The Case for a Four-Conference NHL


Follow Expansion is coming, and the NHL has a golden opportunity to not just realign, but to reimagine what it actually is. Among the “Big Four” North American pro sports leagues, the NHL is uniquely positioned to be bold in its structure. It’s never going to unseat the NFL, NBA, or MLB in overall popularity …


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16 Responses to The Case for a Four-Conference NHL

  1. Josiah says:

    A strong case could be made against a single play-in game to determine whether a team makes the playoffs, especially if the fourth-seed team is WAY ahead in the standings and then gets knocked out due to, say, fluke goals (one of the reasons series are played instead of single games).

    However, the idea is otherwise full of merit. So I would say that, if the fourth-seed team wins, they advance to the playoffs, but the fifth-seed team has to win a second play-in game to “prove it” after winning the first one. (Just to clarify, the fourth-seed team just has to win one of the two games: this isn’t a best-of-three.) Additionally, if the first play-in game leapfrogs the fifth-seed team past the fourth-seed team in the standings, the second game is played at the arena of the (now formerly) fifth-seed team.

    • tom says:

      I hear the argument, and thought about it too… even had it as a best-of-three in my original draft. But I ended up on this with this logic: The only folks guaranteed the spot are the 1, 2, and 3 seeds. The thinking for all teams needs to be, “get clear of that fourth spot no matter what to avoid the risk of the one game let down.”

      I agree that it isn’t fair that a 4th place team waaaaay ahead of the 5th place team might will feel slighted by this, but simplicity should rule here. Casual fans (and most hardcore fans too, I think) don’t need to have to “think about it” when watching the wildcard game. Win and your in.

      Folks that want fair need to fight for 3rd or better.

  2. Align1 says:

    N E W F L E X C O N C E P T 3 2 T E A M PL A N

    I came up with and tested a new improved NHL realignment that is fair and balanced and keeps East/West playoff brackets. It works by including the 2 expansion teams (Las Vegas & Quebec) using 8 divisions, a 4-team FLEX concept, and select Rivalry games, with excellent team placement throughout:

    WESTERN CONFERENCE: (14 West teams (W) & 2 Flex teams (FLEX))
    Canada West Division:
    Winnipeg (W), Edmonton (W), Calgary (W), Vancouver (W)

    Pacific Division:
    San Jose (W), Los Angeles (W), Anaheim (W), Las Vegas (W)

    Big West Division:
    Arizona (W), Colorado (W), Dallas (W), St. Louis (W)

    Midwest Division:
    Minnesota (W), Chicago (W), Detroit (FLEX), Columbus (FLEX)

    EASTERN CONFERENCE: (14 East teams (E) & 2 Flex teams (FLEX))
    Canada East Division:
    Toronto (E), Ottawa (E), Montreal (E), Quebec (E)

    Northeast Division:
    Boston (E), Buffalo (E), N.Y. Rangers (E), New Jersey (E)

    Atlantic Division:
    N.Y. Islanders (E), Philadelphia (E), Pittsburgh (E), Washington (E)

    Southeast Division:
    Carolina (E), Nashville (FLEX), Tampa Bay (FLEX), Florida (E)

    14 West (W) teams play more West teams (W), 14 East teams (E) play more East teams (E), and 4 Flex teams (FLEX) play a balanced schedule of West, East, & FLEX teams. The key to make things work fair and balanced is to use the playoff-qualifying FLEX teams by moving them to the weaker West or East playoff bracket as needed. In this way, the weaker bracket will have fewer teams qualifying with weak records, and at the same time the stronger bracket will have fewer teams having strong records missing the playoffs.

    The 4 Flex teams (FLEX) are all centrally located [the NHL “center divide” between East and West on a map is a north/south vertical line thru Columbus (FLEX), which almost extends right thru Detroit (FLEX), with Nashville (FLEX) just slightly to the left, and Tampa Bay (FLEX) ever so slightly to the right – beyond these 4 Flex teams (FLEX) on either side are 14 other West teams (W) and 14 other East teams (E)]. The 4 Flex teams (FLEX) will play balanced schedules to legitimize their placements into either the West or East playoff brackets as needed. It really works well!

    For 12 West teams (W) in Canada West, Pacific, & Big West divs: 14 games own div (4.67 games each), 30 games w/ 10 other West teams (W) outside div (3 games each), 10 games w/ all 4 Flex teams (FLEX) (2.5 games each), 28 games w/ all 14 East teams (E) (2 games each).

    2 West teams Minnesota (W) & Chicago (W) in Midwest div play 13 games own div (5 games w/ each other & 4 games each w/ 2 Flex div teams Detroit (FLEX) & Columbus (FLEX)), 36 games w/ 12 other West teams (W) outside div (3 games each), 5 games w/ 2 Flex teams (FLEX) from Southeast div (2.5 games each), 28 games w/ all 14 East teams (E) (2 games each).

    2 Flex teams Detroit (FLEX) & Columbus (FLEX) in Midwest div play 12 games own div (4 games each), 30 games w/ 12 West teams (W) outside div (2.5 games each), 40 games w/ all 16 teams in Eastern Conference (2.5 games each).

    For 12 East teams (E) in Canada East, Northeast, & Atlantic divs: 14 games own div (4.67 games each), 30 games w/ 10 other East teams (E) outside div (3 games each), 10 games w/ all 4 Flex teams (FLEX) (2.5 games each), 28 games w/ all 14 West teams (W) (2 games each).

    2 East teams Carolina (E) & Florida (E) in Southeast div play 13 games own div (5 games w/ each other & 4 games each w/ 2 Flex div teams Nashville (FLEX) & Tampa Bay (FLEX)), 36 games w/ 12 other East teams (E) outside div (3 games each), 5 games w/ 2 Flex teams (FLEX) from Midwest div (2.5 games each), 28 games w/ all 14 West teams (W) (2 games each).

    2 Flex teams Nashville (FLEX) & Tampa Bay (FLEX) in Southeast div play 12 games own div (4 games each), 30 games w/ 12 East teams (E) outside div (2.5 games each), 40 games w/ all 16 teams in Western Conference (2.5 games each).

    For Select teams: 1 additional Rivalry game (4th game for 2 home/2 away) w/ 1 strong Rival team separated from division [replaces 1 game (5th game) with 1 team in own division] – additional Rivalry games are not applicable to 4 Flex teams (FLEX) requiring balanced schedules and not having an available 5th game with a division team to replace:

    Western Conference Rivalry Games:
    St. Louis (W) 1 Rivalry game w/ Chicago (W) – each year
    Dallas (W) 1 Rivalry game w/ Minnesota (W) – each year
    Arizona (W) 1 Rivalry game w/ Los Angeles (W) or Anaheim (W) – rotate each year
    Colorado (W) 1 Rivalry game w/ Anaheim (W) or Los Angeles (W) – rotate each year

    Eastern Conference Rivalry Games:
    N.Y. Rangers (E) 1 Rivalry game w/ N.Y. Islanders (E) or Philadelphia (E) – rotate each year
    New Jersey (E) 1 Rivalry game w/ Philadelphia (E) or N.Y. Islanders (E) – rotate each year
    Boston (E) 1 Rivalry game w/ Montreal (E) – each year
    Buffalo (E) 1 Rivalry game w/ Toronto (E) – each year

    Playoff Brackets for my proposed realignment:
    Maintain current 16-team East/West playoff bracket system format, with the following modifications:
    -Step 1 – Identify the top 16 teams in the League, but include each division winner.
    -Step 2 – Adjust the 16-team list as needed to limit no more than 8 teams max qualifying from my 14 West teams (W) and limit no more than 8 teams max qualifying from my 14 East teams (E). West teams (W) must stay in the West bracket and East teams (E) must stay in the East bracket. Any, none, or all of my 4 Flex teams (FLEX) may qualify without restrictions.
    -Step 3 – If any Flex teams (FLEX) qualify, place them as needed into the weaker East or West playoff bracket to minimize the amount of teams w/ weak records entering the playoffs, while minimizing the amount of teams w/ strong records missing the playoffs. Sometimes some of the playoff-qualifying Flex teams (FLEX) may need to be placed into each bracket, and if that happens, place the strongest FLEX teams into the weaker bracket while placing the weakest FLEX teams into the stronger bracket – the goal is to get the 2 East and West playoff brackets as near to each other in total strength as possible.
    -Step 4 – Detroit (FLEX), Columbus (FLEX), & Tampa Bay (FLEX) are treated as special cases because they are in the Eastern Time Zone. If and when a matchup should occur in any round of the West bracket with either Detroit, Columbus, or Tampa Bay and a team in or aligned with the Pacific Time Zone, perhaps only for such an occurrence the stronger seed(s) of Detroit’s, Columbus’, and/or Tampa Bay’s matchup(s) may choose either a traditional (2-2-1-1-1), staggered (1-2-2-2 – weaker seed gets 1st home game), or economy (2-3-2) playoff format (best of 7). Otherwise, follow the standard playoff format.
    -Step 5 – If the 16th and 17th seed teams in the League are tied in points for the 16th and final playoff spot (teams tied in points but one team rated higher by standard tie-breaking procedures), they will play a special one game playoff at the 16th seed home w/ loser eliminated. If 3 or more teams are tied in points for the 16th and final seed, any team(s) rated weaker than 17th seed by the standard tie-breaking procedures will be eliminated from playoff consideration.

    What alignment benefits occur with this realignment?

    Excellent divisional groupings League-wide. All 8 divisions make logical and reasonable sense without any geographical abnormalities. All 8 Canadian teams now form 2 divisions of their own. All of the Original 6 teams now have an Original 6 division rival. Traditional Chicago/Detroit pairing is restored, with an added Original 6 team presence (Detroit) benefiting the Western Conference. N.Y. Rangers/New Jersey teams remain grouped together w/ Buffalo finally getting a New York division rival. Boston and N.Y. Rangers are now paired together after being separated far too long. The Southeast Division teams are as tightly grouped together as is possible. Nashville is closer to the Florida teams than Washington or Columbus are, Washington keeps its more desirable Atlantic Division rivals, and Columbus gets 2 nearby Original 6 rivals Detroit & Chicago as well as State of Hockey Minnesota. Nashville benefits by some reduced travel and by playing some additional games w/ the major hockey markets in the East.

    The Flex scheduling for the League for this alignment is very reasonable, perfectly balanced from East to West – providing League symmetry to an otherwise asymmetrical League, able to help reduce travel or avoid overly burdening extra travel for teams, not too complex, and has been worked out & confirmed. Having an even number of 4 teams per division allows more options to schedule all teams to play divisional games simultaneously. The Flex concept allows East/West playoff bracket fine-tuning in an organized, methodical, and legitimate way to make impactful strides toward getting the best 16 teams to the playoffs without having to throw out League divisions and conferences altogether – which I would strongly oppose. So, with the Flex concept it’s having your cake and eating it, too.

    Any alignment difficulties with this realignment?

    Eastern teams Detroit and Columbus placed back into the Western Conference are obvious difficulties, so a compromise was developed for fairness. These 2 teams will become Flex teams (FLEX) and play balanced schedules so as to not overly burden their travel and time zone challenges. This also legitimizes their placements, if qualifying, into either the West or East playoff bracket as needed. They will play 42 games w/ the Western Conference (4 of those games are with each other) and 40 games w/ the Eastern Conference (5 of those games are w/ Nashville & Tampa Bay combined).

    As it turns out, Detroit & Columbus used as Flex teams (FLEX) will not have to play any more than 1 to 3 additional away games per year, in the Mountain and Pacific Time Zones combined, above the minimum of 9 away games per year there than if they had been placed in the Eastern Conference as East teams (E) [avg. 2.25 additional away games per year there (11.25 away games total there based on 1 additional away game per year in each sister div) – would be avg. 4.5 additional away games per year there or 13.5 away games total there if placed as West teams (W) instead of Flex teams (FLEX) (based on 2 additional away games per year in each sister div)].

    Thus, the Flex schedules for Detroit & Columbus are not bad at all, with MUCH fewer distant away games than the insane 8 additional away games (16 away games total) per year they each had in the Mountain & Pacific Time Zones combined back when the NHL had 6 divisions w/ Detroit & Columbus in the former 5-team Central div. of the Western Conference and forced to play heavily skewed Western schedules. Additional away games in the Central Time Zone are no big deal for any of the 4 Flex teams (FLEX) – Winnipeg (W) & Dallas (W) are roughly similar distances to Columbus (FLEX) as Quebec (E) & Florida (E) are to Columbus (FLEX). Besides, Detroit & Columbus are currently known to have some of the lightest travel schedules in the entire League.

    Conversely, western team Nashville placed over into the Eastern Conference for the benefit of the Southeast Division may seem somewhat of an oddity for the rest of the Eastern Conference, so again a compromise was developed for reasonableness. Nashville will also become a Flex team (FLEX), group with another logical Flex team Tampa Bay (FLEX), and both will play balanced schedules. Once again, this also legitimizes their placements, if qualifying, into either the West or East playoff bracket as needed. These 2 teams will play 42 games w/ the Eastern Conference (4 of those games are with each other) and 40 games w/ the Western Conference (5 of those games are w/ Detroit & Columbus combined). Just like Detroit & Columbus, the very same few additional away games are required in the Mountain and Pacific Time Zones. Again, away games in the Central Time Zone are no big deal. Very reasonable Flex scheduling for teams located on the NHL East/West “center divide.”

    St. Louis may rather be placed w/ rival Chicago, but it’s not unreasonably placed w/ Dallas and Colorado, it seems to become too far or strange to swap w/ Minnesota to pair up Minnesota w/ Arizona, and St. Louis is closer to Dallas than Minnesota is to Colorado. The 2 New York teams separating is another obvious concern, but the results are very reasonable: The N.Y. Rangers while losing rival N.Y Islanders and the Atlantic will hold onto New Jersey, gain bitter long-time foe Boston, and gain natural cross-state rival Buffalo. This separation will also allow the N.Y. Islanders to get out from under the little brother tag-along image to the N.Y. Rangers in order to have their own separate identity elsewhere while maintaining their Atlantic div rivals, it will provide the Atlantic div a New York mega-media presence, it will allow New Jersey to keep their div. rivalry w/ the N.Y. Rangers while gaining a great div foe in Boston, and it will make the Northeast div. more diverse rather than just Boston vs. 3 N.Y. state teams.

    Boston and Montreal separating is very significant, but again the results are very reasonable: Boston while losing rival Montreal will keep rival Buffalo and gain bitter long-time foe N.Y. Rangers. Montreal while losing rival Boston will join an all-Canadian East Division w/ rivals Toronto, Ottawa, & Quebec. Arizona would prefer to swap with Las Vegas to stay in the Pacific w/ its L.A. area rival teams, however Las Vegas is located closer to the overall cluster of the Pacific teams, Las Vegas is in/aligned with the Pacific Time Zone all year while Arizona is not, and it’s not unreasonable for Arizona to group w/ Colorado and Dallas.

    Besides, virtually all of these difficulties have been addressed with the select Rivalry scheduling or FLEX scheduling discussed earlier.

  3. In the graphic you did for this 4 Conference idea, what is the Red and Gray logo directly to the left of Toronto? Also why was Florida left out of that graphic and Seattle added?

    • tom says:

      Which graphic are you talking about? I’ve made several four conference versions in other posts, but this particular post doesn’t have a map to go with it… just opining on the merits of the four conference system itself.

      Thanks for reading 🙂

  4. Shawn says:

    The problem with your system (and the owners in general) is simply one of greed. An 82 game regular season + 4 rounds of playoffs is simply too many games. Yes owners make more cash at gates, but players get injured often playing pointless games in Winter. This does not even touch on the two even more serious problems that plagued NHL in 80s; some teams have no chance when playing in a conference against a juggernaut (such as the Flames of the 80s who will forever be known as the second best team yet no success in post season) or teams who made playoffs every year simply because they had a weak team to beat on (such as the Leafs who managed to make the playoffs for years against teams from California, Cleveland, St Louis & Detroit).

    The league needs a balanced schedule (even with 2 games home & home against every team in a 32 team league gives them 62 regular season games, plenty to rank playoffs) & games should be without loser points (regulation win equals 2 points, shootout win equals 1 point, get rid of OT and shootout loser points)

    • tom says:

      For sure. Greed is there and pushes things too far (as a fan of Brazilian soccer, I see that “screw the players, just play more games” attitude play out worse and worse each year).

      That said, walking back from the current 82 is unlikely… and going down to that few is impossible… greed may not be right, but it still runs things in this (and every) league. I don’t see how any Players Association would be able to get ownership/management to ever agree to it. As we’ve seen in every labor stoppage/lockout player leverage only goes so far.

  5. Jay says:

    What about 2 four team divisions in each conference? play each team in division 6 games and others in comference 4 games. Play the rest of the league 2 games. Division champs and wc1 make playoffs in each conference. Wc 2 and 3 play a play in game. Much simpler and increases rivalries.

  6. 4 point line says:

    I came across your work today and think your realignment project is really cool. I did a six division realignment with no concerns for West or East for a 36 team series I’m doing on the futures of Big 4 in sport. I would be interested in your thoughts as I haven’t seen something similar on your site yet but would address Quebec can’t have a team for conference imbalance or Columbus, Detroit, (… or Chicago, Nashville etc) don’t belong in the West.

    Keep up the great work – your ideas are awesome.

  7. Sean says:

    Love this idea! One scheduling thought: instead of rotating the 3 additional non-conference series every 8 years, I would suggest stealing a page from the NFL and match up the extra series’ based on previous season’s final record. All 4 division winners would play each other twice more, all #2’s, #3’s, etc. This makes for more games against similarly skilled opponents, allows for more marquee matchups between heavyweights, and also gives lower teams who have improved (or playoff bubble teams for that matter) a better chance to reflect that in the standings.

    I have really enjoyed reading your project and it’s ideas. I especially liked your 10 3-team division pods idea. Obviously moot now… keep up the great work!

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  10. Todd says:

    If there’s 32 teams in 4 conferences, why not have every team qualify for the playoffs?

    Each round best of 7.
    Winners advance to be reseeded based on points.
    Higher seed gets home ice advantage.

    Conference QF 1v8 2v7 3v6 4v5
    Conference SemiFinal 1v4 2v3
    Conference Final 1v2
    Stanley Cup SemiFinal 1v4 2v4
    Stanley Cup Final 1v2

    Cut the Regular season back from 82 to 78 games, that way no team loses any game revenue, plus two formerly regular season games are now playoff games and can now earn higher revenues.

    • Josiah says:


      I think this is a good idea IF you change the format to incentivize higher conference seeding, as not doing so would be a force that randomizes the level of competitiveness at any given seed. Since not being in the playoffs would no longer be a disincentive to play poorly in the regular season, I would propose that the first round be a race to X games…
      1st place – X=1 … 8th place – X=4
      2nd place – X=2 … 7th place – X=4
      3rd place – X=3 … 6th place – X=4
      4th place – X=4 … 5th place – X=4

      In other words, the bottom half of the conference (plus 4th place) all have to win 4 games to advance (in the case of 8th place, that’s a 4-game winning streak), whereas the top half only half to win X games as outlined above. (4v5 would remain best-of-seven effectively.)

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