Monday, December 8, 2008

Hey Commissioner Bettman - Now's the Time For Expansion....

There can't be a better time than now for the NHL to expand from 30 teams to 32 teams and from reduce the regular season from 82 to 80 games. That's right, this is one of those crazy blogs suggesting another upheaval, all be it a minor one to the NHL. Expand, realign and readjust the regular season. Go to a 32 team league comprised of 2 16 team conferences with 4 4 team divisions in each conference. Extend the regular season by 2 games to 84 games. Each team would play: 1) the three other teams in their division 4 times in a season (12 games 6 home/6 away); 2) the other 12 teams in their conference 3 times in a season (36 games - 18 home/18 away) and last but not least the 16 teams in the other conference 2 times in a season (32 games - 16 home/16 away). That way the league expands, playoffs become more meaningful - leaving the current playoff format in place only the top 50% of the teams in the league go to the playoffs and the season length stays the same.

The league can also then use the expansion as an opportunity to realign the divisions slightly once again to expand regional rivalries and stir or rekindle additional interest in the game. The obvious places to expand, you ask? How about one U.S. City and one Canadian City? For the U.S. Cities the likely places are in the Western Conference: Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, Seattle or Portland all come readily to mind. For the Canadian cities: Hamilton (wonder where that idea came from), Halifax, or Quebec seem the likely easy to identify candidates. The Conference and Division Alignments could then look like this:

Eastern Conference:

Conn Smythe Division
- Montreal
- Ottawa
- Toronto
- Hamilton/Halifax/Quebec

Patrick Brothers Division
- Boston Bruins
- New York Rangers
- New York Islanders
- Buffalo Sabres

Ace Bailey Division
- Philadelphia Flyers
- Washington Capitals
- Pittsburgh Penguins
- New Jersey Devils

Harold Ballard Division
- Carolina Hurricanes
- Florida Panthers
- Tampa Bay Lightning
- Atlanta Thrashers

Western Conference

Father Bauer Division
- Vancouver Canucks
- Calgary Flames
- Edmonton Oilers
- Minnesota Wild

Jake Milford Divsion
- San Jose Sharks
- Los Angeles Kings
- Anaheim Ducks
- Las Vegas/Salt Lake City/Seattle

Joe Malone Division
- Dallas Stars
- Phoenix Coyotes
- Colorado Avalanche
- Nashville Predators

James Norris Division
- Detroit RedWings
- Chicago Blackhawks
- Columbus Blue Jackets
- Saint Louis Blues.

The merits of such an alignment are pretty self evident. Divisions are regional clusters of teams. Canadian city rivalries can fuel the flames for the 12 games each division has with rivals in the Smythe & Bauer Divisions. Regional rivalries between proximate American cities can do the same for the remaining six division. Further longer road trips can be economically accommodated and interest fueled by each team going on a week long road trip hand having four games in seven days against all four teams in an opposing conference division. This will make the longer road trips less expensive and taxing on teams on opposite coasts then what they are playing this year. For example the Washington Capitals of the Bailey Division would go on a seven day road trip and play all four teams in the Milford Division in a week. That would mean they would only have to play one weekend back to back game to play their four road games against: the LA Kings, Anaheim, San Jose, and Vegas/Seattle/SLC. Over the course of the seven month season each team would only have to take a four week long road trips to play opposing conference divisions. That scheduling could be generally accomplished before the beginning of March. Such scheduling would allow the final six/seven weeks of the season to be focused on in conference games and the drive to make the playoffs. Interest and fan support could be better nurtured and teams would have time to rest and recuperate if they needed to before the start of the playoffs. Additionally, every NHL fan would have the opportunity to see every NHL team at least once in a season.

Why is expansion a good idea now? The salary cap and the recent injury status of teams like the Devils, Islanders and Capitals show two things. First, there's a lot of parity now and the 30 teams in the league could easily support an expansion draft without too much impact to their competitiveness. Look at the standings after more than 1/4 of the season is complete only 9 points (4 1/2 games) separate the leagues 30th team (cellar dwellers) from the team with the 16th best record - the last team that would make the playoffs if the season ended today. Also only 9 points (4 1/2 games) separate the team in 16th place (on the bubble) from the team in 4th place (firmly in control). Second, the talent pipelines of the leagues teams are as full and solid as they've been in a long time. Witness once more Washington playing 0.500 hockey with four of six "NHL" defensemen out injured; the Islanders playing 0.500 hockey without their star/#1 Goaltender; New Jersey playing 0.700 Hockey without their starting goaltender in the lineup... and the list goes on. Sure folks in great AHL cities will have to endure three or four years of a reduced quality team on their rosters, but NHL fans in the 32 NHL cities won't have to endure "start-up" hockey for near that long.

That's my two cents...........what do you say? If you agree let's all write our favorite team's ownership and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman this coming week and tell him to get a move on.

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