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Photo Credit: Dave Sandford/NHLI via USA TODAY Sports

NHL Alignment Options for Next Season

Yesterday, Vegas Golden Knights owner Bill Foley got people’s attention when he said, “Yeah, but they’re going to be playing in the Canadian Division next year,” in response to how it would be facing Nate Schmidt and the Vancouver Canucks.

Many interpreted Foley’s comments as though a Canadian division is guaranteed. Is it?

I spoke to a high-up NHL executive of a Canadian team this morning about a Canadian division.

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“If we can start to have fans in the stands and the border is closed, then it (Canadian division) is the only option,” he said. “But that is not where they (NHL) want to head to first.”

If the border remains closed, then you are looking at a bubble or having the seven Canadian teams in one division. It wouldn’t be the league’s first choice, but if the options are not playing, or only playing against Canadian teams, then we could see Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto battle it out every night.

In conversations with different NHL executives, a shortened season is the most likely option at this point. An 82-game season seems highly unlikely. But the major factor for the NHL is having some fans in the building. To play without fans doesn’t make financial sense. Even if teams are allowed 25-40% capacity they could play, because a large majority of the league’s revenue comes from ticket sales as well as food and beverage.

WHAT WOULD CANADIAN DIVISION LOOK LIKE?

Jan 29, 2020; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers forward Zack Kassian (44) and Calgary Flames forward Matt Tkachuk (19) fight during the first period at Rogers Place. Mandatory Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

For NHL nine seasons between 1983-1991, NHL teams played their division rivals eight times during the regular season (Patrick Division, had six teams and they played each other seven times) and then teams faced division rivals in the first two rounds of the playoffs.

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Some years, teams would play each other 14 or 15 times, and not surprisingly some of the greatest rivalries we’ve seen emerged during those years.

Between 1982/1983 to 1990/1991 the Edmonton Oilers played the Calgary Flames 102 times, including 30 games in the playoffs. Not to mention the preseason games which often had as many fights as goals.

They played the Winnipeg Jets 98 times, the LA Kings 90 and the Vancouver Canucks 82.
Calgary played Winnipeg 85 times and Vancouver and Los Angeles 87.
The Kings played Vancouver 78 times.
Winnipeg didn’t face Los Angeles or Vancouver during these years.

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In the famed Chuck Norris division, the rivalries were heightened as well.

Chicago played Minnesota 101 times,  St.Louis 93, Detroit 85 and Toronto 73.
St.Louis faced Minnesota 98 times, Chicago 93, Toronto 90 and Detroit 87.
Toronto played Detroit 85 times and Minnesota 76.
Detroit and Minnesota never met in the playoffs during this time.

The Adams Division provided the most games between two organizations over those nine seasons.

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Montreal played Boston 109 times, Quebec 92, Hartford 89 and Buffalo 87.
Boston played Quebec 76 times, Hartford 85 and Buffalo 90.
Quebec played Hartford 81 times and Buffalo 80 games.
Buffalo and Hartford played each other 72 times, but none in the playoffs.

And in the six-team Patrick Division (played each other seven times in regular season opposed to eight) there were some great rivalries.

Washington played the Flyers 79 times, Penguins 68, Islanders 87, Rangers 80 and Devils 76.
Philly played the Islanders 75 times, the Rangers 80, Penguins 70 and Devils 63 (none in playoffs).
Pittsburgh played the Islanders 63 times (none in playoffs), Devils 70 times and Rangers 67.
Islanders played the Rangers 79 times and Devils 69.
Rangers and Devils played each other 63 times, but none in playoffs.

Fast forward to this season, and if the seven Canadian teams only play each other (due to no travel across the Canada/US border) then their options for a 48-game season would be pretty straight forward. They would play each other eight times. And I would have teams play some games back to back, to cut down on travel. Edmonton could play Montreal on consecutive nights for instance. (I actually think the NHL should look at doing this in a normal season. You can’t for every game, of course, but why not have a four-game road trip consist of two cities instead of four. Saves on costs and allows players to get more rest.)

For one season I’d come up with a name. I’d call it the Gretzky division.

If it is a 60-game season, then they could play each team 10 times. It isn’t ideal, but the passion in those games on the ice and among the seven fanbases would be incredible. The best part of it is that TSN and Sportsnet television would have more coverage on the seven Canadian teams, as they’d be playing each other every game.

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One of the Canadian head coaches wrote this via text, “The Canadian division would be full of passion. It would be great for the game.”

It is important to note a Canadian division is not the league’s first choice, but depending on what occurs in the coming months, it is something that would be considered.

Dare to dream.

OTHER DIVISIONS?

Two different NHL executives responded when I asked how the 24 American-based teams would play if there was indeed a Canadian division.

“Due to the pandemic I think the safest, smartest and most fair would be to have three American divisions,” said one executive.

The other was more direct. “It would be ridiculous if the US teams all played each other, while the seven Canadian teams only played six opponents. It would be foolish.”

I think for safety, less travel and less risk of exposure to COVID, three US divisions makes sense.

Could these three divisions work? They are all American teams, so I’d name them after American players.

Modano Division:

Anaheim
Arizona
Colorado
Dallas
Los Angeles
Minnesota
San Jose
Vegas

Chelios Division:

Carolina
Chicago
Columbus
Detroit
Florida
Nashville
St. Louis
Tampa

Leetch Division:

Boston
Buffalo
New Jersey
New York Islanders
New York Rangers
Philadelphia
Pittsburgh
Washington

If you want to switch some teams from Chelios to Leetch Division, I’m open to that. I can see why Boston and Tampa fans would want their teams in the same division, but something along these divisions makes sense.

I recognize it is not ideal, but being open to change, if it allows your business to keep functioning, is a necessity in 2020, and likely in 2021 until we have a vaccine.

I’d love it. I think the animosity and emotion of these games would heighten as natural rivalries would develop. And then the first two rounds of the playoffs would be awesome, as these teams would face off again.

What are your thoughts on a Canadian Division, and/or three American Divisions?

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