Temporary Realignment, Mini Hub Cities: What Could Next Season Look Like?

There’s a lot on the table when it comes to the 2020-2021 hockey season.

It’s mid-November, and there still aren’t many finalized details of what the 2020-2021 NHL season could look like. But one thing’s for certain: with a pandemic raging, a regular season modus operandi is not in the cards.

The challenge of geography, travel restrictions, and player and staff safety all have to be considered when the NHL determines how the next season will be structured. The league has reportedly been considering temporary re-alignment with mini-hub cities to kickoff the season. The idea is teams would travel to a singular city, play games for 10 to 12 days, and then be back in their home city for a week with their families.

Because of Dallas’ relative island in the geographic sense of other NHL teams, it’s likely that they could be one of the most effected teams when it comes to travel next year if the league determines temporary realignment is the best course of action based on geography.

Or could other teams be more hosed in the travel department? Actually.....there’s a good chance that Dallas ends up with less travel, especially if the league focuses in on divisional play amidst a reduced schedule starting January 1st.

Here’s how the league aligns under normal circumstances:

As a result of Canadian travel restrictions, the league is contemplating an all-Canadian division, leaving 24 U.S.-based teams to make up three other divisions. The Canadian division, or as I call it the “True North Division”,  could result in massive travel for the teams involved. They span the entirety of Canada from east to west, and even if Winnipeg is the chosen “hub” city for this division, that’s still quite a trek for the likes of the Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators, and Toronto Maple Leafs that usually have it made in the shade with short trips the majority of their divisional schedule each season.

One thing that seems certain in this scenario, should the NHL move forward with it, is the fact that traditional Western Conference and Eastern Conference teams are likely to get intermixed. With the True North Division taking out four teams in the West, and the West already being one team short compared to the East (until the Seattle Kraken enter the league next year.) We’re left with 11 teams in the West and 13 teams in the East in the U.S. to fill out three eight-team divisions (assuming the NHL would want to keep divisions even...if you’re going to temporarily blow it all up, might as well make it even for the divisions while you’re at it.)

There’s two scenarios of divisional alignment I would expect in this scenario: the boring version (the likeliest NHL path forward) and the spicy version (in which I have a lot of fun with geography to create some new rivalries, even if temporarily.)

Under the boring version, the NHL would try to move the least amount of teams as possible. It’d look something like this:

Here we’d have the Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars, and Minnesota Wild move into the Pacific Division as the most geographically-adjacent to the five teams on the west coast. The Chicago Blackhawks, St. Louis Blues, and Nashville Predators would shift over to the Atlantic Division, and the Metro Division maintains the inter-state rivalries of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins) and New York (New Jersey Devils, New York Rangers, and New York Islanders.)

It’s logical, and though the Central Division ceases to basically exist in this scenario, makes the most sense in terms of geography.

But if you’re going to do re-alignment, and this season will already be throwing out so much in terms of historical continuity and typical seasonal play, why not have a little fun with it. Here’s a spicy version of re-alignment. It’s a subtle change, but one that I think could really create some rivalries under a mini-hub kind of play. If fans won’t be allowed into games (at least to start the season, and still very questionable as time moves on and the pandemic rages in the U.S. at rates that are trending worse rather than better currently, it’ll be important to have something to drive eyeballs and interest in the games without playoffs on the line to drive it.

I’ve created a “Dirty South Division” by shifting the Dallas Stars, St. Louis Blues, and Nashville Predators into a division with other “non-traditional” markets like the Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers, and Carolina Hurricanes. The Columbus Blue Jackets and Detroit Red Wings join the division as traditional Atlantic Division mates of some in this set. Dallas and Tampa can play all season in a re-run of the Stanley Cup Final. Dallas, Nashville, and Carolina can argue who has the best tailgating and/or BBQ in the south. While the eyeballs may not be there in this division, there are strong fanbases for these teams that would support a season of non-traditional teams fighting it out for dominance.

Chicago gets hosed a bit in this scenario having to go to the Pacific Division, but they lend some Original 6 credence to that set of teams. After years of the league putting them into every high-profile event possible, the Blackhawks can deal with one year of hardknock living in the NHL.

Besides, it’s all just temporary, right?