Earlier this week, details began to leak about the re-alignment for the 2021 NHL season. The Canadian teams, due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, are required to play in the same division. This creates an opportunity for the American teams to shift around the traditional four divisions for a 56 game season. Travel considerations and broadcast considerations were looked at, and the league tried to group teams as closely together as they could. There is a mish-mash between teams in the Eastern and Central time zones, because that hour time difference isn’t a big deal to fans in either area. A 6 PM start in the Central isn’t too inconvenient, nor is an 8 PM start out East.
Where things get more complicated is out West. You have the Central, Mountain, and Pacific time zones to contend with, and travel between the three will lead to start times between 5 PM in California if their teams are on the road in the Central, to 9 PM in Dallas if the Stars are playing one of the three California teams. The NHL had a significantly easier time working with the teams further to the East. The West? This is their latest suggestion:
Not finalized yet, and still subject to change, but the 2020-21 four-division re-alignment currently looks like this according to sources:— Pierre LeBrun (@PierreVLeBrun) December 9, 2020
Early speculation had Minnesota playing with the Pacific Division and the Blues in the Central. Time zone start times are a wash between the two teams - but for rivalries, the Blues have the Blackhawks and Red Wings if they were in the new Central. Either Minnesota or St. Louis - whoever wound up in the Pacific - would have to contend with awful travel and puck drops that would alienate their fans. Minnesota wound up the victor, and there’s been confusion as to why.
ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski posted on Tuesday regarding the re-alignment and the possible influence regional broadcast networks could be having on it:
Kind of interesting, considering that Blues fans didn't seem too happy with the start times for road games. But a couple of sources said Blues' RSN preferred it to slew of ET teams in Central (FLA, TBL, DET, CBJ, CAR).— Greg Wyshynski (@wyshynski) December 9, 2020
Further clarification, as there's some pushback.— Greg Wyshynski (@wyshynski) December 10, 2020
My understanding is that Blues communicated to NHL that everyone on their end was on board with desire to move to West Div - including RSN.
RSN didn't push for move, but was OK with it. So "preferred" here was a bit too strong. https://t.co/rXs2tB5Syp
There were no objections to the move from anyone that you would expect to hear objections from, other than the fans. The networks air the games regardless, and even if fans don’t make it to the conclusion, they’ll still tune in for a 9 PM start time and at least survive the first two periods. Besides, as Jeremy Rutherford points out, the NHL’s willing to work on the start times being consistently late. Adjustments are doable when you don’t have fans in the building. A bump up of an hour to a local 6 PM start in California can still give people time to get home from work, and an 8 PM start time for those games in St. Louis is doable.
Re: Blues late-night games in the Pacific Division:— Jeremy Rutherford (@jprutherford) December 11, 2020
If (big IF) they play 28 road games ...
- 4 in DAL/MIN (Central time)
- 4 in COL (Mountain, 1 hour behind CT)
- 4 in AZ (MT until it changes to Pacific in March).
So max of 16 PT games and NHL has discussed some early starts.
In his more in-depth realignment discussion over at The Athletic (subscription required), Rutherford also brought up a very good point: the need for equity in talent. Look at the teams in the Central. Only one, the Red Wings, didn’t make the playoffs.
Now look at the teams in the Pacific. None of the California teams made the cut, and Arizona benefited from the tweaked format. Without the Blues, but with the addition of the Wild, the only three “regular season” playoff teams that the Pacific would have are Dallas, Colorado, and Vegas.
That’s lopsided as hell.
If the Blues are in the Pacific, the quality of competition’s easier, which is probably why the team didn’t necessarily object to the move. Yes, it’s harder for the fans (especially those of us in the Eastern Time Zone), but it could be a net positive for the team. For the fans, they’ll have to just sacrifice some sleep in the name of the Blues making the playoff cut. It could be an easier task for the team in the Pacific than it would be in the Central.
Then again, arguably the four best Western Conference teams from last season are now all in the same division. This could be tougher than people expect.