If the NHL brand is on the decline, it certainly has plenty to do with the end-product which is being delivered on the ice. The league has proposed a plan to realign the current setup into four divisions and two conferences, in a move which is designed to showcase regional rivalries, limit travel and set up appealing television friendly compatible time zone games.
When the league and the NHLPA come to an agreement on the deal, and reportedly they are close to one, it will be a positive step towards adding value to the game. Rest assured, there will be critics as to how the teams will be aligned, however, there are few who believe realignment is a poor idea.
The new alignment is the first hurdle of several the league may have to clear to increase the quality of its entertainment product. It remains to be seen if realignment opens the door to relocation and contraction, two painful steps which can have an instant double-bang effect of improving the game both aesthetically and financially.
Contraction increases the quality of the player pool, average salaries and makes it difficult for teams to carry players who do not belong in the league. This should cut down on the unnecessary chippy play, which has been somewhat prevalent this season. Contraction will, on average, improve the quality of rosters on each team. Rosters can be increased by a few players per team to reduce job losses and provide more flexibility for teams riddled with injuries.
Fewer teams also translates to fewer games, indicating a need for less on-ice officials to work the season. Contraction will create a much needed opportunity for the league to rid themselves of their less competent zebras. Sure, there are excellent officials in the league, but they are being overshadowed by the lesser quality ones.
The NHL needs to get lean, mean and competitive by discarding its self-inflicted destructive socialist leanings of recent years. A number of non-traditional hockey markets have been given ample opportunity to succeed and they continue to fail. The patient has been in a coma for far too long time and shows no signs of returning to life. It finally may be time to pull the plug.
Without taking the next step and getting rid of the slackers who cannot pull their own weight, realignment may not be enough to succeed as a stand-alone solution in a league which is in need of a power and image boost.
The league may need to build it by breaking it down again. This may not be the most palatable solution, but it just may be the most foolproof.