The Sports Daily > NY Rangers Blog
Guest Blogger #18: Cartography 101, NHL Style

By Tom W.

Pretty much everyone has taken a geography lesson at some point or another in their lives. I, personally, only know some cities by their proximity to an NHL team. With the movement of the Thrashers to Winnipeg and the (hopefully unfounded) fears of the Islanders’ relocation, Gary Bettman and the NHL have to realign the conferences and divisions to best suit the teams and the fans, and geography naturally plays a pivotal role in the reorganization. In this post, I will outline the plan that, in my opinion, best suits everybody’s needs.

When realigning conferences, the NHL has to consider travel to division opponents, foster existing rivalries and create new ones, and try to keep each division as even as possible. Being reasonable, this last goal is impossible because teams are in constant flux, and making the divisions balanced now will ensure that they will not be within five years. So, let us first consider travel arrangements. This year, because Winnipeg is so far from its division opponents, it will be taking extended road trips to shorten the total distance traveled by the team. On multiple occasions, they will be away from the MTS Centre for two weeks at a time. By contrast, aside from the first few weeks of the season while renovations are completed on Madison Square Garden, the Rangers will spend no more than 10 days away from Manhattan. There is only one trip of this length, and it includes an away game to Nassau Coliseum followed by three days of rest. Clearly, Winnipeg will be more drained by the end of the season. This illustrates the need to keep travel distance and time away from home ice as even as possible in the divisions.

Before delving into the logistics of which team belongs in each division, we should examine the structure of the conferences. There are two basic possibilities: one that divides the league into “East” and “West” and splits the division by region (see: hockey, soccer, basketball), and one that spreads each conference evenly across the country, then sorts by region (see: football, baseball). Given that ten of the league’s thirty teams are in or near four metropolitan areas near New York and Ontario (Rangers, Isles, Devils, Flyers, Pens, Sabres, Leafs, Sens, Canadiens, Bruins), it seems necessary for the NHL to shift to the model used by football and baseball: divide the league into National and American Conferences (or two other names) then divide each into three. This will allow the teams in each division to travel approximately the same amount, while maintaining an organization that promotes many of the sport’s deepest rivalries.

Keeping the logistics of travel in mind, the NHL’s job is to foster the rivalries that make this sport so exhilarating for its fans. When considering the rivalries, they fall into four basic groups:

  1. Proximity: When two teams are geographically close to each other, fans naturally grow to hate each other. If the enemy is in your backyard, it becomes even more important to shame them, and what better way to settle personal feuds than on the ice? Plus, proximity rivalries get cool names like the “Battle of New York”, the “Battle of Ontario”, and the “Freeway Faceoff”. (Aside: if the Isles do move, I hope they move to Seattle so hockey can have the “Battle of Juan de Fuca Strait”.)
  2. History: Original Six teams have always, and will always, dislike each other. From 1942 to 1967, rivalries became so engrained in the players and coaches that the teams still keep them alive today. Any matchup between the six teams in question carries extra weight among fans, players, and commentators.
  3. Recent success/controversy: Over the course of a few seasons, animosity can spring between two teams who battle for the top spot in a division or conference, or between two teams who see each other in the playoffs each year. These rivalries come and go, though some persist longer than others. The best example from the past season is the Penguins/Capitals rivalry. For every matchup, it is billed as the matchup of the two best players in hockey, Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin. It would be irresponsible of the NHL to consider these rivalries when realigning conferences, because it will invariably conflict with their other realignment goals.
  4. Division rivalries: Sometimes, hatred is born when two teams see each other repeatedly throughout the regular and post season. Since 1970, the St. Louis Blues and the Chicago Blackhawks have been in the same division, and have faced each other in 10 playoff series. The teams’ rivalry is fueled by animosity between the two cities themselves, and the annual rivalry in Major League Baseball between the Cubs and the Cardinals. As a result, any game between these two teams carries extra weight and often sees extra penalty minutes, even as the Blues have sank in the standings during recent seasons.

Proximity rivalries will persist even if the teams aren’t in the same division. Therefore, splitting the Leafs and the Sabres or the Lightning and the Panthers between divisions will not quell the contempt fans have for each other. The same logic applies to Original Six teams. Considering division rivalries will be most important for the realignment. For example, hockey is the only professional sport without a Boston/New York division rivalry. Football has Jets/Patriots, baseball has Yankees/Red Sox, and basketball has Knicks/Celtics. Pitting the Bruins against the Rangers six times each season will deepen that rift, making each game that much more impassioned. Similarly, Midwestern states often carry grudges against each other, with Minnesota and Illinois being no exception. Again, the rivalry runs across many sports, professional and collegiate. This is a rivalry the current conference alignment does not promote, with the Blackhawks in the Central Division and the Wild in the Northwest Division, but the new alignment would.

With these rules in mind, here is my plan for the new divisions:

Leetch Conference:

Gilbert Division:

  • NY Rangers
  • Boston Bruins
  • Washington Capitals
  • Tampa Bay Lightning
  • Pittsburgh Penguins

Richter Division:

  • Columbus Blue Jackets
  • Nashville Predators
  • Ottawa Senators
  • Montreal Canadiens
  • Buffalo Sabres

Lundqvist Division:

  • Colorado Avalanche
  • Edmonton Oilers
  • Calgary Flames
  • Winnipeg Jets
  • Vancouver Canucks

Messier Conference:

Greschner Division:

  • NY Islanders
  • NJ Devils
  • Philadelphia Flyers
  • Florida Panthers
  • Carolina Hurricanes

Giacomin Division:

  • Toronto Maple Leafs
  • Detroit Red Wings
  • Chicago Blackhawks
  • St. Louis Blues
  • Minnesota Wild

Graves Division

  • San Jose Sharks
  • LA Kings
  • Anaheim Ducks
  • Phoenix Coyotes
  • Dallas Stars

Now finally, I get to talk about the Rangers. First, as I mentioned earlier, this alignment puts the Rangers and the Bruins together. This was the most important criteria in my organization. It pairs two Original Six teams, it completes the NYC/Boston animosity, and it puts the two AHL affiliates (Hartford and Providence) directly between the two, which can expand the market for the AHL teams in their respective areas. Unfortunately, there was no way to put the Rangers and Islanders together, but I feel that the rivalry there is safe (just look at the Yankees and the Mets). The same rationale applied to the Devils and the Flyers. Although it would be great to have all four in the same division, it simply wasn’t feasible while keeping travel accommodations even across all teams. Fortunately, the Rangers would draw the Penguins six times each season, keeping the New York/Pennsylvania battles lively. The division itself is more spread out down the coast, increasing the total travel for the boys in blue (the Rangers would be going to Tampa three times each season), but across the league this will even out both the distance traveled and the average time away from home. For the fans, the Gilbert division gives us three new teams to hate, while holding onto the Penguins. I will continue to hate the Islanders, the Devils, and the Flyers, and I’m sure I don’t stand alone in that sentiment. Our division would be incredibly strong for the immediate future, and with a lot of young talent on each team, could prove to be the most challenging in the league for a long time to come. It isn’t the best situation for the Rangers to find themselves in, but I believe they could still win a Cup, and I believe it is the best solution for hockey. How do you see the new divisions shaking out in the coming seasons?

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