Business as Usual
James Mirtle has a good piece on the realignment issue, and the NHLPA decision to put the kibosh on Gary Bettman’s realignment plan. Most of the pundits – paid and unpaid – have interpreted the story as an opening salvo in an upcoming collective bargaining war with Donald Fehr and the players firing the first shot. Mirtle avoids drawing that conclusion and the result is an article that is worth reading. I don’t think Donald Fehr saw any connection between this issue and the CBA negotiations when the players shot down Bettman’s plan.
First, it isn’t clear that the new alignment will actually reduce travel. The league claimed that it would when selling their plan, but they don’t really know. After the NHLPA asked some questions, the league ran some tests that produced some surprising results. In the test runs Vancouver traveled more miles after realignment than before. Winnipeg – Winnipeg! – travelled more miles under the new setup.
(I think this is very interesting. Canuck fans are told travel will be reduced with every realignment, but the schedule never seems to improve. I suspect that geography has a huge impact on travel, alignment has a small impact.)
Second – and surely far, far more important – the playoff disparity is a very big issue. It did not become a big issue with the fans because it was sloughed off when the plan was introduced and most fans ignore things like probabilities. But half the players in the larger divisions will make the playoffs while 57% of the players in the small divisions make them. It is better to be a player in the small division and it is better to be a fan of a small division team. The playoff structure is inherently unfair and there really isn’t any way to fix it short of adding (or contracting) two teams.
Those are legitimate concerns and they would be legitimate concerns whether the CBA was expiring or not. The league heard these concerns, but did not change anything in the plan. Why? Because no other ideas could get enough votes on the Board. Moving Nashville, Detroit or Columbus to the East would draw no resistance from the NHLPA, but Gary Bettman could not get 20 votes for any of the simple – and more or less fair – solutions.
A Divisional setup makes a great deal of sense and solves some real business problems. But it doesn’t work unless all the Divisions are the same size. With 30 teams it is a lousy answer because there is no fair playoff format. The Governors voted for an unfair playoff structure because they cannot agree as to which Western team should be moved to the East. I can imagine Bettman’s final exhortation selling his lousy answer to the board:
“We have to do something or we look like idiots. We’ll pass this and sell it as something wonderful. If the players go along we’ll make more money and we won’t look stupid because we can’t agree on anything more sensible. If the players kill it – as they probably will if we ignore all their objections to it – we keep the status quo and the Union gets blamed for getting in the way of something that we can say was sure to be wonderful. That isn’t a bad solution from where I sit.”
If this series of events also screws Winnipeg and the rest of the Southeast, well, them’s the breaks for a handful of the the least powerful teams in the league. An opening salvo in a labour war?
Nah. Just business as usual in the NHL.