With the unique NHL season this year comes unique divisions. Instead of the Metropolitan, Atlantic, Central and Pacific Divisions, we will be graced this season with the East Division, West Division, North Division, and a realigned Central Division that looks pretty different from the actual Central that graces the NHL during normal seasons at this point. Due to everything that has taken place in sports and with humanity at large since the world ended back in March, these changes were necessary in order to limit exposure and keep the odds of actually seeing this season through as high as possible. With a division and schedule format like we will see, it allows outbreaks to be contained as much as possible, and it ensures a higher likelihood of getting in a full regular season and postseason.
Since I am sure that anyone who is reading this by now has seen the information, I won’t hash it out in long form here. But just a quick recap: teams will ONLY play other teams in the division during the regular season, and this also remains true for the first two rounds of the playoffs. Teams in the East, Central, and West will play each other eight times during the season, for a total of 56 games. The North, having one less team in Canada, will play each other more than that, nine or ten.
While this is a necessary step to lessen the odds that they have to cancel the season, it also creates inequities, as strength of schedule will be drastically different depending on the team and what division they are in. So, let’s go through each division and try to pick out some winners and losers based on how that division is aligned, and as compared to the others.
1. Every teams’ travel times
This division is the closest geographically, meaning that every team has a short trip to reach the other. The longest trip would be from Washington to Boston, which is a 90 minute flight basically. A team like New Jersey is in the middle of all of these teams, and the trip to play any single team is relatively short and painless. Without a doubt, the Devils, Rangers, and Islanders make out the best in terms of travel of all the 31 NHL teams, but in reality, this entire division makes out with travel time. Up in Canada, Vancouver will need to fly out to Montreal and Ottawa for games, and those are four and a half hour flights across most of the entire continent, passing through three time zones. The East has none of that, and their easy travel time will mean even back to backs where they have to travel overnight will not be nearly as deadly as for those in other divisions.
2. The NHL
This division is crazy competitive. You have Boston, who was on top of the Atlantic, and Washington, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh who were the top 3 teams in the Metro. Then, add in the Isles who were sneaky good last season at 35-23-10 and made it through a couple rounds of the playoffs, and also the Rangers, who while not nearly as good as the others, did have 79 points in 70 regular season games and are sadly trending upwards. The only teams in the division who really struggled last season were Buffalo and New Jersey. This will be a super tight division with a lot of juggling for those four playoff positions. It will be exciting to watch, and the NHL wins from that. As do fans of teams not named the Devils or Sabres.
1. The Devils and Sabres
As I just mentioned, this is a really tight and tough division, perhaps the strongest one in the realignment. If they have an all-star game made up from these divisions, the East has to be the favorite to win that competition. But that is deadly for the two bad teams in the division, the Sabres and Devils. Their schedules will just be absolutely brutal. Their only relief is when they play against one another, and those could be close games. Otherwise, watch out. You might claim that these teams could be winners as both are in a prime position to tank the year and get a high percentage to win the draft lottery, but in reality, that is not what either of these teams want to do.
2. The fifth place team
For the other six teams in the division, two teams will miss out on the playoffs. This will especially hurt for the 5th place team, as there is a good chance that in another division, they would have been good enough to get in. But with this strong division, someone will be left out. Tough luck there.
1. The Canes and Jackets
Here, you have the two other Metro teams that did not get into the East Division. And considering how strong that division is, these teams lucked out. They do have to play Tampa eight times each, and it is not like this division is bad in any sense, not like the West, but in comparison, it is an easier schedule. Really, apart from Tampa, the next three playoff spots are up for grabs between everyone else not named Detroit, who was particularly atrocious last year. Carolina and Columbus could realistically both make it, thanks to the division realignment.
2. Tampa Bay
Apart from some disastrous turn of events like major injuries or whatnot, can you see any scenario where Tampa does not get into the playoffs? They should be considered a strong bet to defend their title in the playoffs once again. Yes, Carolina and Columbus are fairly strong additions, as are Dallas and Nashville, but Tampa still has to be the odds on favorite here, especially with Boston and Toronto gone.
1. Columbus’ future in the Eastern Conference
Before the announcement of Seattle as the 32nd expansion city, there was some debate that if Quebec City was chosen, Columbus could be the team that got bumped to the Western Conference as a result. While the NHL came out and said that they like Columbus in the East, this shows that they are not entirely against moving them in the future. They fit well geographically in this division this year, and it makes sense. If any team moves cities in the future, and Quebec gets the Nordiques back at some point, Columbus could be in for movement out of the East.
1. St. Louis and Colorado
Just based on last year’s standings, this is a weak division, with Vegas being the only strong team to come here from the Pacific Division. Arizona, Anaheim, LA, and San Jose were not all that great last year, even if Arizona managed to get past Nashville into round two of the playoffs last year. The Blues and Avalanche, coming from their Central, get to feast on them this year in this new West Division, and should have a much stronger chance to get into the playoffs and win there thanks to that. The top of this division is very good with these two teams and Vegas, but outside of them, it is very mediocre. There is no doubt that St. Louis and Colorado would prefer to be here instead of in the Central.
2. The fourth place team
Someone besides the Blues, Avs and Knights will need to get into the playoffs. That gives the other teams a legit shot to make the dance, where that might not have happened elsewhere. Put any of those remaining 5 teams in the East and they are in the same boat as the Devils or Sabres. But here, they have a shot, and that is certainly a boon. It is anyone’s guess who will come out of it. In terms of success from last season, the Coyotes would be the team with the best chance, but you never know in that group, it really could be anyone, maybe Minnesota now that they are in an easier division. It’s anyone’s guess.
1. Dallas, Chicago, and Nashville
Somehow, St. Louis and Minnesota got into the West Division with those bad American teams from the Pacific, but these three teams did not. Nashville you can argue makes the most sense geographically in the Central given that the Florida teams and Carolina are there, but Dallas and Chicago have as good an argument geographically to be in the West Division as St. Louis and Minnesota. I could have given Minnesota a win spot here on this list as well, but really, I felt that it was more that these three teams were losers more so than that Minnesota was a winner.
Some American teams were going to have to be screwed with more travel in this alignment given that the Canadian teams would be all in one division, and those teams ended up being St. Louis and Minnesota. Yes, they both are major winners for who they get to play, as they are in the weaker division, but their travel time is also worse. It was like when the Rams were in St. Louis but still played in a division with San Francisco, Seattle, and Arizona. Except now, the Blues will ONLY play teams out west. Same with Minnesota.
This is something Canadian hockey fans have wanted for a long time, and here it is. They can watch their teams solely play against one another for an entire season. Beyond that, it gives a Canadian team a very good shot at breaking the Stanley Cup drought that is now 27 years long. One of these teams is guaranteed to make it to the semifinals and have a 1 in 4 shot at winning the whole thing. This is every Canadian hockey fan’s dream.
2. Their improved playoff odds
This is the last season that one division will have one less team, and this year, the Canadian teams get to reap the benefits the most. There are no wild card positions to make that advantage smaller. Four teams from each division make the playoffs. Well, this division has one less team, so by pure odds alone, each team has a bigger chance of getting into the postseason. Yes, I would argue that Ottawa is still bad and will most likely miss the playoffs regardless of how many teams are in the division, but still. Even better for the other 6 teams, as only two will miss out.
1. Every teams’ travel times
I put this as a winner for the East Division, but it is a loser here in the North. These teams definitely have the most travel. The 7 teams encompass the entirety of Canada, from Montreal in the east to Vancouver in the west, and up to Edmonton which is decently far north. These teams will be traveling significantly more than the Devils. I’m sure someone can calculate the extra mileage they will have to go, but there is no doubt that by the end of the 56 games, the Devils will have traveled hundreds of miles fewer than any Canadian team.
2. Those who enjoy hearing both anthems played at hockey games
That won’t happen until the playoffs, many months from now.
That’s all I have. Add in more winners and losers in the comments. Who is winning with this division realignment for this year, and who is losing? And as always, thank you for reading!