Black Sheep Jim's Take On The NHL Realignment

Well now, the NHL board of governors have approved the new realignment plan.  For the most part, I like having the four conferences and the new inter-conference game schedule, bringing the opportunity for each city to see every team.  As far as the playoff setup, it sounds decent enough on paper, but I will await my final judgement on that until the new season is played.  What I do have an issue with is the placement of the Tampa Bay Lightning (and Florida Panthers) in what is, in essence, the Northeast Conference, with Boston, Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa and Buffalo.  Does anyone else think that this is just ridiculous?  TSN’s Bob McKenzie posted this on Twitter on 6 Dec, “Many asking which 4 voted against realignment. Seems a closely guarded secret. @Real_ESPNLeBrun believes NYR are one, I say Tampa is another,” well seeing how Lightning Owner Jeff Vinik responded when asked about his vote, “I’m not comfortable talking about my vote,”  I would say it’s a good possibility that the organization believes it to be a bit ridiculous as well.

Is the reason for this, doubts of the profitability and survivability of southern hockey teams without the constant presence of their northern brothers?  There has always been, from what I feel, a bias against Southern (or Sunbelt) hockey, as if these teams were the red headed step children of the NHL.  There have always been doubts that it could succeed, be profitable and whether or not it could thrive (Atlanta is the exception, not the rule here folks).   As far as southern hockey being successful, in the past 13 years, four Stanley Cup winners have come from non-traditional hockey markets; 1991 Dallas Stars, 2004 Tampa Bay Lightning (Go Dave Andreychuk and the Bolts), 2006 Carolina Hurricanes, and 2007 Anaheim Ducks.

Image By Tom Fulery

Now for the remainder of this posting, I will be discussing the teams I feel would have made a better conference for the Bolts, if not one that could foster better regional rivalries (as well as keeping a number of classic rivalries intact in the other conferences).  This conference would consist of Carolina, Dallas, Florida, Nashville, St. Louis, Tampa Bay, and Washington.  Also, with this breakout there would be less travel time for all teams involved.  As it is stated currently, the Bolts would have to play three games a season in Buf, Ott, Tor, Mon, and Bos in addition to playing 1 game on the road against every other non-conference team.  Tampa Bay and Florida will become the Dallas of the Pacific Division.

When it comes to Southern hockey being profitable, well let’s take a look at Forbes “The Business of Hockey” NHL team values:

Team                                       % Profit Increase Over Last Year
Carolina Hurricanes            +4%
Dallas Stars                           +1%
Florida Panthers                   -4%
Nashville Predators            +10%
St. Louis Blues                    -5%
Tampa Bay Lightning         +20%
Washington Capitals        +14%

Five of the seven listed teams increased their profitability!  Yes the Florida Panthers and St. Louis Blues had slight decreases, but the Panthers’ organization went out on a spending frenzy during the off-season to reach the salary cap floor.  Then hired a new coach in Kevin Dineen, and are now 1st in the SE Division.  The St. Louis Blues, well, they suffered from an injury plagued season last year after starting out strong.  This year it was somewhat mirrored, but after hiring new coach Ken Hitchcock, the Blues have been tearing it up and are currently placed 6th in the Western Conference, and are still running strong.  Winning teams will generally fill seats.

Speaking of filling seats, let’s look at average attendance records:

Team                                 2009-2010    2010-2011    2011-2012
Carolina Hurricanes        15240              16415              14937
Dallas Stars                      17215              15073             11469
Florida Panthers               15146               15685             15697
Nashville Predators         14979              16142             16472
St. Louis Blues                 18883              19150             18943
Tampa Bay Lightning      15497              17268             17149
Washington Capitals       18277             18397             18506

From the 09-10 to 10-11 season all teams, except for Dallas, saw growth in attendance and four of the teams are seeing that trend continue so far in the new season.  To me, I do not believe filling seats will be much of problem, except for maybe Dallas (who suffer because they are not the Cowboys).  And once Carolina rights whatever is going on with Stall and Ward, and gets the team working well together, I predict attendance will grow.  Raleigh is quite the hockey town, and they love their Canes (not as much as they love Jeff Skinner though).

Alright, so we’ve taken brief glances at the successes, profitability and ability to thrive of 7 of the sunbelt’s hockey teams.  So what are the reasons I feel the Board of Governors decided to give the Bolts the short end of the hockey stick?  Well, right off the bat, Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin.  The NHL would of course jump on the chance to get these two teams in the same Conference, to have that many more games to create that much more hype.  They’ve been touting this “rivalry” of theirs since both were born.  Second possibility, is the thinking that southern teams could not thrive as best they can without constant visits from Original 6 or other big market teams, which is completely unfounded since those teams do not visit that often during a regular season, and will still visit as every other team plays a home and home against every other team not in their conference.  And lastly, well it’s Tampa Bay, we’ve had some bad luck before in division placement (see American League East: Tampa Bay Rays).

All in all, I think this set-up would work very well for all teams and the league.  Eases the travel of the teams, fosters a better chance to create regional rivalries, and well, makes a lot more sense.  So how would the rest of the league break out then?  Well here’s how I figure it could go:

A – TBL, FLA, DAL, CAR, WAS, NAS, STL
B -  PHX, ANH, LAK, SJS, COL, VAN, CAL, EDM
C – WIN, MIN, CHI, DET, COL, TOR, BUF
D – BOS, MON, NYI, NYR, OTT, NJD, PIT, PHI

Traveling will still be hard on the western teams, but that’s always been the case with the distances separating them.  Now with this setup a number of good rivalries are kept, and travel, as a whole, is much easier (within conferences that is).  Also, one of the complaints being dealt with was the possibility of there being a lone American team in a division full of Canadian teams and vice-versa.  In the above example, that problem is still a non-issue.  And if Phoenix does eventually get moved, to Quebec City or Hamilton, the team can easily move to the above Conference C.

Well I’m done with my soap box.  If there are any thoughts on this, please feel free to add your comments.

Take care and take it easy,
- Black Sheep Jim

Follow myself @BlackSheepJim and of course @BoltsByTheBay on Twitter!

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