With the addition of the Seattle Kraken following the 2020-21 season, the NHL will expand to a field of 32 teams. This means the conferences of old will once again shift in order to accommodate Seattle. However, it may be time to step away from conferences and follow the lead of another 32-team league, the NFL.
The NHL is in a unique situation to heat up already fierce rivalries. That’s right, the NHL should resort to using eight four-team divisions rather than returning to two conferences following this season. So what would these divisions look like, and what will this do to the NHL playoffs and the season as a whole?
Let’s start there, with the 82-game regular season. Well, 12 of those games would come from their own division, with two crossover games coming against every division, adding up to 68 games. Add an extra two crossover games with a division to get to 76 games, and now we have the best part of this new proposal. Each team has three flex spots, allowing for an extra set of crossover games that can be used to drum up interest in the game. These would be home and away series to draw attention, as the two teams could be fierce rivals or just two of the league’s best teams.
Now, before talking about what is possibly the most controversial piece of this proposal, let’s get to the divisions. The Pacific Northwest division would consist of Seattle, Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary. The West Coast division is made up of Las Vegas, San Jose, Los Angeles and Anaheim. Colorado, Arizona, Dallas and St.Louis are in the South Central division. Minnesota, Winnipeg, Detroit and Chicago would be the Lakes division. The Southeast would include Nashville, Carolina, Florida and Tampa Bay. The Manhattan division would be both New York teams, New Jersey and Buffalo. The Northeast would include Boston, Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa with the final division being the East, which includes Washington D.C., Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Columbus.
Finally, without conferences the question becomes about the playoffs. This is perhaps the most significant change that I would suggest — teams pick who they play. It’s something that is so uniquely hockey, causing conflict in addition to the already high pressure of the postseason. Each division winner gets to pick who they want to play out of the second-place finishers in each division, leading to more fights, more smack talk and, most importantly, more conflict.
From there the playoffs are randomly drawn and the playoffs are that much more fun to watch. This idea presents the possibility of highlighting rivalries in the regular season, while also giving the possibility of new drama popping up based on who teams choose to play in round one of the playoffs.
Think of the Clemson football head coach Dabo Swinney story from their matchup with Ohio State this season, except every year, it's a team calling out an opponent and giving them a lot of extra motivation which could also lead to more upsets in early rounds.
This change would work much better with the NHL as opposed to any other league because of the unique style of the game and the rivalries that give them the opportunity to let underdogs stand up and fight — literally. For this reason, the NHL should look into this unique idea for their upcoming season, especially because they expanded to four conferences anyway this season.