Tondar's Daily Rant

Prepare yourself for the writings of Tondar the Destroyer, Baron of Atlanta, Rightful Heir to the Throne of Spain, from whom all babies come. As his will be blogged, so let it be done.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

NHL PROJECT YEAR 2

From Seth...

Last year I introduced my plan for rewiring the NHL's divisions to make better use of natural rivalries, and increase the intensity and interest of the playoffs and regular season games, protecting the advantages of the NHL's best team in the postseason.

Reasons for the change:

  • Too many mediocre teams get in the playoffs. This sport is streaky, so by letting more than half of the league's teams into the postseason, the championship playoffs emphasize hot streaks over sustained excellence. This has led to a number of low-caliber teams competing in the Finals in recent years, which decreases national interest. It also renders the regular season less important.

  • Because the playoffs are so long, there is little interest in 1st round games. The argument for inviting 16 of the 30 teams to the playoffs is that it increases fan interest for the bottom teams, but the continued struggles of perennial 1st-round losers belies that argument.

  • Rivalries cannot be handmade. Current division makeups should maximize rivalry games, and with too many divisional games, there have become a number of oft-repeated matchups that draw very few fans (e.g. Columbus/Detroit).

  • The conference system has no meaning. The NHL is not equally divisible by regions or historic leagues, but is rather historically or regionally segmented into smaller groups (e.g. Original Six, The South, Canadian teams, Alberta/B.C., New York Metro). Different teams do have specific playing styles, but these are mixed throughout the league. There are far more teams in the East than in the West.

  • Too much travel. The conference playoffs are especially unfair for Western Conference teams (two of which are in the Eastern Time Zone). Over a long playoffs, the constant cross-continental flights become a consistent and significant disadvantage for certain teams.

  • Low-caliber teams can get high seeds in weak divisions. We've seen this a number of times in the current Southeast division. The fewer teams in a division, the greater chance that all the teams in a division will be bad.

  • High-caliber teams can get left out of the playoffs by playing in a too-tough division. A good example is this year's Northwest Division, where COL, CGY, MIN, EDM and VAN were all near the bottom of the playoff hunt after playing an unbalanced schedule against each other, while NAS made the playoffs and DET won the President's trophy playing against weak divisional opponents.

The fix:

  • Reorganize the NHL into 5 divisions of six teams. The greater number of teams in each division will reduce the chances of divisional imbalance and reduce, by one, the number of divisional champions with automatic playoff spots.

  • Divisions would be thus: Dixie (Southeast: ATL, FLA, NAS, DC, TB, CAR), Patrick-Adams (Northeast: NYI, PHI, PIT, BUF, OTT, NJ), Gretzky (Pacific: EDM, VAN, CGY, ANA, LA, SJ), Heartland (Midwest: StL, COL, MIN, DAL, PHX, CMB), and Norris (Original Six: NYR, DET, BOS, MTL, CHI, TOR). This preserves regional and historic rivalries, and places teams of relatively equal historic presence together.

  • Reduce number of playoff teams to eight.

  • Choose playoff matchups in a draft, where the top-seeded team chooses their opponent among playoff-eligible teams, then the next-highest seed chooses, on down.

  • Change 82 game schedule so that teams play every other team twice a year (58 games), plus an additional 4 games against each divisional opponent (20 games), and 2 additional games against two non-divisional rivals (rotating). In Olympic years, teams play a 78-game schedule, with the non-divisional rivalry games removed. This would further reduce the effect of divisional imbalance in the final standings while still emphasizing divisional play.

The problems:

There is, of course, some fair criticism that could be leveled at my system.

  • With so many non-playoff teams, there will be a firesale of talent at the trade deadline as teams out of the running dump contracts

  • Teams in new markets, particularly Nashville and Columbus, get their greatest attendance when established teams are in town. Bunching the Original Six teams together deprives the rest of the league of revenue from them.

  • Not every team has two non-divisional rivals, and some have more. And not every non-divisional rival is equal; if Colorado has two extra games with Detroit, they have a worse chance of making the playoffs than their division foe Phoenix, who gets to beat up L.A.

  • Playing each team twice is a lot of travel

  • Without a hope of playoffs, middling teams will struggle to excite fans.

  • All those 1st round playoff games equal a ton of money

  • Columbus in a division with Phoenix?!? Columbus gets screwed.

Here's my responses to each:

  • The salary cap and salary minimum have significantly dampened the late-season trading of contracts, which was rampant with a 16-team format before. Those trades also generated a lot of interest in the sport, and gave teams the ability to move bad contracts and collect future talent. Capitalism is messy, but it works. If it looks like a problem after the first year, move the trade deadline earlier, which is something the NHL was already planning to do.

  • Nashville and Columbus are currently in a division with the league's biggest road draw, the Detroit Red Wings, yet they're the least successful among new franchises. Minnesota, which had only five visits from Original Six teams this season, regularly sells out its arena. And visits from Columbus and Nashville were among the worst games for attendance for Detroit this year, while the solitary game against Toronto was the highest. Boston hasn't been very successful this year on the ice, but can count on four home sellouts against Montreal. Not every team has rivals, but this is a revenue-sharing league, and therefore, the NHL should use its rivalries to their utmost advantage. For those cities that need this boost, the non-divisional rivalries can be used to usher top draws where they're needed.

  • The non-divisional games will not be equal, or necessarily fair. But it's just four games. They can be hyped when needed (Toronto/Buffalo, Detroit/Colorado, Canadian team face-off), or ignored as just another game if, say, Florida plays Dallas. In general, teams with good rivalries are the ones who won't care that they're facing a tougher opponent, while newer teams without established rivalries outside their division won't mind playing other cupcakes. I had this one idea to make the six Canadian teams play each other with these games, but I think Buffalo and Toronto deserve to play each other too. It's not enough games to make a major difference in the standings, but gives the league the flexibility to generate the games people get excited for. If we miss a rivalry one year, at least each team still plays each other.

  • The reason the NHL cut down on excessive travel is because the players' association wanted it during the lockout negotiations. But now we have some teams who barely ever take a flight over two hours all season, while others have to fly coast-to-coast regularly. It's particularly galling in the playoffs. Boston will have to travel more, but it's worth it so that L.A. won't have to fly LAX to DTW to LAX to DTW to LAX to Columbus to LAX to Nashville to LAX to Nashville to LAX to Nashville to LAX to Newark over a four-week period to get to the start of the NHL Finals versus a New Jersey team that never left home. I think a reduction of the schedule in Olympic years, which the Players Association also wanted but didn't get, is a good enough tradeoff, since the alternative is Detroit playing Columbus 8 times a season while never seeing Toronto. Of course, that's logic. So if that doesn't work, here's a reason that Gary Bettman can understand: The NBA does it.

  • I'll grant this, to a degree. But guess what: Edmonton and Calgary and Vancouver will fill their arenas come rain or shine, while Nashville couldn't fill their arena last night when winning or losing meant the difference between clinching or likely not going to the playoffs. And as I said, the first round doesn't sell out across the league -- it's the later rounds that bond a town to its team. That, and growing the product of the NHL.

  • Yes, the 1st playoff round equals 8 best-of-7 series of arenas filled with higher-priced tickets. But it also means the later rounds are barely watched clutchy grabby fests between mediocre teams riding a hot goalie. I think it's well established that the NHL needs to grow its product nationally, and the way to do this is to have its best hockey broadcast in the Finals. And like MLB, the small field of playoff teams will mean winning your division is that much more important. Even with fewer divisions, if you look at the standings below, you can see that most of the top half of the league was in contention for a playoff spot. If you let in the bottom half, though, it cheapens the playoffs for everybody. I can't promise the broadcast rights of a healthier sport will make up for all of those 1st round tickets, but I think it's a hit that needs to be taken for the good of the game itself.

  • This, I have no answer for, unless an Eastern team moves West (Pitt to KC or Winnepeg has been rumored). Another layout I considered was putting the three Cali teams with Phoenix, Dallas and Colorado, and having the BC/Alberta triangle in a division with St. Louis, Minnesota and Columbus, and making it up to them by making the three divisional trips bunched together near the All-Star break and at the beginning and end of the season. Either way, Columbus, an Eastern Time Zone city, gets duked. What can I say, a Michigan grad made the divisions; if East Lansing and South Bend had hockey teams (don't get any ideas, Bettman), maybe I'd put them with Alaska.

In case you were wondering, if the NHL had instituted the Seth plan, here's how the playoffs would look right now:

Team

Wins

Losses

OTLs

Pts.

Division

Playoff Seed

Detroit

53

20

7

113

Norris

1 - Norris Champ

San Jose

49

22

10

108

Gretzky

2 - Gretzky Champ

Pittsburgh

46

26

8

100

Patrick-Adams

3 - P-A Champ

Minnesota

44

28

9

97

Heartland

4 - Heartland Champ

Washington

42

31

8

92

Dixie

5 - Dixie Champ

Montreal

46

25

10

102

Norris

6 - at large

Anaheim

45

27

8

98

Gretzky

7 - at large

Dallas

44

29

7

95

Heartland

8 - at large

Overall Standings:

Team

Wins

Losses

OTLs

Pts.

Division

Playoff Seed

Pittsburgh

46

26

8

100

Patrick-Adams

3

New Jersey

44

28

7

95

Patrick-Adams

-

Ottawa

43

30

8

94

Patrick-Adams

-

Philadelphia

40

28

11

91

Patrick-Adams

-

Buffalo

38

31

12

88

Patrick-Adams

-

NY Isles

34

38

9

77

Patrick-Adams

-

Detroit

53

20

7

113

Norris

1

Montreal

46

25

10

102

Norris

6

NY Rangers

42

27

11

95

Norris

-

Boston

40

28

11

91

Norris

-

Chicago

38

33

8

84

Norris

-

Toronto

36

34

11

83

Norris

-

Minnesota

44

28

9

97

Heartland

4

Dallas

44

29

7

95

Heartland

8

Colorado

43

31

7

93

Heartland

-

Phoenix

37

37

6

80

Heartland

-

Columbus

34

33

12

80

Heartland

-

St. Louis

31

36

13

75

Heartland

-

San Jose

49

22

10

108

Gretzky

2

Anaheim

45

27

8

98

Gretzky

7

Calgary

41

30

10

92

Gretzky

-

Edmonton

41

35

6

88

Gretzky

-

Vancouver

39

32

10

88

Gretzky

-

Los Angeles

32

42

7

71

Gretzky

-

Washington

42

31

8

92

Dixie

5

Nashville

41

31

9

91

Dixie

-

Carolina

42

32

6

90

Dixie

-

Florida

37

34

9

83

Dixie

-

Atlanta

33

40

8

74

Dixie

-

Tampa Bay

31

40

9

71

Dixie

-

Rules:

Seeding determined by A) Points, B) Wins, C) Head-to-Head, D) Goals scored

Five division champs get top five seeds, followed by three wild cards

Starting with top seed, teams choose any playoff-eligible team to compete against

After first team selects, next-highest seeded team remaining selects their opponent, and on down

After first round, highest seed remaining chooses its 2nd round opponent of those left standing

Home ice determined by A) Points, B) Wins, C) Head-to-Head, D) Goals scored (not seed)*

*Note: It is possible for a wild card team facing a division winner to have home ice, if the wild card team has more points. Seeding is used only for opponent selection.

Last year, plugging the standings into my system, we got 8 teams that nobody could deny were great:

1. BUF, P-A Champ, 113 pts.

2. DET, Norris Champ, 113 pts.

3. NAS, Dixie Champ, 110 pts.

4. ANA, Gretzky Champ, 110 pts.

5. DAL, Heartland Champ, 107 pts.

6. SJ, at large, 107 pts.

7. NJ, at large, 107 pts.

8. VAN, at large, 105 pts.

Notably left out was Ottawa (105 pts.) a 4-seed that won the Eastern Conference last year, and Pittsburgh (105 pts.), an exciting young squad that lost to the Senators in the 1st round. Vancouver had more wins.

My guess is Buffalo chosen Vancouver anyway, which limped into the end of the season (Luongo got hot mid-way through that series), and Detroit would have snatched up 3-seed Nashville, whose goalie was injured. That would have given Anaheim a California opponent in San Jose, and pitted Dallas and New Jersey in a rematch of 1999.

Not a bad playoffs.

Much better than watching the hapless Thrashers and Islanders (teams just barely above .500) get beat down, plus Calgary's classless cheat-fest and the wide-eyed Pittsburgh kids flailing about. It was the 2nd round that had all the good series.

This year, it seems the Dixie champ will lag behind the others. But the nice thing about this system is that if a team that's only good -- but not great -- sneaks into the playoffs by winning a weak division, they simply get snatched up as the sacrificial lamb for the President's Trophy Winner. Does 95-point New Jersey really think they can take 113-point Detroit in 7 games any better than 92-point Washington?

Remember, points, not seed, determine home ice. So the only way Washington could benefit from its 5th seed is if the top four teams choose to play each other. Winning their division gives them a shot, but being the lowest division winner, unless you have more points than any 2nd place team in the league, is still a tough position to win from. At least, they won't be able to coast through on home ice like Carolina (2005), Tampa Bay (2003), Carolina (2002) and Florida (2001) -- note: all Southeast Division -- and other not-on-the-level 3-seeds of yore.

What I love about drafting opponents is it gives the playoffs an extra level of intensity. By pointing at a team and saying "we think they're weak," you're automatically snubbing the team you'll play the next 4-7 games against, which means they'll have an extra burr in their bonnet for you when they hit the ice. Such things are where rivalries are made.

Overall, I'd say there are disadvantages to any system, but that the current system has more than its fair share, and that these problems could be fixed with my divisional and playoff system.

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