When I first heard that the NHL was looking to realign in 2012-13 to four divisions, two with eight teams and two with seven teams, my head began to swim with all the possible permutations and considerations. The NHL has the unenviable task of weighing existing rivalries, geography (travel distance and time zones), and history (market size, franchise "age") to come up with a magic formula. The good news is that you can almost back your way into a reasonable conference/division lineup. I emphasize almost. The problem is that the further down the road you go, the harder the decisions get. I'm sure the NHL knows this.
See some considerations and ideas, as well as pictures of possible new divisions, then leave your own comments, after the jump...
To start, keep in mind that the conferences will be 15 teams apiece, which means each division in a conference will be 7 teams and 8 teams. Nothing says the conferences must be Eastern and Western, but it seems more likely than any other arrangement -- plus intra-conference games/travel/start times must be taken into consideration. I doubt the NHL would want Vancouver and Montreal in a "North" conference. And I have trouble envisioning a "Southwest" conference, given the limited number of teams and the cross-time-zone travel necessary.
In any event, start by breaking the 30 into two groups of 15.
The New Conferences: The teams west of the Rockies are all no-brainers - Vancouver, San Jose, Los Angeles, Anaheim, Calgary, Edmonton and Phoenix. That's enough for a division right there (7). Then there's Colorado, all by its lonesome. Heading east, you have Winnipeg, Dallas, Minnesota and Saint Louis, all west of the Mississippi River. Chicago's not far away, and is also on CT. That's 6, including Colorado. You need two more. Nashville is also CT. Next closest are Detroit and Columbus, both ET - but that would give you one team too many for the conference. All the rest would seemingly be solid Eastern Conference teams.
So What About Divisions? If you accept the Eastern/Western Conference approach, the questions start with where to draw the lines in the Western Conference. Colorado could join the other 7 westernmost teams to make a "Pacific Division" of 8. Or, leave the Pacific Division at 7 and lump Colorado with Winnipeg, Dallas, Minnesota, Saint Louis and Chicago. Now, you need two more to make 8 - with Nashville, Detroit and Columbus being the remaining ones - to make your new "Central Division"... with Nashville being the only CT team left.
As for the would-be Eastern Conference, I think you start in the south and work your way up. Florida, Tampa Bay, Carolina and Washington are your obvious choices, but it gets tricky from there. It all hinges on which team is left out of the Western Conference, Nashville, Detroit or Columbus. Columbus seems to the best fit geographically, as it appears at least one ET time team will be in the new Western Conference, but an argument can be made for Detroit, as well.
With Columbus in the Eastern Conference, you need 2 to 3 more to make a division. Pittsburgh and Philadelphia? Add New Jersey for 8? Group up the rest, and there are your two Eastern divisions. But if Detroit is your Eastern Conference team, then you have a mess. You would seemingly work your way northeast from Detroit to form a division. And the chaos and permutations spin from there.
Overarching Alternatives: I don't presume it's as simple as this - which isn't all that simple to start with. But there are also some unique alternatives to this oversimplified approach, particularly in the southeast and the northeast. Imagine an Atlantic Division starting in Florida and working northward. The trick becomes where to stop. You might end up splitting Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, which I wouldn't think the NHL would want (see Rivalries below). Or imagine a Southern Division of Florida, Tampa Bay, Carolina, Washington, Columbus, Nashville, Dallas and Saint Louis (see History below). A neat thought, but how do you then carve up the northeast? Follow the "U" from Winnipeg to Ottawa, including Buffalo? If so, back the issue with Conferences and starting times... and conferences that are on a steep southwest to northeast diagonal...*sigh*
In any event, I found a map of NHL teams online and began to play. Again, I have come to the conclusion that the easiest way to tackle the beast is to pick your conferences, remembering that divisions will need to be somewhat "paired" geographically. Then, isolate the westernmost 7 teams, then figure out what to do with everything except the northeast, then divide the northeast. Just for fun, I've attached a few proposals to spark your own mapmaking insanity.
I like this one:
This one has promise (note that Colorado can be either/or in terms of division):
And here are some CRAZIER ideas (the problem is Time Zones):
I'm confident the NHL will do this right. They have a lot to consider. I imagine the following will be taken into consideration:
Rivalries: While change will be coming, some things simply should not be disturbed. Just to name a few, CGY-EDM, BOS-MON, BUF-TOR, CHI-DET - and, thankfully, most good rivalries are geographically-based. Even NSH-DET has a life of its own, despite geography. Plus, all Nashville Predators fans know how to get to Detroit.*** One of the benefits about four divisions rather than six, as good Mr. Dirk Hoag pointed out to me, is more opportunity to develop those rivalries. Who wouldn't like to see the (somewhat unlikely) Central division that had DET and COL playing 4-6 times a season? But I'm already anticipating the likely WIN-MIN rivalry, and even NSH-DAL has a nice southern flavor to it.
(***Drive north until you smell it, then drive east until you step in it. Okay, okay... just kidding, Detroit fans.)
Geography: See Rivalries above. Plus, no team wants to lie at the outer edges of its conference, strictly from a travel cost perspective - but someone has to be there... unless you're a team in the northeast.
Time Zones: This would seem to gently push Colorado to the west; Detroit and Columbus to the east. As television revenues have grown, this is more of a concern for eastern teams on the road.
History: All I mean by "history" is that each division will need some established teams with solid markets and histories to serve as an intangible anchor. For example, without meaning any offense, I do not think the "Southern" divisions identified above would make a very good ones (nor do I think they are likely divisions).
Where would you draw the lines and why? Who would you like to see the Predators play on a regular basis? What future rivalries would you like to see developed?