- Scott Burnside, NHL
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We are all for thinking outside the box and brainstorming and all those things that make the National Hockey League a better place to live, work and play.
And so in that sense we applaud the NHL's discussion this week about streamlining the current six-division setup to a four-division format as a way of dealing with schedule issues.
The plan floated to teams and the media late this week would see each conference have an eight-team division and a seven-team division.
Why? That's a good question for anyone who's ever looked at a map of North America. But this is all just talk at this point, so we're prepared to let that slide even though it makes far more sense for Detroit to slide into the Eastern Conference than Columbus, and moving Atlanta to the West seems, well, pointlessly arbitrary.
But we digress.
The new system would guarantee the top two teams in each division the top two seeds in the playoffs (and thus home-ice advantage at least through the first round) while the next six point-producers in the conference, regardless of which of the divisions they call home, would fill in the bottom part of the playoff bracket in each conference.
Again, fair enough. Debate is good. Discussion is healthy. Knowledge is power. Fire, bad. And so on.
A top NHL executive tells ESPN.com that if there's enough goodwill surrounding the proposal from various team officials and the public and media, there's a chance the board of governors will discuss the new alignment in Dallas during the All-Star break in late January. And if 20 of 30 teams support the plan, then it could be put into place as early as next year.
To which we say, what's the rush? What is the hurry even to float the idea of dramatically realigning a league that has far bigger issues to worry about?
It's like having a flood in your house but putting on new shutters. The shutters might look nice, but they won't get rid of that musty smell in the carpet.
Less than a month ago, the board of governors couldn't come up with a plan to alter the current schedule under the current six-division format. This realignment plan won't do anything to alter the debate. There will still be the issue of how many games outside the conference teams will play and what is best for competitive balance and fan interest.
One of the rationales for not altering the schedule earlier this month was the idea that the current schedule format is in just the second year of a three-year cycle. The feeling for some teams was that it would be best to wait until the end of that cycle before making changes -- especially since no one could come to a consensus on what the changes should look like.
Now the governors might be asked to blow up the entire configuration?
Where's the logic in that?
As for the new alignment, it would do nothing to erase some of the complaints about the playoff seeding that exist now. Currently, the three division winners are seeded 1-2-3 based on point totals. Sometimes the third seed, which is guaranteed home ice at least in the first round, has fewer points than teams from the other two divisions. That inequity could also exist in the new format.
And then there's the idea of the unbalanced divisions (eight teams in one, seven in the other in each conference) and the potential inequities regarding how many games are played against each division and/or conference opponent.
In short, new alignment, same debate.
This brings us to the crux of the matter.
One GM suggested to ESPN.com Friday this realignment proposal is really about setting the stage for two things -- expansion to 32 teams (hey, there's a nice round number, and look, that would make four divisions of eight teams -- imagine that) and the introduction of an extra layer of playoffs, the so-called play-in round.
Among the possibilities discussed after the end of the lockout was having the seventh-, eighth-, ninth- and 10th-place teams play a miniseries to establish the final two seeds. This is a scenario favored in general by teams that can't seem to get into current playoff tournament on their own.
In the end, adding the play-in round is a cash grab, pure and simple, and further attacks the integrity of the current 82-game regular season.
Last spring, there were compelling playoff races to the final days of the regular season in both conferences. Did Toronto or Atlanta or Vancouver really deserve to be in the playoffs? Even if you think they did, and that's a stretch, that's what made the playoff races so achingly delightful.
This year the races, especially in the Eastern Conference, promise to be even more nerve-wracking for players and fans. That kind of drama shouldn't be undercut just to put a few more bucks in the pot.
If the league is really interested in debating important issues that might actually have an impact on its future success, why not have brainstorming sessions that address the issue of scaling back the regular season to 76 games.
Yes, players and owners would have to give up some revenue but wouldn't it be worth it if teams were as healthy as possible heading into the playoffs when the game should be at its best? Reducing the schedule by six games would mean one fewer game a month, not a lot, which would represent an extra two to three days off per team per month, which is a lot to a worn-out body.
By reducing the number of games, that might also reduce the number of crowds of 12,000 or 13,000 that are commonplace from Long Island to South Florida to Nashville. After all, creating a little demand in these markets might go a long way toward addressing the attendance problem that is going to get worse before it gets better.
And while we're at it, why not brainstorm why there are critical problems in so many markets -- problems that won't be solved by redesigning the divisional alignment.
It's more than a little curious that this brainstorming session and the resultant what-if proposal has been floated just days after the Pittsburgh Penguins' future has been formally sent into the ether with the failure of Isle of Capri to secure a slots license. As a result, the Penguins have no owner and no arena with time quickly running out on their lease and perhaps their time in Pittsburgh.
In the face of this and other troubling issues, all of the effort to debate divisional realignment seems sadly misplaced.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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