Commentary

Should the NHL realign its teams?

Updated: January 9, 2009, 2:25 PM ET
By Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun | ESPN.com

Nicklas Backstrom Len Redkoles/NHLI/Getty ImagesOne of our experts' proposals has the Caps and Flyers in the same division.
Editor's note: Our weekly "Faceoff" features ESPN.com NHL writers Scott Burnside (based in Atlanta) and Pierre LeBrun (based in Toronto), who duke it out over any given hockey topic. Let the games begin!

This week's topic: Should the NHL consider realigning its 30 teams?

Pierre LeBrun: Bon jour, Scotty. Hope all is well, dear friend. I thought of you the other day when Alexander Semin dropped the gloves and slapped away at Marc Staal. I remember you doing that one night during our Monday night hockey game here in Toronto. Ah, the good ol' days … which brings me to my opening thought, which actually came to us from our editor, but I'll pretend to steal it. The Flyers and Caps had another doozy this week, and it made our editor -- I mean me -- think it would be interesting if they'd be back in the same division, like the old Patrick Division days.

Scott Burnside: Funny how your memories of our events together often vary dramatically from mine, or from reality in general. But you are right, my friend. When you see compelling games like the Flyers-Caps tilt the other night, it makes you pine for more. It brings us to the question of realignment, which pops up every now and then, and will likely continue to do so as we discuss the future of franchises in Phoenix, Atlanta and Nashville, among others.

The assumption has long been if the NHL ever gets to a point where it is serious about realigning the conferences, the first order of business will be to move Detroit into the Eastern Conference, which would set up some interesting rivalry possibilities with Toronto, Buffalo and Ottawa.

LeBrun: Scotty, I wouldn't be so sure about moving Detroit. I think Chicago, among others, would have serious issues with that. While I agree it's never made any sense to have the Wings in the Western Conference, the Original Six tie to the Blackhawks would be tough to break up. But this topic made me dig up one of my old notes from December 2006, when the NHL last floated realignment to its governors.

At the time, the idea was to cut the divisions from six to four. The overhaul featured the Atlanta Thrashers and Columbus Blue Jackets switching conferences. Other details I found from my notes:

• The Eastern and Western Conferences would each have had eight- and seven-team divisions:

-- Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Anaheim, Los Angeles, San Jose, Colorado and Phoenix would have made up the eight-team division in the Western Conference. The seven-team division would have featured Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, Nashville, Dallas, Minnesota and Eastern Conference newcomer Atlanta.

-- The new divisions in the East: One would have featured Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Buffalo, Boston, Pittsburgh and Western Conference alumnus Columbus. The other division would have included the New York Rangers, New York Islanders, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Washington, Tampa Bay, Florida and Carolina.

• The divisions would have been more sensitive to time zones, with a huge consideration to TV start times.

• The top four playoff seeds would have come from the top two teams in each division. Four wild-card playoff berths would then be battled among the teams with the next highest point totals. So it would remain eight playoff teams in each conference.

When this story leaked out, the Thrashers immediately opposed it. The Jackets, as I recall, were OK with the switch (it would bring them closer to Pittsburgh in a friendly Ohio/Pennsylvania rivalry). In the end, a committee was formed to further analyze this idea, and it was unable to sell it to the 30 teams. The league, meanwhile, has never revisited this realignment idea, or any variation, since it died on the table during the 2006-07 season. It died a peaceful death.

Burnside: Well, when the proposed changes were floated out there, it seemed obvious the league was looking at moving to four eight-team divisions, which would have been nice and symmetrical, but meant adding two new teams. You don't hear much talk about expansion now, but rather relocation and, in some cases, contraction (a kind of ongoing fantasy for Canadian scribes and fans who somehow believe you can just wave a wand and make four or five teams simply disappear, a la David Copperfield).

I agree the issue of swapping teams around is delicate. Remember when the Leafs played for years in the Western Conference? How did that happen? And it gives you a sense of the politicking involved: It was now-Canadian federal politician Ken Dryden who managed to bring the Leafs to the East. How do you think the Western Conference GMs would like it if Atlanta, a natural rival for Nashville just 3½ hours down the road, moved to the West in place of Detroit? They might like the idea of beating up on the Thrashers a few times a season, but it sure wouldn't do much for the gate, which is the bottom line in these kinds of discussions.

LeBrun: Yes, under Dryden's leadership, the Leafs switched conferences for the 1998-99 season, which not only made sense because it finally brought them back in the same division as the rival Montreal Canadiens, but also put them alongside provincial newbie Ottawa. And what a rivalry that would soon become. But as far as doing the same with the Wings and bringing them into the East, I'm again stuck at Chicago. The Hawks would howl. But perhaps the original idea from December 2006, of having Columbus and Atlanta switch conferences, should be revisited. The Jackets really don't have any rivals (don't give me that Detroit stuff), but could surely cozy up to the Penguins and Flyers in a hurry.

Burnside: Do you like the three-division format or would you rather see the teams go back to two divisions per conference? The three-tiered beast always makes people cringe when a division winner from a weak division (the Southeast, in recent years) gets a third seed and home ice, even though it may have fewer points than other teams lower in the bracket. One way you're going to see a team get in, likely in the Southeast, is its having fewer points than the ninth-place team, and then you'll really hear some grumbling.

LeBrun: I don't like the three-division system because, quite frankly, it's almost meaningless. Aside from the division title, which carries an automatic top-3 seed in the conference come playoff time, what's the point? Either you have divisional playoffs or you don't. Right now, the playoffs are based on conference standings, which is fine with me. But that renders the divisions meaningless. In the 1980s, I loved divisional playoffs. The Oilers and Flames had to go through each other to get out of the Smythe Division. Ditto for Montreal and Boston in the old Adams Division. And, as we started off with today, we all remember the Flyers and Caps in the Patrick, not to mention Isles-Rangers, etc. The divisions actually meant something back then because of all the head-to-head playoff play. The Norris Division meant Wings, Leafs, North Stars, Blues and Hawks. I miss that.

Burnside: It seems we don't know what we want, though. Remember how bitterly people complained about eight divisional games after the lockout? "Boo hoo" went the cry, until they changed the schedule this season so fans could see more of the opposing conference. I understand that, although what you're really talking about is wanting to see a handful of stars from the other conference.

Fans in Calgary can't really be chomping at the bit to see the New York Islanders, can they? And yet the most compelling playoff series are the ones in which there is a history, as you point out: Toronto and Ottawa or Montreal, Detroit and Chicago. One of the reasons GMs like the third division is it gives them something to shoot for, something they can point to in their markets that suggests success. The Atlanta Thrashers, for instance, have not won a single playoff game in their history and yet have a Southeast Division banner hanging from the roof of Philips Arena. It might not be much, but it's something. It does seem the league runs at cross-purposes, though, having three division champs and then using a conference-wide system to match up teams in the playoffs.

LeBrun: Here's the LeBrun Proposal for you to mock or marvel at:

Western Conference
• Bob Johnson Division: Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Colorado, Phoenix, Los Angeles, San Jose and Anaheim.

• Lou Nanne Division: Minnesota, Dallas, Chicago, Detroit, Atlanta, Nashville and St. Louis.

Eastern Conference
• Don Cherry Division: Boston, Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, Buffalo, Carolina (Hartford), Florida and Tampa Bay.

• Herb Brooks Division: N.Y. Rangers, Pittsburgh, N.Y. Islanders, Columbus, Philadelphia, New Jersey and Washington.

So?

Burnside: I weep at your ingenuity. I still think you'll get a call from Detroit GM Ken Holland asking for a recount. I doubt if you'll see any move to change the current alignment until we see how things shake out in Phoenix and Nashville and even Atlanta. Are these franchises in for the long haul, or will they be on the move? That's when you'll start to see the "Columbus/Detroit to the East" argument begin in earnest. What does your gut tell you? Would the LeBrun Proposal (one of a number of wonderful gems you've floated over the past couple of years, none of which has been given its proper consideration, in my view) be valid, or will there be a Kansas City, Las Vegas or Waterloo in the mix?

LeBrun: That's Waterloo, Ontario, for our American readers, home of Jim Balsillie's BlackBerry operation. … Vegas has long been on the NHL radar, with Hollywood mogul Jerry Bruckheimer as the interested owner. But the downturn in the economy has pretty much shelved all expansion talk. In fact, there was zero mention of expansion at all at the last Board of Governors meeting in West Palm Beach. Even if there's no serious talk of it, there's usually at least an update on interested parties wanting to own an expansion team. But this time, not even an update. It's about the 30 current teams surviving, never mind expansion.

Despite the economic problems in Phoenix (a story that you broke, my friend) and other soft spots such as Nashville, Atlanta and Long Island, I'm just not sure relocation is that much of a solution. I know the league will do its best to avoid that. Mind you, keep an eye on things with the Islanders. I think owner Charles Wang is tired of losing money hand over fist, and now he's apparently having a tough time getting help for the renovations that Nassau Coliseum so deeply needs.

Burnside: I think it'll take something pretty dramatic for things to change from the current 30-team status quo. But it'll take a return of economic stability -- not just in the NHL, but in the global markets -- for the LeBrun Proposal to get its due consideration. Like a fine wine, though, I figure your realignment proposal will mature over time. Who knows? There might even be a LeBrun Division as a result. Until next time.

LeBrun: Stop making me blush, Burnside. You know I hate it when you're nice to me like that. Talk to ya next week.

Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun cover the NHL for ESPN.com. Neither Scott nor Pierre wants to play in the Western Conference.