NHL realignment would enhance importance of rivalries

(Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
(Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) /

The 2020-21 NHL season could feature a unique format.

COVID-19 has already changed how our lives operate every day, sparing no one in its radical path. The NHL felt its wrath at the end of the 2019-20 season, forcing its playoffs to be held in a bubble over the summer instead of the traditional slot at the end of April. Commissioner Gary Bettman must decide on a feasible route towards playing the 2020-21 season, and the idea of geographic realignment has been brought up.

It appears as though this may be the most realistic of the resumption plans, as there is still no travel allowed between the U.S. and Canadian border. The only division set in stone in a potential realignment is an All-Canadian division, making Hockey Night in Canada a daily occurrence. Exemplified by the Canadian division, geographic realignment pins hated rivals against each other, essentially every game.

But what would a realignment look like? Here are two examples, the first courtesy of Larry Brooks of the New York Post:

"Division A: Rangers, Islanders, Devils, Boston, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Columbus, DetroitDivision B: Tampa Bay, Florida, Carolina, Nashville, Dallas, Washington, PhiladelphiaDivision C: Los Angeles, Anaheim, San Jose, Vegas, Colorado, Arizona, St. Louis, Chicago, Minnesota"

The fourth division is obviously the Canadian Division, but Jackie Spiegel of The Sporting News has a slightly different variation:

"Division A: Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres, New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington CapitalsDivision B: Carolina Hurricanes, Chicago Blackhawks, Columbus Blue Jackets, Detroit Red Wings, Florida Panthers, Nashville Predators, St. Louis Blues, Tampa Bay LightningDivision C: Anaheim Ducks, Arizona Coyotes, Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars, Los Angeles Kings, Minnesota Wild, San Jose Sharks, Vegas Golden KnightsCanada division: Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators, Toronto Maple Leafs, Vancouver Canucks, Winnipeg Jets"

Both of these provide unique matchups and rivalries we may not have seen as much of as before. The Pittsburgh Penguins, Carolina Hurricanes, and Columbus Blue Jackets are the four teams that may flip around these divisions based on geographic location. Still, either way, the “Metro Division” will get even better with the Bruins’ addition.

Consistent Rivalry Games on East Coast and in Canada

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Restricted north of the boarder due to the pandemic’s global impact, the Canadian NHL teams face the unique scenario where their most hated opponents could become their only foes in the 2020-21 season. The goal remains to play an 82-game schedule, but that seems to get less realistic as each day passes by. The minimum seems to be a 48-game season, which would feature roughly six games against their Canadian counterparts.

If the NHL does stick with geographic re-alignment but chooses to go with a longer schedule, that total will jump up as there are seven opponents for each Canadian team to play to complete a 60-game campaign. This means heated matchups consistently, especially later in the season when they are of the utmost importance, between rivals such as the Oilers and Flames or Canadiens and Leafs.

For the East Coast, the Islanders, Rangers, and Devils will consistently be clashing. Add in Buffalo to the mix, and you now have three New York teams in one division. Not to mention, you add Boston to the mix, a city that historically clashes with New York in the sporting world. The Rangers and Islanders hate each other, but each franchise has disdain for the Capitals, who they will often see as well.

The Flyers and Penguins rivalry will be epic, and according to the projections of both Brooks and Spiegel, they will be housed in the same division. Pittsburgh’s location is closer to the midwest, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they joined Division B with the Blue Jackets. If that were to come true, the Hurricanes would join Division A. Division B features the Florida rivalry and the Blues vs. Lightning, the last two Stanley Cup Champs.

Out West

Division C or the Pacific Division, if you will, is different on both of the experts’ predictions. The one certain thing is that California hockey will be prominent with the Kings, Ducks, and Sharks; the Coyotes and Golden Knights will also be battling it out in their newly formed rivalry. If the Dallas Stars and Minnesota Wild were to be in this division, their hatred for each other shapes up to form some fun matchups.

The odd part about this geographic realignment is how significant the impact is for the West as opposed to their Eastern Conference counterparts. The East is much closer and less impacted by this than the West, where travel remains a factor, and teams are more spread out. With the COVID-19 situation constantly evolving, it will be interesting to see if the extended travel teams for Division C teams lead to a breakout where teams in Division A might never have one.

If the NHL’s handling of the return-to-play for the playoffs is any indication, COVID-19’s spread will be under control, at least in the hockey spectrum.

Rivalries Magnified

Seeing how geographic realignment could enhance rivalries is easy, but the magnification of each rivalry games’ importance is extraordinarily unique. In a normal season, the Rangers and Islanders may play one heated matchup in the campaign’s home stretch, with two points on the line in a playoff race. Now, those two teams could face each other so frequently that they single-handedly determine if the other winds up in the postseason or not.

These rivalries’ increased magnitude is sure to cause blood to boil on the ice and make the games even more interesting for fans. The NHL wants fans in attendance, but if fans are not allowed in arenas, an increased number of rivalry games may increase the television audience and make up for some economic loss. Although safety is and should be the NHL’s focal point, physicality still attracts fans to the game, and rivalries are never short on that aspect.

Moments like the Matthew Tkachuk and Zack Kassian incident could become a regular occurrence, providing an intensity that will intrigue casual and new fans alike. But outside of the added intrigue of intense hockey games, that passion these players will have in a rivalry game will translate to the end of the season standings.

Next. Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau have different priorities. dark

Fans and players alike love rivalry games. There is a different feel on the ice and the arena when the opposition is your most hated foe. With geographic realignment, we could see a whole season with that high-intensity, something that should have NHL fans salivating regardless of their fandoms.