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  • Justin A. Cohn | The Journal Gazette
    As the puck comes off the pads of Komets goaltender Garrett Bartus, defenseman Kyle Follmer, middle, gets ready to play it up the ice to a teammate. Defenseman Cody Sol, left, and forward Trevor Cheek, bottom, look on as Ian Lowe of the Wichita Thunder is already hustling back to defend the Komets' breakout.

  • Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette
    Komets defenseman Will Weber takes a shot at Memorial Coliseum, as forward Brett Perlini tries to screen the Wheeling Nailers' net.

  • Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette
    Komets de­fense­men Jason Binkley, left, and Will Weber prepare to retrieve the puck from the corner and move it up the ice.
March 16, 2017 10:43 PM

Drastically changing ECHL divisions, playoffs

JUSTIN A. COHN | The Journal Gazette

The ECHL landscape will change after this season with the losses of the Alaska Aces and the Elmira Jackals, and the additions of teams in Worcester, Massachusetts and Jacksonville, Florida.

The league has a habit of doing its schedule incredibly early, which makes it problematic if things change in the summer like, for example, merging with another league (not that that’s ever happened, right?) or a team suddenly folding.

So even though we’re in the midst of the stretch run – the Komets play host to the Tulsa Oilers on Friday night at Memorial Coliseum – let’s take a look at how I think the ECHL should align its divisions and determine its playoff format for the 2017-18 season.

I would like to see the ECHL go to four-team divisions. Let’s be clear, divisional alignment shouldn’t determine the schedule; that should be based on geography. So even though I have, for instance, Fort Wayne and Toledo split up, I still think they should play a bunch. But having smaller divisions, and no conferences, would increase the excitement of who makes the playoffs, amplify the intensity of division games and make it more difficult for bad teams to sneak into the playoffs.

By the way, I would like to see all hockey leagues name their divisions after people – think of the old NHL’s Norris and Smythe Divisions – so we’re giving them some here from some famous names of ECHL past.

So, you ask, who would make my playoffs? Simple. The top two teams in all the divisions will make the playoffs. The exception to this will be in the three-team division with the Florida teams, from which only the champion gets a guaranteed playoff spot. So that’s 13 teams and we’ll then have three wildcards – the three best teams not already having clinched a playoff spot.

As for the matchups, which we want to be exciting but also easy on the travel costs, I have a different idea. But it has been done before. After you read the division alignments I propose, I will explain my playoff methodology.

COHN’S DIVISIONAL ALIGNMENTS

MCKENNA DIVISION

Manchester Monarchs

Adirondack Thunder

Worcester Railers

Reading Royals

Notes: These alliances are a no-brainer. It would keep newcomer Worcester with some traditional rivals from the American Hockey League and, frankly, it’s a haul for the most teams to make the jaunts up there anyway.

ERNST DIVISION

Brampton Beast

Toledo Walleye

Cincinnati Cyclones

Wheeling Nailers

Notes: Wheeling is in a tough spot, caught between the Midwest and Eastern teams, but the Nailers have more natural rivalries with teams like Toledo and Cincinnati. Brampton is off on an island named Canada, but these foes would make sense.

RILEY DIVISION

Florida Everblades

Orlando Solar Bears

Jacksonville IceMen

Notes: This is the big, obvious problem. But the ECHL has created it by having three teams in Florida and we have a solution – only one team from this division will be guaranteed a playoff spot.

GORDON DIVISION

Norfolk Admirals

Greenville Swamp Rabbits

South Carolina Stingrays

Atlanta Gladiators

Notes: High-scoring games galore, and even some time for golf.

CHASE DIVISION

Fort Wayne Komets

Kalamazoo Wings

Quad City Mallards

Indy Fuel

Notes: Hate to break up Fort Wayne and Toledo, one of the top rivalries in the league, but this is the only way to preserve the I-69 rivalry with Indy and keep Quad City’s travel from being ridiculous.

ADAMS DIVISION

Idaho Steelheads

Utah Grizzlies

Colorado Eagles

Rapid City Rush

Notes: These teams are certainly relieved to not have to make the jaunts to Anchorage, Alaska, and really no reasonable argument can be made to either add or subtract from this grouping. If Reno, Nevada, happens then this could cause some changes though.

BRABHAM DIVISION

Allen Americans

Missouri Mavericks

Tulsa Oilers

Wichita Thunder

Notes: The most heated rivalries that few outside the area talk about, these teams beating up on each other in important late-season games would be nothing short of fun.

PLAYOFF PROCEDURE

We’re going to draft opponents. That’s right, draft. The division winner with the best record, in other words the top seed, will get to choose its first-round opponent from the lowest four seeds (three wildcards and the worst runner-up.) Then the second seed gets to choose from the bottom four remaining teams and so on.

The D-League (minor league basketball) used to do this and I thought it was tremendous. While it made it more difficult to predict way out who would play who, it added a level of intrigue. Would you pick the opponent who has the worst record? Or, the opponent that’s the best matchup? Is it just about travel? And it gives more incentive for teams to get a higher seed, which is sorely needed in these days of having almost every team make the postseason and, therefore, a less-important-than-it-should-be regular season.

The one thing that the D-League didn’t do a good job of when it used this system was make a big deal about it. My team would have a draft party, get input from the fans, really make a big deal about it and have some fun. I know it sounds weird, but believe me, if the Komets had the top seed and they got to decide between the hike to Estero, Florida, facing a wily Wheeling team or picking nearby Kalamazoo, you would love arguing about the decision and it would certainly help some teams who are more cash-strapped.

The order of teams would go as such:

Division winner 1

Division winner 2

Division winner 3

Division winner 4

Division winner 5

Division winner 6

Division winner 7

Runner-up 1

Runner-up 2

Runner-up 3

Runner-up 4

Runner-up 5

Runner-up 6

Wildcard 1

Wildcard 2

Wildcard 3

So what about the second round? Well, the D-League used to bracket its teams once the first round determinations were made. I’m not in favor of that because there was no method to the madness of who would play in the second round. I think that once you’re through the first round and down to eight teams, you revert to the seeds created in the regular season. Highest remaining seed plays the worst and so on. Or, I’d be fine with the top remaining seed getting to choose its next opponent all the way to the end. Either way, it would be interesting and fun.