4 ways we’d realign the NHL for the Detroit Red Wings (for one year)

Detroit Free Press

Ryan Ford
| Detroit Free Press

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The 2020-21 NHL season is … well, we can’t say fast, but it is … approaching. We still don’t have a date for the Detroit Red Wings’ opener, but the framework of the season — mid-January start, 56 games, realigned divisions — appears set.

Wait … realignment?

Indeed, COVID-19 concerns will likely lead to the formation of a seven-team, all-Canadian division — featuring the Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators, Toronto Maple Leafs, Winnipeg Jets and Vancouver Canucks — that wouldn’t need to travel into the U.S. for regular-season games.

[ Despite being awful, Red Wings still one of NHL’s most valuable teams ]

That would also leave the 24 U.S.-based teams needing some realignment, ostensibly based on geography. According to The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun, those divisions would be:

East: Boston, Buffalo, New Jersey, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Washington

Central: Carolina, Columbus, Chicago, Detroit, Minnesota, Nashville, Tampa Bay

West: Anaheim, Arizona, Colorado, Dallas, Los Angeles, San Jose, St. Louis, Vegas

The East? If you ignore Buffalo and Pittsburgh (something we’ve been trying to do for years), that’s basically Joe Biden’s Amtrak Acela train route home. The Central — in which the Wings would be nearly the central-most team (technically, it’d be the Blue Jackets, but this ain’t a Columbus Dispatch story) in a field with three teams basically on the Atlantic Ocean — is a bit more spread out.

The West has a similar problem, with the Stars and Blues having to cross half the country for a division game — do they even have direct flights from St. Louis to San Jose, or would the Blues be taking a Greyhound? Pity the Wild, whose two choices are multiple games in Florida or Southern California. (Or not, depending on your winter-weather preferences.)

What we’re saying is, maybe geography doesn’t have to be the determining factor for the U.S. divisions. Let’s think outside the box for a moment. How about a Jaromir Jagr Division, featuring the eight American teams to employ the future Hall of Famer (who’s finally eligible in 2021) — Pittsburgh, N.Y. Rangers, Washington, Florida, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Boston and Dallas? Of course, that leaves 16 teams out in the cold, so to speak, and we don’t want to bring ex-Red Wings Mike Sillinger (10 U.S. teams) or Paul Coffey (7 U.S. teams) into this.

But still, we can be creative, especially since this is only (probably, hopefully, no, really) for one abbreviated season. Here are four of our favorite realignment ideas:

The ‘Original 8’

The idea: The NHL loves playing tribute to the “Original Six,” and games between them just feel a little more special (especially when Leafs fans who couldn’t get a ticket in Toronto flood downtown Detroit for a weekend visit). So let’s put them all in a division. Oh … except for the two in Canada. Still, four of the 1967 expansion teams — the “Second Six — are still in their original cities. That’s enough history for one division. Next, we’ll take the Stars, a ’67 team which relocated to Dallas in the ’90s, and the seven U.S. teams that joined the league from 1970-79. Boom, another division. That leaves us with eight U.S. teams which joined the league from 1991 on.  Boom. That gives us:

Original 8 Division: Boston, Chicago, Detroit, N.Y Rangers, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, St. Louis.

That ’70s Division: Arizona, Buffalo, Dallas, Carolina, Colorado, New Jersey, Washington, N.Y. Islanders.

Bettman Division: San Jose, Tampa Bay, Florida, Anaheim, Nashville, Minnesota, Columbus, Vegas.

How it shakes out: OK, the ’70s division is a little light on star power, though it’s got a former MVP in Buffalo (Taylor Hall), a Stanley Cup finalist (Dallas) and the 2018 Cup winners (Washington, featuring Alex Ovechkin). And yeah, the Red Wings might be a bit overmatched in their division, featuring six 2020 playoff teams, but if we let the Wings’ chances of winning be a concern, we’re going to be here a while. There’s only two Cups in the third division — and both of those belong to Tampa Bay — but hey, we gotta make commissioner Gary Bettman happy, and most of these teams are his babies.

Cup holders

The idea: Hey, you can have history without being one of the “Original Six.” Seven U.S. franchises have won the Stanley Cup at least three times (with the Wings coming in at No. 1, with 11). Let’s start there for a division. We need one more team, though … four franchises (Lightning, Avalanche, Kings, Flyers) have two Cups — we’ll go with a bit of recency bias and grab the defending champs, who could repeat for a third Cup, for our eighth team in the “Champs” division. We’ve also got eight U.S. teams without a Cup. Again, mostly Bettman’s babies, but also the Sabres (around since 1970) and the Coyotes (who began in Winnipeg in the AHL, then joined the NHL in 1979). Call them the “Chumps” division. That leaves us with three two-time Cup winners and five one-time winners, which, yep, makes a division.  That gives us (with Cups in parentheses):

Champs Division: Boston (6), Chicago (6), Detroit (11), N.J. Devils (3), N.Y. Islanders (4), N.Y. Rangers (4), Pittsburgh (5), Tampa Bay (2).

One-ish and done-ish Division: Anaheim (1), Carolina (1), Colorado (2), Dallas (1), Los Angeles (2), Philadelphia (2), St. Louis (1), Washington (1).

Chumps Division: Columbus (0), Minnesota (0), Nashville (0), Florida (0), San Jose (0), Arizona (0), Buffalo (0), Vegas (0).

How it shakes out: Man, the Wings cannot shake the Bruins, Blackhawks and Rangers, can they? That’s a strong division. The other two, not as much, though for purely fun hockey — based on the 2019-20 season and playoffs — that mix of the Avs, Blues, Hurricanes, and Stars might be worth the Center Ice purchase price. And hey, maybe facing their own Cup-less kind for a season might be enough to break the drought for someone in the third division.

[ Prospects Moritz Seider, Jonatan Berggren continue strong play in Sweden ]

On Points

The idea: Hey, you can be a winner without taking the Cup home (said every Golden Knights fan everywhere).  So let’s separate the franchises by all-time points percentage. This should also finally break up that Original Six logjam and give us some unique matchups, right? That gives us (with points percentage in parentheses):

Heavyweight Division: Anaheim (.541), Boston (.562), Minnesota (.547), Nashville (.556), Philadelphia (.576), St. Louis (.534), San Jose (.535), Vegas (.613).

Middleweight Division: Buffalo (.533), Colorado (.524), Dallas (.516), Detroit (.533), Pittsburgh (.518), N.Y. Islanders (.512), N.Y. Rangers (.513), Washington (.530).

Lightweight Division: Arizona (.479), Carolina (.485), Chicago (.504), Columbus (.496), Florida (.499), Los Angeles (.492), New Jersey (.492), Tampa Bay (.504).

How it shakes out: You probably knew the Golden Knights were the NHL’s top franchise by points percentage; they’ve only been around for three seasons, and they’ve made the playoffs in each of them. And yeah, the Predators haven’t been bad for a long time, with 13 playoff appearances (and a Stanley Cup Final) over the past 16 seasons. But the Wild? One division title in 20 years? Zero Stanley Cup Finals? And yet, sixth best in points percentage. Go figure. (Meanwhile, four of the Wings’ seven division rivals would be coming off a “top-16” finish in last year’s playoffs. Ouch.)

March Madness

The idea: Maybe we’ve been using too much logic on this, in what will likely be one of the league’s most chaotic seasons. So why not base our divisions off the smallest sample size we can look up quickly think of: Points in March 2020. Most teams got through four to six games before the coronavirus pandemic put the NHL on pause in mid-March. (Though the poor Ducks packed seven games into 11 days.) We’ll just take the top eight teams (by points, then alphabetically), the next eight and the final eight for our three divisions (with March 2020 points in parentheses):

Elite Eight Division: Anaheim (7), Boston (6), Carolina (6), Chicago (6), Colorado (7), Los Angeles (10), Minnesota (6), Philadelphia (8).

Middle-eight Division: Columbus (5), Florida (5), Nashville (6), New Jersey (6), Pittsburgh (6), St. Louis (6), Vegas (6), Washington (6).

Eight Is Enough Division: Arizona (3), Buffalo (2), Dallas (1), Detroit (4), N.Y. Islanders (2), N.Y. Rangers (5), San Jose (3), Tampa Bay (5).

How it shakes out: It’s tough to get more random than this, especially in the Wings’ division, which would feature both Stanley Cup finalists and the two worst U.S. teams last season. Which, come to think of it, would make division play a lot like the actual March Madness tournament, with top seeds going up against theoretically overmatched squads and the rare upset producing lore that would last forever. Could the Wings, Sharks or Sabres triumph against playoff-tested opponents? Probably not. But if they did, that’d make this season a lot more memorable than it’s shaping up to be. And hey, at least the Wings wouldn’t have to go to Ohio.

Just don’t ask us what to do when the Seattle Kraken join the league in 2021-22.

Contact Ryan Ford at rford@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @theford. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter

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