The Season That Was: Inter-League

OK, so how do you work this thing, again?

Contributed by resident symmetry-phile, Tilt’d Toledo

At the conclusion of the 2005 lockout, the NHL introduced a new schedule that focused heavily on divisional rivalries, at the expense of inter-conference games.

For the first time, teams would play an entire 82-game schedule without facing one entire division, from the opposite Conference. The motivation was to accommodate more divisional matchups (8 per year), while, for some reason, maintaining the manufactured conference rivalries (4 games vs. every team in one’s own Conference). This left only ten games to be played against the other Conference, which was divided into: one Division that came to town, one Division that a team visited, and one Division that was left off the schedule, altogether.

A rare sight. Sid in DenverWhile some owners, such as Philly’s Ed Snider, applauded the change, even pushing for fewer non-divisional games, many owners bemoaned the fact that they’d only get one visit every three years from marquee names in the opposite Conference. In fact, it wasn’t until last season that Sidney Crosby ever visited Denver. As big of a draw as Sid represents to the Avs’ box office, he had also yet to visit Calgary, Edmonton or Vancouver, until he had played 186 career games in the other 27 venues.

So at the Governors’ meetings that were held at Pebble Beach in November 2007 (before Sid had ever played a game in Western Canada), a resolution to change the schedule was passed, creating the current NHL calendar. Beginning this year, every team now plays at least one game against all teams in the league, every season. They still do not visit all 29 opponents’ rinks every year, which seems to me like a watered-down compromise, but at least Western fans of Ovechkin now receive his visit no less than every two years. To accomplish this, teams had to give up 8 divisional matchups, dropping that number to only six per year. Snider points out, and rightly so, that his TV ratings and gate will suffer, with fewer games against the Rags and Pens and Devs.

My solution is simple. Get rid of the Conferences. Just have a single league of 6 Divisions, whereby teams play 8 games vs. their true rivals, and 2 games vs. every other team. The notion that Intra-Conference rivalries exist is debatable, but nobody could argue that all 10 of a team’s Conference rivals are important enough to warrant four H2H matchups against each. What makes Nashville more of an Avs rival than Philly? The Preds come to town twice a year, while the Flyers only visit once every two years. Having Columbus visit twice is more important than having the Caps in town every year? Sure, it’s nice to play Detroit 4 times, but why only once against the Habs? Getting rid of the Conferences allows for a symmetrical schedule of (8 X 4 = 32 rivalry games) + (2 X 25 = 50 games outside the Division). As a side effect of such a change, the playoffs could then feature any two teams in the Finals. Imagine facing the Wings for all the marbles, or a NY/NJ series with even more importance than the 1994 ECF. The argument about travel costs is no longer valid, as the percentage of a team’s operating cost devoted to travel has shrunken with the rise in salaries. Besides, why should the Eastern Conference benefit from a light travel schedule, when the Avs’ divisional opponents are all 1000 miles away?

Two losses in two weeks to the Thrashers? C'monAnyway, getting back on topic, Colorado wrapped up the Eastern portion of their 2008-2009 schedule with Tuesday’s loss to the Thrashers. Under the current format, all teams now play 18 games against the opposite Conference (9 at home, 9 on the road). This year, the Avs’ three “at-large” games ended up being extra matchups with Atlanta, Philadelphia and Tampa Bay. The six teams who didn’t visit the Pepsi Center were Carolina, Florida, New Jersey, the Islanders, the Rangers and Washington. The six cities the Avs never travelled to were Boston, Buffalo, Montreal, Ottawa, Pittsburgh and Toronto. Next year, those 12 cities will be reversed, with Brodeur and Ovechkin coming to town, and a Colorado road trip to all of the Adams Division venues.

So now that Colorado’s Inter-League games are over, how did the Avs do? While many teams still have games to play, it is hard to rank everybody right now, but what we can say so far is that with a record of (7-11-0), Colorado has clinched the worst record of any Western Conference team, when it comes to playing the East. Both Anaheim (7-10-1) and St. Louis (7-10-1) were only slightly better, with Phoenix (8-9-1) settling for 12th best. With two games remaining, Los Angeles (8-6-2) has a chance to leave Nashville (8-8-2) in 11th place. San Jose wrapped up their schedule at (12-3-3), which may not be enough to hold off Columbus (12-3-1), Minnesota (11-3-1), Detroit (9-4-1) and Chicago (8-3-3).

In the Eastern Conference, Montréal leads the way with a (12-4-1) record, which can only be bested by New Jersey (10-5-0). The worst Inter-League team in the East is still up for grabs, with Toronto (4-8-5) and Tampa Bay (5-9-3) each holding one more chance to eclipse the Avs’ 14 Pts, and the Islanders (6-8-1) getting three kicks at the can.

This morning, I proposed changing the OTL rules, despite its negative impact on this year’s Avs, who happen to rule the league after 60 minutes. Tonight, I seem to be lobbying for a schedule change that would also inhibit the Avs, who probably should not want an extra 12 games against the Eastern Conference. Do I now need to compromise my long-held principles because this Avs team does everything backwards? I mean, who leads the league in OT, yet sits in 15th place? And who can’t win a few Inter-League games, while playing .500 against the Central, the Pacific and the Northwest? It’s one thing to have a losing season, but why is this instalment of the Avs so ambiguous? They are unbeatable when the game is tight, and perform adequately against the teams that matter, yet they lose so many games in regulation and can’t keep up with some of the worst teams in the East. Perhaps FG should lobby for a return to last year’s schedule, when Colorado didn’t have to lose to Atlanta twice in two weeks.


  1. Hmm i'm not so sure I agree here. I liked the division-heavy schedule, even if we saw way too much of Dion Phaneuf before.

    I think the NHL needs an east and west conference, just due to travel issues. While I think the affects that traveling takes on the players are overstated, the affects that traveling takes on the owners pocketbooks are significant. It's a lot easier if teams only make one or two coast to coast trips every year.

  2. I am proposing a return to the division-heavy schedule, only at the expense of the intra-conference games.

    How much extra travel cost is associated with an annual trip to Pittsburgh over two trips to Columbus, two trips to Detroit, two trips to Dallas?

    For Western Conference teams, the travel is always a lot, but the current system favors the Eastern teams who get an extra trip to DC over an annual trip to California.

    What, precisely, do you disagree with?

  3. hmm possibly i misread.

    It's true it favors the East, but that's just part of geography and unavoidable.

    I guess the objection comes from getting rid of conferences. I think the advantage is a financial one to eastern conference teams, since they don't have to travel very far, and often times can take bus and/or day trips.

    I don't think there's much of a performance benefit. It seems like "evening things up" as you are proposing above would just make teams costs even out, but be higher for all. I think keeping the current system is best for all, even if it benefits East teams more than it does Western ones

  4. True dat.

    But given the Avs travel schedule for next year:

    They visit all 5 Northeastern teams, plus Pittsburgh, plus 3 other Eastern towns.

    They make 2 trips to Columbus, 2 to Detroit, 2 to Chicago.

    And they make 2 trips to each of the other 7 Western cities (Anh, LA, SJ, Phx, Dal, Nas, StL).

    I'm just saying that if you take away one trip each, from the 10 Western teams, and replace them with 4 shorter (in theory) trips within your Division, plus 6 trips to places not far from Columbus and Detroit, that the increase in travel costs would be negligible, and offset by the increase in revenue from:

    A) A guaranteed annual visit from a Crosby or an Ovechkin.

    B) Better gate and TV ratings from the 8 additional divisional games (compared to BJ games or Preds games).

    C) Slight increase in international merchandising, when making annual visits to 29 rinks.