The Temporary NHL Realignment is Great — and It Won’t Ever Happen Again

One year has passed since the Covid-19 pandemic halted athletic competition around the world. In the time since, the majority of leagues have found a way to return, albeit with little to no fans in attendance. For the NBA and the NHL, the decision was made to sequester a certain number of teams in a “bubble” format in order to have their playoffs and complete their seasons. Both leagues were praised for their resounding success, as they each crowned a new champion without a single positive test. 

The logistics of the 2020-2021 season have proven more difficult to manage. Given the strict border restrictions between the United States and Canada, the NBA’s Toronto Raptors are currently playing all of their home games at the Amalie Arena in Tampa, Florida. While the NBA had a quick fix for their lone Canadian team, the NHL required increased planning to accommodate their seven franchises located north of the border. To find a solution, the league decided to resurrect a format that hasn’t been used in more than 80 years: an all-Canadian division.

During the NHL’s inaugural season in 1917-1918, the league was composed of just three teams, all from Canadian cities. By 1926, the league had grown to ten teams, so two divisions were created: the Canadian Division and the American Division. Ironically, the Canadian Division had four teams from Canada and one team, the New York Americans, from the U.S. This structure lasted until the end of the 1937-1938 season, and just a few years later, the league shifted to the divisionless “Original Six” era in which the same six teams competed for the Stanley Cup for 25 straight years. The addition of six more teams to the league in 1967 necessitated the creation of the East and West divisions, the precursor to the Eastern and Western Conferences that are in place today. Each conference is made up of two divisions with seven or eight teams grouped by geographic region. As such, the seven Canadian teams are spread out across the different divisions and conferences. However, with the current circumstances, the NHL decided to shuffle around the divisions for this season only. 

The seven Canadian teams were all placed together in one division, appropriately named the North Division. The Metropolitan Division added the Boston Bruins and the Buffalo Sabres from the Atlantic Division while dropping the Carolina Hurricanes and Columbus Blue Jackets to become the East Division. The Central Division got to keep its name but had the biggest shuffle, with only three of its typical members remaining. It gained the two teams from the Metropolitan Division and three teams from the Atlantic Division. Finally, the Pacific Division welcomed three teams from the Central Division to become the West Division. It’s easy to get lost in the logistical mayhem of these changes. So how exactly does this achieve the original goal of preventing the Canadian teams from playing the American ones? 

The answer is that the NHL is essentially operating as four miniature leagues (the North Division, the East Division, the Central Division and the West Division) within one greater league this season. With the reduced 56-game schedule, each team only plays the other teams within their division. That means that each of the eight-team divisions plays every other club exactly eight times. In the seven-team North Division, each team faces off against the other teams either nine or ten times. This way, the teams in Canada don’t ever have to leave the country. The four teams with the most points in each division advance to the playoffs. They are seeded one through four and compete in a seven-game series. The winners of the intradivision matchups advance to the next round and face off for the right to be named the de facto “champion” of their division. Once only four teams remain — one from each division — they are reseeded one through four based on the number of points they earned in the regular season, and the semifinals continue on from there to ultimately crown the next Stanley Cup champion.

The realignment of the league comes with some promising consequences. Traditional rivalries have reemerged, especially ones between “Original Six” members like the Bruins and the New York Rangers or the Detroit Red Wings and the Chicago Blackhawks. New grudge matches have arisen, like in the North Division, where the teams battle for the title of “best team in Canada.” Furthermore, the format automatically puts a Canadian team only one round away from the Stanley Cup Finals. A Canadian team hasn’t lifted Lord Stanley’s Cup since the Montreal Canadiens in 1993, and the Vancouver Canucks were the last team to even have the opportunity ten years ago. It’s great for the sport when Canadian teams are competing for the Cup, especially given how starved Canadians are to see some home team success in their national sport. So why is this arrangement certain to be just a one-off? 

First of all, it does break up some of the most bitter rivalries in the sport. If this structure stuck, the Bruins and the Canadiens, the Bruins and the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Blackhawks and the St. Louis Blues would play each other much less frequently, which would be a tragedy. There also isn’t as much parity. While some divisions have a clear top four, others, like the East Division, have five great teams, meaning that one would miss out on the playoffs. But most importantly, the NHL’s 32nd franchise, the Seattle Kraken, is making its debut next year. The Kraken are slated to join the Pacific Division, with the Arizona Coyotes moving to the Central in order to even out the number of teams in each division. In the hypothetical scenario where the current structure remains, it wouldn’t make sense to have the Kraken join the all-Canadian North Division, and the West Division already has eight teams. So enjoy this wacky NHL season while it lasts because, hopefully like Covid-19, it’ll be over before you know it.