With Atlanta moving Westward (as well as Northward - finally!) talk has resurfaced of changing divisions to more accurately line up with regions and actual/potential rivalries. So long as the NHL head office can get their insistence on numerical balance out of the way, this shouldn't be a problem. A short primer on numerical stupidity in NHL scheduling:
After the first major expansion, it was decided that all six of the new teams would play in their own division, while the "original six" would play in theirs. This resulted not only in St. Louis going to the Stanley Cup final for the first three years of their existence (despite never formally asking for a franchise - long story), but also in the creation of a division where lumping Oakland and Philadelphia together made "sense": after all, six on each side, right?
When Vancouver and Buffalo joined in, it was recognized that keeping the original six together would just look weird, so Chicago was sent West as the Sabres and Canucks joined the East. Because, you know. Seven aside, got to keep those Western rivalries Philadelphia had formed, er, some other stuff. Whatever.
The named divisions finally came in when the league expanded to a potential nine teams aside, which I think we can all agree would have been just madness! So there were two groups of four teams and two of five (still keeping nine per conference - couldn't go too crazy, now) putting Los Angeles in a division with, logically enough, Washington.
Finally the WHA gave up the ghost, as well as four teams, to give the NHL a nice, round twenty...one...teams. It took a couple more years before the schedule makers would realize which coast LA is actually on and shuffle things around until the divisions were more or less geographically logical with a 5-5-5-5(+1) format. As teams were added (or moved), they would go into divisions which made the most sense.
Not everyone was happy with where they ended up, though (wave to Detroit, kids!). So six divisions were used to further localize team clusters, with the idea being that geography created rivalries. This was wrong, as they discovered when they spread the playoff-making teams throughout the conference rather than within the divisions: it's playoffs that make rivalries (wave to Minnesota, kids!), not regular season matches. Yeah, Anaheim and LA don't like each other, but until they face off in the post-season it's not going to be anything like the Battle of Alberta, and when was the last time those two faced each other after eighty-two games?
Enough with the history; what's going on now?
Current thought is four divisions instead of six, with two divisions of eight teams and two with seven, keeping the East-West split for the majority of games. How exactly that split of games would work out is a point of discussion, but it looks like the NHL head office finally has faith that fans can keep track of eight teams in a single division for the first time since 1973-74.
This, apparently, is Bettman's proposal: <blockquote>Sources told the newspaper the league would have four divisions – the Pacific, Midwest, East and South. Two divisions would have eight teams; two would have seven. Teams would play a balanced schedule in the regular season, with the top four teams in each division making the playoffs. The first round would be divisional play. Then teams would reseed for conference play.</blockquote>
That being said, how do you think the divisions will look for 2012? Will rivalries be considered, or will it be assumed that new ones will start up? Will is be strictly geographical? Which will be more important: time zones for fans watching at home, or distance for travel?
For extra bonus points, how do you think the game schedule will be played out - ie. what does "balanced" mean to you? Me, I'm personally in favour of every team playing every other team once in each city, but understand that's a bunch of travel some teams don't want to make (wave to the Eastern Conference, kids!)
My guess for the division breakdowns is this:
I've weighted it more towards time zones than location, though teams that are extremely close to each other were kept clustered. Detroit got to move out of the West because of constant agitation by their ownership for decades, and they'll win any coin flip against Columbus for that privilege.