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Blittner’s Blue Line: Realignment, CapFriendly And Notes From Around The NHL

As is customary, prior to the start of The Stanley Cup Final, Commissioner Gary Bettman, Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly, and NHLPA Executive Director Marty Walsh each met with the media for a “State of Hockey” type of press conference. 

Here are some of the key points…

The upper limit of the salary cap for 2024-25 is set at $88M; that’s approximately $300K higher than originally expected. With the approximate $4.5M increase from this season’s $83.5M, two things immediately come to mind. One, stars are still going to get paid while the middle class of players is still going to get squeezed. Two, teams who were up against the cap will finally have a little leeway in constructing their rosters; other than just trading players for picks or outright letting players walk for nothing. 

In relation to the salary cap raise, fans and media alike are going to have to find a new way to track their team’s cap space and contracts. The Washington Capitals have purchased the popular site CapFriendly and are absorbing it into their backend, thus shutting down the public site and preventing millions of users from accessing its data. 

It’s a smart move by the Caps, who will now have a terrific way to keep track of what the rest of The League’s cap issues are. While this is a legal business transaction, The NHL should have stepped in to prevent it. Did the Capitals break any rules? No. But it would have been a nice gesture by The League to keep its fans and the media happy without giving one of its teams such a competitive advantage. Other sites such as PuckPedia and Spotrac will now see an uptick in traffic, but there’s a reason CapFriendly was so successful and those other sites were not. 

Another announcement of note is the official schedule of the upcoming Four Nations Tournament. 

As a precursor to The Olympics and getting NHL players back to playing in international tournaments, this is a home run. Players have been adamant about getting the chance to compete for their native countries and participating in “best-on-best” competitions and this is an olive branch from The League to its players; especially with the next round of CBA negotiations set to commence in a little over a year from now. (The CBA is currently set to expire in two years and negotiations typically begin a year in advance of the expiration date). 

With that being said, this Four Nations Tournament is nothing more than a band-aid at best. There will only be four countries participating: The USA; Canada; Sweden and Finland. The Competition kicks off on February 12, 2025, and will conclude on February 20, 2025, with the early part of the tournament being played at The Bell Centre in Montreal before moving to TD Garden in Boston. 

This is essentially a parsed-down World Cup and that is why it is a band-aid. A World Cup only works because it involves many countries, not four. Plus, This tourney only allows NHL players, while a true World Cup typically has a mix of NHLers and non-NHLers. Will winning The Four Nations Tourney even mean anything to the players on the winning team, knowing that it wasn’t a real “best-on-best” competition? 

My first mentor, “The Hockey Maven,” Stan Fischler always liked to say, “Do it right and do it now.” Yes, The League is “doing it now,” but they most certainly are NOT “doing it right.” It feels thrown together and lacks any real substance. If they couldn’t get a full World Cup together then they should have waited until they could, even if it meant waiting an extra couple of years. Yes, there are certain geopolitical factors out of The League’s control that will prevent countries like Russia and Ukraine from participating. But not inviting countries like Switzerland, Germany, France, etc. is just wrong. 

And now for the meat of this column. Commissioner Bettman said The League is not ready to commence another round of expansion. Good. 32 teams is plenty. 33, 34, 35, or even 36 teams would greatly dilute the quality of competition in The NHL. Besides, with Arizona no longer featuring an NHL team after the team formerly known as the Coyotes moved to Utah, The League should take this time to do some much-needed realignment and fix its scheduling matrix and its playoff format. 

Don’t worry Commissioner Bettman, “Blittner’s Blue Line” has you covered on exactly how you should do this. A couple of years ago this column – while being written for a different publication – made some suggestions on how to go about this process and now it’s time to tweak those ideas.

First, instead of having two conferences with two divisions each, The NHL should move to an eight-division setup with four in each conference. 

Here’s how the breakdown should go:

WALES CONFERENCE (currently known as The Eastern Conference)

PATRICK DIVISION: Devils, Islanders, Rangers, Sabres. 

ADAMS DIVISION: Bruins, Canadiens, Maple Leafs, Senators. 

NORRIS DIVISION: Flyers, Penguins, Capitals, Blue Jackets. 

O’BRIEN DIVISION: Lightning, Panthers, Hurricanes, Predators. 

CLARENCE CAMPBELL CONFERENCE (currently known as The Western Conference)

GREGORY DIVISION: Blackhawks, Red Wings, Wild, Blues.

SMYTHE DIVISION: Canucks, Flames, Oilers, Jets. 

VEZINA DIVISION: Ducks, Kings, Sharks, Kraken.

ZIEGLER DIVISION: Golden Knights, Utah Hockey, Avalanche, Stars.

Looks neat and tidy. The idea was to keep travel time to a minimum for teams within the same division and to focus on existing rivalries. Are there some fits that seem a little awkward at first glance? Sure. Seattle and Vancouver are natural geographic rivals, but with the Kraken being in The League for such a short amount of time, they haven’t had a chance to really build anything, so splitting them up doesn’t break anything. 

Teams in The Wales Conference are geographically much closer to each other so travel wasn’t a huge issue there. With The Clarence Campbell Conference being much more spread out, we tried to make it so that no team would fly more than approximately three hours to play the other teams in its division. 

Rivalries will be at the forefront with these new divisions as well. And that’s why it’s important to redo the scheduling matrix. 

Currently, you play five teams in your division four times per season (two home/two road). You play one team in your division three times (two road/one home). And lastly, you play one team in your division three times (two home/one road). 

Next, for the other division in your conference, you play four teams three times (two home/one road). The other four teams, you also play three times, but with reverse splits (two road/one home).

Finally, you play teams in the other conference twice (one home/one road). 

That’s 41 home games, 41 road games, and 82 total games per season. 

The problem is, outside of the teams in the other conference, the home/road splits and the number of games against teams in your conference and especially, your division, flip-flop every year. For example, why should the Islanders and Rangers play each other four times in some years and three times in others? And when they play three times, why should they switch off who gets the extra home game? Besides, rivals shouldn’t be confined to only playing three or four times per season. 

So, let’s take a look at this suggestion…

This is going to get complicated to figure out, so let’s start with the easy part. For teams not in your conference, you play them twice per season (one home/one road). So no changes there. That’s 32 games.

Next, for teams within your own division, you’ll play them each eight times per season (four home/four road). If you want to spice up rivalries, this is how you do it. A fair and balanced schedule within your own division, plus less travel and more time to build heat between teams? YES, PLEASE! That’s 24 intra-division games. 

Lastly, you’ll play the other 12 teams in your conference, twice each per season; one home and one road game each. That’s a total of 24 games. 

So, if you take the 32 out-of-conference games, add in the 24 intra-divisional games and tally up the 24 intra-conference (non-divisional) games, you get a total of 80 games. 

What’s that you say? The League will never go for eliminating two games from the schedule and the revenue those two games bring in. Well, about that…

The NHL used to play an 80-game regular season. In fact, The League used an 80-game schedule every season from 1974-75 all the way through 1991-92. And about that potential revenue loss, well it’s fairly well known that NHL teams struggle with attendance, ratings, and revenue in the first half of the season. So, eliminating two games from the schedule should actually help mitigate those losses.

And now, for the “new” playoff format. 

Within each division, the top two teams make the playoffs. That’s eight teams per conference. The first round would feature the top team in each division playing the team who finished second. Then, the second round would see some re-seeding take place. 

In each conference, four teams would be left standing. Of those remaining teams, the one with the highest regular-season points total in each conference would play the team with the lowest regular-season points total. The second and third highest points total teams would face each other. Then, the Conference Finals would be the two teams in each conference who are left standing before going on to The Cup Final. Each round would feature re-seeding to determine home-ice advantage.

In this playoff scenario, you’re guaranteed a hot division rivalry matchup in the first round. That’s a win for fans, for The League and for TV ratings; in other words, a hat-trick. And speaking of television, let’s give each team’s television broadcasters the ability to continue to call games throughout the playoffs, rather than disappearing after the first round. 

The League can still make its media rights partners happy by having national broadcasts in rounds two through four. Here’s how it would work. Each team would retain its regional broadcast rights and fans within those geographic areas would have a choice between watching their own team’s broadcasters or watching the national telecast. For fans not in either team’s regional market, they would only have the option of watching the national broadcast. This keeps the national rights holders happy and placates the local fans who want to hear their own broadcasters – a win-win. 

Ok, that’s enough for now. We analyzed a lot of things and made a lot of suggestions for how The NHL should change things. Now go enjoy The Stanley Cup Final; which, by the way, Florida leads two games to none.

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