I'm going to assume most fans of ILWT would consider themselves "die-hard" supporters for the NJ Devils. For this reason, sometimes we get caught up in nit-picky things that are important, but not essential to who the NHL is ultimately hoping to connect with - common fans. For years, the NHL has struggled to reach the "common fan" - one that follows a team, knows a good majority of the players, will most likely not watch every game, and will maybe attend a few games or less on a year to year basis (there is no strict definiton of this - please let me know if you disagree). However, the NHL's newest realignment plan reaches, in my opinion, that "common fan".
Let me start off by listing a few measures the NHL has taken since the lockout to try to increase its popularity:
2) elimination of two-line passes
3) creation of the trapezoid
Most of these are geared toward a higher-scoring, faster paced game - in other words, one that is more exciting for anybody to watch. One area the NHL had not touched (before last night) was its implementation of the actual format of how games are scheduled. Like it or not, this alignment will stay for a while, so here are the ways it reaches the common fan.
As Kevin pointed out in his article about realignment (which is very good and I recommend here), more inter-division games means more of a chance for rivalries, but also a greater chance for repetitiveness (As he put it, Why do we hate the Hurricanes so much?). I agree with Kevin on this point - seeing the Devils play the Capitals/Hurricanes 6 times each will be different, but these rivalries will start to form as history takes its course. To us, seeing the Rags/Cryers etc. 6 times a year has become expected (at least over the past few seasons, there used to be 8 divisional games against each opponent up until 2009.)
Back to the NHL's business model and why they created this format - rivalries are important to attracting fans to the game. I'm not a soccer fan but I know that when Manchester United and Chelsea play each other, it's a big deal. Likewise, people who do not care much about baseball are generally aware of the historical hatred of Yankees and Red Sox rivalry.
To us, the die-hards, seeing the Devils and the Rangers will always be exciting. The NHL knows this. This new format adds the number of rivals to each team's equation and will always feature conference battles in the playoffs. Is the system perfect? No, nothing is. However, the NHL wants to make it so that the common fan of hockey, or even for the fan who generally knows nothing about the sport (like me with soccer), will understand the significance of Washington v Pittsburgh 6 times a season. Is it repetitive to virtually have the only real NHL coverage on ESPN discuss Crosby v Ovechkin. Yes because, as die-hard fans, we are so immersed in the game that this matchup is understood. However, from the league's perspective, allowing common fans to learn more about hockey and make the sport more relevant is what is most important.
This realignment stresses balance by eliminating the conference format. By allowing each team to play each other twice a year, it allows fans to get a better sense of NHL talent - all be it in limited proportions. However, for the common fan, having a draw like "The Sedins" in Florida as opposed to same old "Tim Thomas" every season could boost NHL attendance. This is important for the playoffs. As mentioned above, the first two rounds of the playoffs will feature the "rivalry" factor with the top four teams in each conference competing to make it to the Final Four. After this, teams will be able to face each other in ways not seen since the old divisions were changed. Detroit v. Chicago Stanley Cup Final? It's possible. I'm not supporting this - I think moving Detroit or Columbus to the east and the Jets to the west would have been fine. But again, this promotes different stars to the areas unaccustomed to seeing certain players live.
On Florida and Tampa moving to a conference with the Northeast Division.
When the two conferences were announced last night, there was a large outcry from fans who said it was not fair/stupid to have the two Florida teams in a division with Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal, Boston, Buffalo. This doesn't make sense geographically, but, for the common fan, the NHL pulled a stroke of marketing genius. Both of these teams tend to suffer from a lack of attendance. However, we know Canadien fans love to travel. Now, some may say that their fans will only travel to Florida those "One of two times a year" --- they won't travel more. Why not? If anything, placing these teams in a division with passionate and large fanbases will increase attendance at these games because they mean more in the new format. For the common fan of these southern clubs, it also increases the likelihood they will attend these games because they are divisional matchups.
What in the hell is going on with Phoenix?
A common complaint I heard from fans on an nhl.com blog was that the format forgets that Phoenix may be moving so why do this now. Well, even if Phoenix does move, they will only have to move a team to another division to fit the format. Some common destinations people talk about are Seattle, Kansas City, and Quebec City. If they move to Seattle, they do not have to change divisions. If they move to Kansas City, they will probably slide Columbus/Nashville/Detroit in with one of the two eastern conferences. If they move to Quebec City, then no movement will be required - the Northeast conference (plus Florida and Tampa) will have 8 teams and be fine.
Thanks for reading. Any thoughts?