Earlier I wrote a piece on the realigning of baseball. I thought I'd attack the problems and holes in the NHL schedule and with my guys in Columbus currently overachieving I thought I'd talk NHL.
So the Columbus Blue Jackets are currently 14-7-0, which is good enough for 4th in the Western Conference standings. This is the best start in 10 years of Blue Jackets hockey and if all goes well they will be one of the Western Conference's 8 playoff teams. Steve Mason, who looks like an adult version of the kid who played Mark Taylor on Home Improvement, has looked much better than he did in his historically awful sophomore season. The young guys in Jake Voracek and Derrick Brassard have proven capable linemates for Rick Nash, the other lines have provided scoring of their own, and they've gotten solid defensive play from defenseman who some thought would never be NHL players. Yes, I'm talking about Marc Methot. A playoff appearance would mark only the second time the franchise has ever appeared in the postseason, the first being as a 7 seed who was swept by Detroit in the first round in 2009. The CBJ have failed to make the playoffs in all but one season mostly because they've simply been a bad hockey team for most of their existence, but you also have to figure that playing in the Western Conference all these years hasn't helped matters. The West has had less fluctuation in the standings and more solid teams over the past decade than the Eastern Conference has through the same time period.
Thinking about this and why a team in the eastern time zone is even in the western conference I sought to come up with a solution. At this moment the Central division, of which the Blue Jackets are a member, would put 4 of 5 teams in the playoffs if they started tomorrow. It is easily the best division in hockey. On the NHL schedule every team plays their 4 divisional opponents 6 times (3 home 3 away). They play the other teams in the conference 4 times (2 home 2 away) and then the opposite conference is scattered amongst Eastern Conference teams. The Jackets will play Pittsburgh twice this season (read: Crosby 2X), but will only play Washington once (read: Ovechkin 1X). This means that there are some Eastern Conference teams who won't visit Nationwide Arena at all this year. What's Tampa Bay's Steve Stamkos like? Columbus fans don't know.
In my dream world I'd love to have the Blue Jackets play as members of the Eastern Conference. Technically we are closer to Eastern Conference teams than we are geographical outposts like Edmonton or Vancouver, or any of the three California teams. The travel would be easier and we'd have a killer rivalry with Pittsburgh, but short of the New York Islanders moving to Kansas City*, I don't see a change of conference happening. What I do see happening is a realigning of the schedule that would make everything nice and clean and fair and balanced and everybody would visit everybody and everyone would love it and the NHL would grow bigger than all other sports in North America combined. Okay, so maybe not, but it would definitely make things easier and more fair.
From where I'm sitting the NHL schedule has a few problems. The first problem is the needless divisions. 8 teams make the playoffs in each conference, but every team in the conference has a different schedule thanks to playing different divisional schedules and differing games against the opposite conference. Where you finish in the division is less important than where you finish in the conference standings because it is the conference standings that ultimately determine whether or not you make the playoffs. A team could conceivably finish in last place in their division and still make the top 8 (this nearly happened with the Central division in 09 when Nashville missed the playoffs by 3 points). Playing in a weak division or playing in a strong division could be the difference between being a playoff team or missing out.
The other problem is that the opposite conference is nearly ignored by the other. Only baseball has a goofier cross-league schedule and in a league that was never divided it's ridiculous to segregate teams the way the NHL has.
How do you fix it?
1. Eliminate divisions. The only thing they're good for is awarding the division winner the top 3 spot in the playoffs. Without divisions playoff seeding will take care of itself. Adopt a single table format for each conference. It's simple, you play everyone in your conference four times. That means two games at home and two games on the road for every conference opponent. This means that everyone has the same conference schedule.
2. Balance the non-conference schedule. As it is right now, every team does not visit every arena every year. In a league where they play 80+ games a year, that is dumb. Adopt the NBA format where you play everybody in the opposite conference twice. Once at home and once on the road. If a star pops up in the Eastern conference it won't take two to three years before a city in the West gets to see him in person.
If you're doing the math at home then you've already figured that these fixes result in 86 games and they currently play 82. So, add 4 games. You wouldn't even need to extend the schedule (which is pretty long already), just sandwich them in across the course of the season and nobody would even notice.
So that's it. Make these changes and you'd have a perfectly balanced schedule. Everybody in the playoffs would have gotten there by virtue of having been good enough, not because they were fortunate enough to play in a weak division. The NBA could also go with the exact same model, but as far as I'm concerned it wouldn't bother me if the NBA opted not to have a postseason.
*If the Islanders do move west to KC, I hope they keep the Islanders monicker. The Kansas City Islanders would be so humorously incongruent that it would put Utah Jazz to shame.