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NHL Conferences and Divisions


Seattle will join the NHL, complicating league alignment once again.

The lineup for the NHL’s first season in 1917-18 looked like this:

Montreal Canadiens

Toronto Hockey Club

Ottawa Senators

Montreal Wanderers 

No Norris Division, no Patrick Division, no divisions, period. The Wanderers couldn’t complete the season for lack of players; Montreal Arena burned down, forcing the Canadiens to play elsewhere; and the Toronto team didn’t even have a nickname. From these humble beginnings, the NHL developed into this structure (as of 2019-2020):

Eastern Conference

Atlantic Division

Boston Bruins

Buffalo Sabres

Detroit Red Wings

Florida Panthers

Montreal Canadiens

Ottawa Senators

Tampa Bay Lightning

Toronto Maple Leafs

Metropolitan Division

Carolina Hurricanes

Columbus Blue Jackets

Philadelphia Flyers

Pittsburgh Penguins

New Jersey Devils

New York Islanders

New York Rangers

Washington Capitals

Western Conference

Central Division

Chicago Blackhawks

Colorado Avalanche

Dallas Stars

Minnesota Wild

Nashville Predators

St. Louis Blues

Winnipeg Jets 

Pacific Division

Anaheim Ducks

Arizona Coyotes

Calgary Flames

Edmonton Oilers

Los Angeles Kings

San Jose Sharks

Vancouver Canucks

Vegas Golden Knights

 Let’s take a look at how the NHL got from Point A to Point B, the present day, where all 31 teams belong to a division within a conference (and every team has a nickname).

A Look at the Old NHL Divisions and Conferences

 From the NHL’s founding in 1917 through the 1925-26 season, there were no divisions — simply because there were not enough teams in the new league to make it necessary. During these years, anywhere from three to seven teams competed in the league, including three teams currently in the NHL: Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Hockey Club/Arenas/St.Pats/Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins.

 In the 1926-27 season, the league slowly expanded to anywhere from eight to 10 teams, and the NHL created divisions based on national borders — Canadian Division and American Division. The American Division featured three more teams still in the NHL: New York Rangers, Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Cougars/Falcons/Red Wings.

 Between 1938 and 1967, the league contracted to six or seven teams, and divisions were eliminated. The lineup of teams from 1942 to 1967 was what we now call the Original Six: Blackhawks, Bruins, Canadiens, Maple Leafs, Rangers and Red Wings.

 The NHL’s expansion of 1967, the biggest one-time expansion in any major sport, doubled the size of the league. East and West Divisions were thus created.

 Between 1974 and 1993, the NHL ballooned from 18 teams to 24. 1974 saw the beginning of the current conference-division league structure:

  • In the east, the Prince of Wales Conference, or Wales Conference, was comprised of the Adams Division and Patrick Division.
  • In the west, the Clarence Campbell Conference, or Campbell Conference, was comprised of the Norris Division and Smythe Division.

 After 1993, the league expanded to 30 teams. The structure got more complicated with three divisions in each conference, and perhaps more confusing with name changes:

  • The Eastern Conference was comprised of the Atlantic, Northeast and Southeast divisions.
  • The Western Conference was comprised of the Central, Western and Pacific divisions.

 Things stayed like that until 2012, when the league instituted the structure we have today:

  • The Eastern Conference, which is now comprised of the Atlantic and Metropolitan divisions.
  • The Western Conference, which is now comprised of the Central and Pacific divisions.

One more team, the Vegas Golden Knights, joined the NHL in this current conference-division era. One more team, in Seattle, is slated to join the league after the 2020-21 season. With a lot of teams crowding the west, this expansion has gotten a lot of people talking about realignment — also the possibility of name changes to bring back an historical flavor to the conference and division names, and get rid of the lackluster and not very accurate geographic labels.

Only time will tell what the final decision will be, but some type of realignment is very likely.

(Image Credit – Wikimedia Commons)