(Note: I had originally done this post in May, which is on the site, but it was not letting me edit it, so I’m re-posting it with some adjustments here)
With the pandemic continuing to have ripple effects that led to seasons unlike any seen in the NBA and NHL (including the NHL having to re-do divisions for the 2021 season to accommodate the fact the seven Canadian teams had to all be in one division due to quarantine restrictions of people traveling into Canada that also forced the Toronto Blue Jays to for the second straight year play regular season games to start Dunedin, FL (their spring training home) or Buffalo (where their AAA affiliate is located) until July 30 and did force the Toronto Raptors to relocate to Tampa for the 2020-’21 NBA season), we are continuing to approach a 2021-’22 season that is expected to see things to return to much closer to normal for the NBA and NHL, and in the case of the NHL, welcoming in a new team in the Seattle Kraken that will bring the NHL to 32 teams.
As that is the case and having an even number of teams, the NHL in my opinion need to with 16 teams in each conference going to four-team divisions with four such in each conference, or eight divisions in total. In doing so, both to have a greater emphasis on conference play and to cut down on travel that could remain an issue at least during the first part of next season because of lingering effects of the pandemic, I would do it in the following manner for an 82 game season:
Play all teams in your division six times
Play all teams in the other three divisions of your conference four times
Play all teams in the other conference once only, set up to where teams on an alternating basis play all teams in two divisions at home and the other two divisions on the road, with that done in reverse the following season.
In this format, the four division winners in each conference would make it to at least a new play-in round exactly the way it was done in the NBA for 2021 and will again take place in 2022. The next six teams would also be guaranteed at least a play-in round spot. Seeding would be done NBA-style, with being a division winner over a wild card for seeding only coming into play if the teams have both the same number of points and number of wins. This means, unless you finish with one of the top six records in your conference regardless of whether or not you win your division, if you happen to get in winning a very weak division, you could STILL be seeded seventh or lower and have to play in the play-in round, which would be done just as was done in the NBA:
The first portion of the play-in torunament would see the seventh seed host the eighth seed while the ninth seed would host the 10th seed. The winner of the 7-8 game would advance to the main playoff field as the seventh seed while the loser of that game would host the winner of the 9-10 game for the final berth in each conference. The winner of that game would be seeded eighth.
In this format, if the top two or more teams in a conference happen to be in the same division, they would be up to the top four seeds for the conference playoffs if it just happened the top four teams in a conference ALL happened to reside in the same division.
While some traditionalists would be upset because the Blackhawks would only play their “original six” cohorts once each (being in the western conference while the other five are all in the east), this overall would make for a much more efficient scheduling as a whole. As I would have the divisions in a normal (non-pandemic) situation (Note: The Turnpike division is named such because all four teams in that division are essentially within travel mainly on the New Jersey Turnpike, which travels essentially from just outside New York to just outside of Philadelphia):
New York Rangers
New York Islanders
(Miami) Florida Panthers
Vegas Golden Knights
This to me would be the way to do it with a greater emphasis on conference play. It would lose certain rivalries being played more than once (mainly as noted the Blackawks against their “Original Six” counterparts), especially those that do get some casual fans (most notably outside the “Original Six” Rangers-Kings), it would overall provide better balance and cut down on travel.