Exploring whether the NHL should implement relegation and promotion into different divisional tiers

The NHL offseason can be a long and uneventful wait for fans, especially after the draft and free agency. That being said, we’re going to take a look at how to bolster more interest in the game with rule changes.

Relegation and promotion has long been utilized in European sports. What is relegation and promotion? Quite simply, a pool of teams is split into tiers, such as the A division and B division, with the worst teams in the A division are exchanged with the best teams in the B division at the end of each season.

Relegation in European sports

As far as hockey goes, most leagues are closed leagues with franchises. Although in IIHF competition, relegation is utilized. You see “relegation games” in the World Juniors where the bottom two teams of each pool play an elimination game. Except if you lose, you drop into the lower division.

European sports commonly use this structure. Notably, soccer clubs establish youth academies that are development pipelines for the pro club. Players work their way up through systems and eventually make their way up to the professional squad. Teams across European soccer compete to maintain or gain the right to play in higher level leagues.

Rather than playoffs, teams in European soccer compete to qualify for tournaments such as the UEFA Champions league cup or other continental cups.

Some European hockey leagues employ the same structure. Most notably, the Swedish SHL has a relegation playoff for the bottom teams, with the loser dropping into the HockeyAllsvenskan and the winner in that league jumping up to the SHL.

Needless to say, it’s a totally different system of operations for professional sports.

Relegation format in the NHL

First and foremost, in order for relegation to be a logical option for the NHL the league would need to reach 40 teams. Two pools, an A division and B division, would require at least 20 teams in order to operate and generate necessary revenue for owners and the league.

The two 20 team divisions would play a reduced schedule as fewer opponents are available in each divison. Assuming that playoffs would be out the window too, let’s say the top 10 teams in the A division compete in a round robin style tournament similar to IIHF competition, before moving into a reduced three-round playoff series with the winner of the round robin being awarded a bye.

To bolster revenue, the tournament would not be single elimination and would have to maintain at least a three-game playoff series at each level leading up to the final series. Simultaneously, the top two B division teams would playoff against the two lowest seeded A division teams. The winner of each B division relegation series would be promoted to the A division the following season.

Impacts on the NHL Draft

It’s no question that the league currently has some “B division” teams already. The Arizona Coyotes have historically scraped by, struggling with arena deals, asset management and disappointing drafting.

Drafting is one area the league would heavily have to reassess if relegation was a realistic transition in the future. As I mentioned before, athletes in European soccer are not drafted, but signed and developed by clubs programs at a young age. In American sports, the worst teams in the league are awarded with the top pick in the draft.

The lottery system has been implemented across many American sports leagues in efforts to minimize tanking. Evident from the most recent draft, Bedard tanking was in full effect last season and it blew up in a couple teams faces. Chicago taking home the first overall pick despite finishing third last, where in fact they are a franchise that has won three Stanley Cups in the last 15 years. Meanwhile, Anaheim who finished last, holding the greatest odds, lost the first overall pick to select a generational talent. In 2005, the franchise went through the exact same situation while a young Sidney Crosby sat atop draft boards.

You can look at it from either side, but the incentive for lower level teams in the current format is a race to last place. At least in a relegation style league, those teams incentive pivots to compete to stay in the top division, rather than finish as low as possible. If your team truly is bad and loses out in a relegation series, then you’re probably where you should be. Rather than being rewarded for not competing by gaining high odds in a draft lottery, teams risk losing all the opportunities the top division holds.

Aside from drafting, teams in potentially the CHL and NCAA (and other leagues) would be treated as developmental pipelines for franchises aside from drafting all from one pool. Eliminating drafting puts more focus on player development and although it makes signing players at young ages more risky, development wouldn’t be as rushed as it is in todays game and competition within the league would increase in theory. 17-year-olds drafted first overall have immense pressure to pull poor teams out of the gutter and be an overnight solution. Reducing that pressure leads to more successful young players across the board.

Is relegation realistic?

Currently, no. In the future, probably not. As long as Gary Bettman holds the commissioners seat, the NHL will stay a closed league. Honestly, it’s not realistic with the current infrastructure in place either. Franchises are purchased in American sports and are comparable financially to franchise businesses like McDonald’s. You purchase the rights for a franchise, organize your arena in the selected location and then make revenue off of said franchise while paying the league to own a team.

The issue arises when franchises previously purchased in a closed league then get relegated to a lower division in a open league. As an owner, your revenue could reduce substantially if your team is relegated. Seeing as owners have a say in league decisions, as a business for private owners, it makes no sense to risk losing guaranteed seats and viewership.

In the long-term if the league continues to expand, relegation and promotion in an open league would make sense to promote competition and keep fans interested. But for the time being, drastic changes to the state of the league would be required to compensate for an open league.

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