In the 1970s and 1980s, the NHL held an extended sequence of exhibition games from October to March; it used to call this "the regular season." It was an exhibition league because the games were meaningless: More than 75 percent of the teams were guaranteed entrance into the playoffs, and, with the disparity in talent between strong and weak teams, there were always a few hopeless cases, such as the Colorado Rockies, Hartford Whalers, Toronto Maple Leafs or Pittsburgh Penguins, to fill the few slots that finished out of the playoffs. In effect, the league ran an 80-game season to determine playoff seeding among the decent teams. No wonder the NHL was the laughingstock of North American professional sports.
The only real playoff competition was in the Patrick Division, which had six teams instead of five. From 1988 to 1993, all of the teams in the Patrick were competitive, and out-of-the-playoffs teams in the Patrick averaged 74 points versus 58 for the rest of the league, an absurdly unfair handicap.
This situation was remedied unexpectedly by a pair of developments: expansion and parity. From 1992 to 2000, the NHL went from 21 to 30 teams but kept the number of playoff slots constant: The percentage of playoff teams went from 76 percent to 53 percent, making a playoff slot a real achievement rather than a birthright. Meanwhile, the league became more balanced: There were no more doormats, making competition for playoff slots fierce. Lastly, the allocation of playoff slots by conference rather than division eliminated the bad fortune of being in a more competitive division: Although the West has been stronger than the East in the past few years, the differential has not been colossal.
The upshot has been the great show we have experienced these past few years: competitive playoff races, important games in March and a regular season in which every game counts rather than being an insignificant footnote.
We must keep this in mind when analyzing the NHL's latest realignment plan. First, it should be noted that the regular-season arrangement is close to optimal. Organizing teams by time zone clearly makes sense, as does ensuring that every team visits every arena at least once per season. The league also has made an effort to preserve rivalries, an essential element of keeping the schedule interesting.
However, the playoff format has several faults. Simply put, the new system isn't fair. Particularly to the teams in the West.