Questions were raised when the Atlanta Thrashers moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba, following the 2010-11 NHL season.
What did it mean for Sun Belt expansion teams? How would American TV rights holders react? Was Winnipeg going to seriously play in the Southeast Division?
After two seasons of road trips to Florida, at least on of those was answered. The NHL mercifully realigned prior to the 2013-14 season.
Going from six divisions to four, the new setup recalled the halycon days of Gretzky’s Edmonton Oilers, Patrick Roy’s reign in Montreal, and the first time a team called the Jets played in Winnipeg.
The league went a step further, instituting a modified version of the playoff format from 1982 through 1993.
The current format
The NHL currently features four divisions in two conferences. The top three teams in each division make the playoffs automatically, and the fourth member of their bracket is determined by a Wild Card spot so as not to potentially exclude a worthy team in a strong division.
While this is supposed to create animosity amongst rivals while rewarding good teams, it’s been the subject of much consternation this season.
Three of the four best teams in the NHL are in the Metropolitan Division. Washington won the Presidents’ Trophy as the regular season’s best team. Pittsburgh, the defending Stanley Cup Champions, finishes second on the back of an MVP-caliber year from Sidney Crosby. Columbus rode a historic winning streak to finish fourth overall.
It’s that stacked bracket that illicited a negative reaction from Washington Capitals winger Daniel Winnik – and from his fellow players.
The NHL’s idea was to borrow from a format that birthed memories from a high-flying era. Aided by expansion, new training methods, better equipment, and a talented crop of players, the league saw a boom in scoring from the 1980s that fell off with the growth of the New Jersey Devils-inspired trap in the mid-1990s
That format bred real hate. The knock-down, drag-out battles in the Patrick Division give the Penguins and Capitals real history for two franchises with rocky pasts. Edmonton ran roughshod on
It gave us classic events like Wendel Clark’s fued with Marty McSorely. Clark, a star and franchise legend, put his body on the line against a man noted as Wayne Gretzky’s personal security.
To fully do it justice, let’s hear it from the funniest Leafs fan on the planet, Sean McIndoe:
“The best player on the team is down and out, crumpled on the ice, and the other side’s goon is standing over top of him. That’s what matters. That’s all that matters.“
It’s that intensity the NHL hopes to inspire again. The Stanley Cup Playoffs are already beloved by hockey fans and gawked at by the rest of the world. The aim is to crank it up to eleven.
Even if the occasional division – and lord knows the Norris and Patrick had more than occasional poor showings – it’s worth the risk. Both on the wrong side of 30, who knows if Crosby and Alex Ovechkin have seven more years to wait between playoff meetings?