On Thursday, shockwaves went through the collegiate sports world as both USC and UCLA were accepted into the Big Ten Conference in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). The move will be in full effect by 2024, but the implications are massive as two historic programs are not only leaving the Pac-12 Conference but will play against schools as far east as Rutgers University (located in New Jersey).
Geographically, the decision is shocking. While the NHL has seen teams move from one division to another and, similarly, from one conference to another, generally, they are divided by location. However, there are a handful of teams that seem out of place and might be better suited in another division.
With 32 teams, the NHL might consider a division realignment and should consider moving a handful of teams to help them out. The first one that should change has been a confusing one, given the eight teams in it.
The Atlantic Division
The Atlantic Division has all three Eastern Conference Canadian teams, the Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres, and Detroit Red Wings, along with the two Florida teams, the Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers. While having the three eastern teams in Canada in the same division makes sense, having them in the same division as the Florida teams is a headscratcher.
Moreover, the Florida teams require the five other teams, which are reasonably located from one another, to travel to the southernmost teams in the NHL. The contrast in the First Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs showed as the New York Rangers face the reasonably close Pittsburgh Penguins while Hart Trophy award-winning Auston Matthews and the Toronto Maple Leafs faced the distant Lightning.
Ideally, the two Florida teams should be in another division, one with teams closer to them geographically, like the Washington Capitals and the Carolina Hurricanes. The NHL had a Southeast Division from the 1998-99 season until the 2012-13 season, and the league would like to return to a similar division for convenience. However, with only a handful of teams located in the area, now that the Atlanta Thrashers have relocated to Winnipeg, a realigned division would still require at least one team to have a difficult schedule. Ultimately, the Eastern Conference, specifically the Atlantic Division, can and should be realigned, but for now, they must tolerate the inconvenience of two teams in Florida facing the northeastern teams.
Red Wings in the Central Division
Throughout their history, the Detroit Red Wings have played in six divisions and four conferences on their way to winning 11 Stanley Cup titles. The Red Wings currently play in the Atlantic Division in the Eastern Conference and have since the 2013-14 season. However, the franchise would fit better in the Central Division in the Western Conference.
Detroit might not fit in the Western Conference per se, but the Central Division makes the most sense for them, where they would not only rekindle rivalries from the 1990s with the Dallas Stars and Colorado Avalanche but would be in the same division as the Original Six rival Chicago Blackhawks. Many historic games have been played between the Red Wings and the Blackhawks, the most recent being the Game 7 game-winning goal by Brent Seabrook that ended a Western Conference Semifinal series.
The Red Wings in the Central Division would be a perfect fit. The problem is that if they move the Red Wings, who would then move to the Eastern Conference?
Predators Moving to the Eastern Conference
The Nashville Predators have played in the Central Division since their inaugural season in 1998-99 despite the geographical inconvenience. The Predators aren’t in an ideal location for any division, with their closest teams being the Blackhawks and the St. Louis Blues, both of whom are a four-hour drive away. In the Eastern Conference, they would play reasonably close teams like the Hurricanes and Capitals. Furthermore, the team would be able to round out the southeast, especially if they could play in the same division as the Panthers and the Lightning.
Coyotes in the Pacific Division
Keeping the Arizona Coyotes in the Central Division makes for a difficult road trip for the other seven teams in the division. The closest team is the Vegas Golden Knights, but they are in a different division. As a result, the team is at a distinct disadvantage, being forced to travel multiple times across the country for road games. The team played in the Pacific Division from the 1998-99 season until the 2019-20 season, but when the Seattle Kraken joined the NHL, the team was moved to the Central Division.
In the Pacific Division, the Coyotes would face the Golden Knights, Los Angeles Kings, and Anaheim Ducks, three teams that are a reasonable distance away. While there isn’t a team that could swap with them, Arizona is out of place in the Central Division. Along with a new arena in the desert, they can also hope someday to play in a division that requires less travel.
Other Possible Divisional Fixes
With 32 teams, the NHL has placed some teams at a disadvantage geographically. However, one alternative would be to have eight divisions consisting of four teams rather than four divisions consisting of eight teams. With teams facing the same opponents more times and facing nearby teams, it would create the optimal schedule for most, if not all, teams.
That would mean NHL divisions that look more or less like this:
Atlantic: Boston Bruins, Columbus Blue Jackets, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Washington Capitals
Metropolitan: New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, and Philadelphia Flyers
North: Buffalo Sabres, Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators, and Toronto Maple Leafs
Southeast: Carolina Hurricanes, Florida Panthers, Nashville Predators, and Tampa Bay Lightning
Great Lakes: Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings, Minnesota Wild, and Winnipeg Jets
Midwest/South: Arizona Coyotes, Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars, and St. Louis Blues
Pacific Northwest: Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, Seattle Kraken, and Vancouver Canucks
Pacific Southwest: Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks, and Vegas Golden Knights
While this realignment still leaves some teams, like the Coyotes, out of place, it allows teams to play their nearby rivals for most of the season. Additionally, like the NFL, which has eight divisions, the NHL would suddenly have a greater emphasis on divisional play with four teams per division.
Another alternative for divisional realignment could be to find a way to group the Midwest teams into one division. The Blackhawks, Blue Jackets, and Red Wings are all reasonably close to each other and have young talented players like Alex DeBrincat, Patrik Laine, and Moritz Seider to form instant rivalries. But all three teams play in separate divisions.
Aside from the 2020-21 condensed season, when the league had to form an all-Canada division because of the pandemic, divisional realignment has been considered a minor NHL issue. Additionally, with travel being easier than ever, teams being close to each other doesn’t carry the same weight as it did years ago. However, if the league eventually wants to consider helping some teams out and making beneficial divisions geographically, they have more than enough options.
Mike Fink joined The Hockey Writers in November 2020 and covers the New York Islanders. In addition to covering the Islanders, Fink writes about the NHL at large and contributes as a weekly guest to The Hockey Writers Podcast. Follow Mike on Twitter @Finks_thoughts for more Islanders and general hockey insights.