NHL Needs Another Canadian Team

Following a 15-year hiatus, caused by the relocation of the original Winnipeg Jets to Arizona in 1996, hockey returned to the city when it stole the Thrashers from Atlanta, increasing the number of NHL teams that call Canada home back up to seven in 2011.

Nine years later, the COVID pandemic hit — and in addition to shortening its season from its normal (since 1995-96) length of 82 games (same as the NBA) to 56 because of the pandemic, the NHL realigned its divisions for 2020-21 only, placing all seven of its Canada-based franchises in the same division, named the North Division.

(Of course this concept is not original, as the World Hockey Association had a Canadian Division of its own, starting in the third season of the league's existence in 1974-75 — but it lasted for only two years).

In order to keep the number of teams in each division as close to evenly balanced as possible (and maintaining an even number of teams in the league as a whole), and assuming that Houston receiving the next expansion franchise is a fait accompli (remember that no less than Wayne Gretzky put the city on the hockey map), one more expansion team is necessary.

And the location of that second expansion team must be in our neighbor to the north.

Naturally, and for numbingly predictable reasons, the NHL Players' Association is all in on further expansion — and in a 34-team league, the regular season could be increased to 84 games (a schedule that was actually played in 1992-93 and 1993-94), and the conferences abolished as in 2020-21, with each team playing its non-division opponents twice each, with the remaining games being played within the division, meaning that the teams in the two eight-team divisions would play four of their seven division rivals five times and the other three four times, while the teams in the two nine-team divisions play six of their eight division rivals four times and the other two five times.

The same divisional alignment observed in 2020-21 can even be brought back, this time on a permanent basis, with Houston (or Atlanta, if Atlanta gets an expansion team instead of Houston) going into the Central Division, and the new Canadian franchise — in Quebec City, home of the Nordiques from 1972-73 (in the WHA) through 1994-95, or Hamilton (which has had a CFL franchise, the Tiger-Cats, that started out as a rugby team in 1869!), or even Halifax (there has been a clamor for locating an NHL team in the Atlantic Provinces for quite some time) into the Canadian/North Division (the Seattle Kraken, who did not yet exist in 2020-21, going into the West Division).

And a separate division for the Canadian teams will guarantee that at least three of them will make the playoffs — with the possibility of four or even five doing so (see below).

Furthermore, as the NBA did during the pandemic and then ended up doing permanently, the NHL, too, needs to implement a play-in format of its own — in their case, involving the fourth- and fifth-place teams in each division, after the top three teams therein not only make the playoffs but qualify without enduring any play-in (the NHL started discussing expanding their playoffs to 20 teams long before the pandemic hit).

In the NHL play-in, the fourth-place team with the highest point total hosts the fourth-place team with the lowest point total, and the fourth-place team with second-highest point total hosts the fourth-place team with the third-highest point total. The winners of these two games become two of the four teams advancing to the round of 16 in the playoffs.

Meanwhile, the fifth-place team with the highest point total hosts the fifth-place team with the lowest point total, and the fifth-place team with the second-highest point total hosts the fifth-place team with the third-highest point total.

The losers of the two fourth-place games then host the winners of the two fifth-place games, with the winners of these two games joining the playoff field.

From there, the same postseason format used in the early '80s takes over, with the surviving teams re-seeded at the start of each round, up to and including the Stanley Cup semifinals. This will make every regular-season game as meaningful as possible — besides awarding the team that finished with the NHL's best overall record the Presidents' Trophy, a counterpart of which should also be awarded in the NFL, Major League Baseball, and the NBA, as well.

So far as the All-Star Game goes, the NHL has three realistic options: first, a three-year rotation of divisional assignments (in Year 1, the East and Central All-Stars face off against the North and West All-Stars; in Year 2, East and North vs. Central and West; and in Year 3, East and West vs. North and Central); second, games between all of the NHL All-Stars vs. an all-star team from some other country or countries; or third, the teams are chosen by two retired NHL greats, such as Team Gretzky vs. Team Potvin, etc. (as the NFL had done in some recent Pro Bowls; e.g., Team Rice vs. Team Irvin, before the game itself was done away with).

And in a sports world where imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, a 34-team NHL increases the chances of a future 34-team, or even 36-team, NFL.

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