The discussion about how the league should re-align in the wake of the Thrashers' move to Winnipeg and the Coyotes' likely move to (insert less sandy city here) has re-animated the debate over Bettman's southern expansion over the past decade-plus, as well as the more regional concerns of the viability of the NHL in Seattle, KC, and Hamilton, and ripped open the wounds of long-suffering fanbases in former NHL cities dripping with envy over the Jets 2.0.
The question persists over whether the league can sustain thirty franchises; whether there is enough money, talent, and fan support for thirty (or more) elite squads who could all conceivably contend for the Cup in a league that (foolishly) tries to sell hockey in Texas and Arizona the same way it sells hockey up north.
I say the NHL can survive with thirty teams; perhaps even more, but not with its current structure. See the jump for details...
The NHL should take a cue from English Soccer/Football and restructure itself into a two-tier league. Instead of East and West Conferences, we would now have the Premier and Challenger Conferences (each divided into East & West)
The Premier Conference will be comprised of the sixteen teams (8 east, 8 west) who qualified for the playoffs the previous season. The Challenger Conference are the fourteen teams (7 east, 7 west) who didn't.
Based on last season, for example, next season's league would look like this:
East Division: Boston, Buffalo, Montreal, NY Rangers, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, Washington
West Division: Anaheim, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, Nashville, Phoenix, San Jose, Vancouver
East Division: Carolina, Columbus, Florida, New Jersey, NY Islanders, Ottawa, Toronto
West Division: Calgary, Colorado, Dallas, Edmonton, Minnesota, St Louis, Winnipeg
Divisional allotment can be adjusted as necessary in the event of franchise movement, expansion, or contraction. (Note Columbus is now in the East division and Winnipeg in the West.)
Premiere: 6 games vs teams in own division (42), 3 vs teams in opposite division (24), 1 vs Challenger conference teams (14) for 80 games
Challenger: 6 vs own division (36), 4 vs opposite division (28), 1 vs Premier Conf (16) = 80 games
The league can opt to decide whether cross-conference games count in the standings, or if they're like soccer "friendlies"
If historical rivals (B's/Habs, Rangers/Devils, etc) wind up in different conferences, the option exists to add a few extra games to the schedule. Make it 82 games if you want.
Keep current formats for games; 5-minute 4-on-4 sudden death overtime and shootout if still tied, but change the points allocation thus:
3 points for a regulation win
2 points for overtime/shootout win
1 point for overtime/shootout loss
0 points for regulation loss
This point system restores balance to the standings; all games are worth three points instead of the current system where regulation games are worth two and ot/shootout games are worth three, leading to numerous faux-.500 teams.
The top six teams in each Premier Division and top two teams in each Challenger Division qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. (These 16 teams will be the following season's Premier Conference; the four non-qualifying Premier teams are relegated to the Challenger Conference)
My playoff scheme is entirely optional, but I'd love to do away with geographical considerations.
The sixteen teams are pooled into 4 groups; each group contains one 1st/2nd place teams, one 3rd/4th place team, one 5th/6th place team and one of the Challenger Conference teams (no more than two teams from the same division can be in a playoff group). The first round is a six-game round-robin tournament where each team plays a home-and-home series against the other three teams in its group. The top two teams in each group qualify for a best-of-five Quarterfinals (Group A winner vs Group B 2nd place, etc), those winners move to the best-of-seven Semis, and those winners face each other in the best-of-seven finals.
How This Is (theoretically) Better
Elite-level teams compete against each other, creating more marquee matchups. The Premier Conference teams would have the financial advantage of higher attendance and more lucrative tv and advertising revenue, making playoff qualification a much more dramatic process for the teams on the cusp.
With lower overheads and lower payrolls, mid-size market teams can remain viable by competing against each other.
Television rights can be split between conferences; i.e. ESPN/ABC can carry Premier Conference games, Versus/NBC can carry Challenger Conference games.
How The League Can Continue To Expand
As the league expands, a third tier can be added. Viable NHL teams can then be created in smaller market cities including former NHL, WHA or current AHL markets (e.g. Hartford, Quebec, Hamilton, Seattle, Portland(Oregon), Cleveland, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, San Antonio, Houston, Kansas City, Oklahoma City, or even Atlanta again)
Eventually the teams would balance themselves into the tiers that reflect their market size, fan support, and ownership's spending capacity. Smaller market teams with deep-pocketed owners could rise higher. Southern teams with small but rabid fanbase can still keep their teams. Toronto could have two teams. Atlanta can have a third shot at an NHL team. It might even spur arena construction in cities with obsolete venues (Baltimore?).
The potential for unprecedented drama exists for smaller teams struggling to compete with the bigger teams, or for teams who have fallen on hard times to plunge to the depths of the lower tiers and claw their way back to reclaim their lost glory.
We can have our cake and eat it too - the NHL can get bigger by getting smaller, and smaller by getting bigger.