After two days of delay, the NHL finally announced its 2013-14 schedule on Friday, and, in doing so, made the new realignment of conferences and divisions official, as well as a break in February to facilitate player participation in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. The changes to the structure of the NHL, for this season and beyond, will be drastic, so here’s what you need to know:
Conferences and divisions are completely changed: The biggest change for the NHL is the complete realignment of divisions and conferences. A move that was made a necessity with the Winnipeg Jets’ move from Atlanta in 2012, the new arrangement is one that makes more geographic sense:
- Atlantic Division — Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres, Detroit Red Wings, Florida Panthers, Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators, Tampa Bay Lightning, Toronto Maple Leafs
- Metropolitan Division — Carolina Hurricanes, Columbus Blue Jackets, New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals
- Central Division — Chicago Blackhawks, Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars, Minnesota Wild, Nashville Predators, St. Louis Blues, Winnipeg Jets
- Pacific Division — Anaheim Ducks, Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, Los Angeles Kings, Phoenix Coyotes, San Jose Sharks, Vancouver Canucks
The Red Wings and Blue Jackets are moving from the West to the East, with the Jets finally being moved from the East to the West. The schedule guarantees that each team will play in every arena in the league at least once a season.
The playoff format is changing: There will still be 16 teams; eight from each conference, making the playoffs, but getting there is now slightly different. Where before the three divisional winners were guaranteed a spot, with the next five teams getting in based on point totals, now the top three teams in each of the four conferences will get a guaranteed spot. The two next-best teams in the points standings in each conference will make the postseason as Wild Cards. With the unevenness of the conferences (14 teams in the West, 16 in the East), the odds are better for the Western Conference teams when it comes to making the postseason, but that will just make the postseason race all the more competitive there.
More outdoor games: One of the highlights (and biggest moneymakers) of the NHL season is the Winter Classic, a game played outdoors on New Year’s Day between popular teams and in front of diehard fans. The Winter Classic will return this year after being a casualty of last season’s lockout, with the Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings facing off at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the largest stadium in North America. In addition, there will be five other outdoor games after the Winter Classic, including two at Yankee Stadium in late January featuring the Rangers, Islanders, and Devils. While part of the Winter Classic’s appeal was how unique an event it was, the expansion of outdoor games could be a boon for the NHL’s business.
NHL players available for Winter Olympics: The delay in the schedule’s release was due to negotiations between the NHL, the NHL Player’s Association, and the IOC to allow NHL players to participate for their respective countries in the Winter Olympics. The deal was reached, and the season will, accordingly, take a break between February 9th and 26th. It is the fifth straight Olympic games where professionals will be allowed to play, which will go a long way towards making this Olympic tournament as exciting as the last one. With the groups already drawn, prognostication about the must-see matches (like the United States vs. Russia, a matchup with a bit of history behind it) can begin.