio. With labels.

Even worse than the Metropolitan Division being un-metropolitan is the new Atlantic Division – not to be confused with the old Atlantic Division, which you’ll recall now makes up the bulk of the Metropolitan Division – containing only two teams whose cities are actually on the Atlantic coast. If you’re wondering why the NHL would name a division after an ocean most of its teams can only see on postcards mailed from Metropolitan Division cities, it’s because the Atlantic Division is a Frankenstein’s monster of a grouping that features both the northernmost and the southernmost teams in the Eastern Conference. Remember all those rivalries that had to be preserved? In order to keep them intact the NHL had to choose between weaving the Eastern Conference divisions through one another or letting one exist in a contiguous space, bookended by the other. So it came to pass that the Florida Panthers and Montreal Canadiens became divisional rivals despite having nothing in common besides their ill-advised Scott Gomez experiments.

And thus our tale, like the slightest flickering hope of scoring a goal, ends with mention of Scott Gomez. If you have questions, please feel free to ask them in the comments and we’ll do our best to make the answer sound far more logical than it actually is.

*This is not strictly true, but it’s the myth we’ve all chosen to accept because otherwise we’d have to remember that way back in olden times there were teams called the Montreal Wanderers and Toronto Arenas and that’s an awful lot to ask.

**We say “most” because the extreme east and west edges of North America include other time zones, but there are no major sports franchises in those time zones so nobody cares.

***A huge percentage of Western Conference teams consider Detroit to be a rival club, despite the fact that the Red Wings probably aren’t aware that half those teams exist. Detroit’s star power and overall success since the mid-1990s made the Wings a draw on the road, a television darling and generally the NHL’s equivalent of Manchester United, except without the universal seething hate from all points without.

****When we say “presumably” what we mean is “definitely.” New York City is the American definition of “metropolitan,” so much so that one of its Major League Baseball teams is actually called the New York Metropolitans, or New York Mets for short.

*****The Rangers, Islanders and Devils, along with the Philadelphia Flyers, have easily the least taxing travel in the league. All four of these divisional rivals are located within easy driving distance of each other, a luxury which only one pair of teams in the Western Conference – the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks – enjoys.

****** That’s right, folks: There is no such place as “Carolina,” but rather two separate states – North Carolina and South Carolina – neither of which has put in a claim for the Hurricanes.

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