As an American, the most foreign part of international soccer isn't the game nor the players: it's the promotion/relegation system that means a team can, theoretically, be playing in the top division one season and be in the regional minor leagues in a decade (and vice-versa). In that system, it doesn't matter where a team plays or how big it's home market is, performance is the only yardstick. It's a scary thought to those of us used to the franchise system, to think that our respective teams not only wouldn't be playing for the big prize, but that it could be years or even decades until they were.
So, why then, would I ever in my right mind suggest that the NHL move to such a system?
Because, quite clearly now, the NHL is already in two tiers. It's plenty obvious that Phoenix, Columbus, Nashville, et. al. are not capable of competing with Philly, Montreal, etc. while still being financially viable. So, by separating the two groups out, the competition overall would improve, and both tiers would produce a more compelling product.
So, let's set up the system: as said, there would be two levels of NHL hockey. It'd be a good time to dip into some history - the top level could be the Prince of Wales Conference, and the lower level could be the Campbell Conference. Each tier would be divided then into East and West divisions - we'll call them the Adams and the Norris respectively for the Wales, and the Patrick and the Smythe respectively for the Campbell.
The major changes then come in the number of teams and how they are distributed: the league would expand to a total of 40 teams - 20 in each tier, 10 in each division. For the first year, the Wales contenders would be the top 10 in each existing conference, Eastern teams in the Adams, Western teams in the Norris. The Campbell teams would then be the bottom 5 in each existing conference, with 5 new expansion teams joining them. Based on the 08-09 season, this year would theoretically look like this:
Adams Division: Boston, Washington, New Jersey, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Carolina, New York Rangers, Montreal, Florida, Buffalo
Norris Division: San Jose, Detroit, Vancouver, Chicago, Calgary, St. Louis, Columbus, Anaheim, Minnesota, Nashville
Patrick Division: Ottawa, Toronto, Atlanta, Tampa Bay, New York Islanders, Quebec City, Hartford, Norfolk, Cleveland, Indianapolis
Smythe Division: Edmonton, Dallas, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Colorado, Winnipeg, Houston, Seattle, Kansas City, Las Vegas
After the first year, relegation/promotion are introduced. The bottom 2 in each Wales division are relegated (4 total), and the top 2 in each Campbell division are promoted. The Patrick would promote to the Adams, and the Smythe to the Norris. The key to all this is the salary cap levels: the Wales is higher than the Campbell. Say, $60m to $45m, or similar. This allows smaller teams to be competitive within their conference, while still at least breaking even.
At the end of the season the top 8 in each conference (4 from each division) have traditional, 7-game playoff series to determine the winner of the respective titles. By default, the Wales trophy becomes the primary NHL prize. But what of Lord Stanley? Simple - every year, at a neutral site, the Stanley Cup is awarded to the winner of a 4 team tournament, consisting of the playoff finalists from each conference. There's a round robin, with the best 2 records going to a 1 game playoff for the Cup. Sound familiar? Yep, it's effectively the Memorial Cup in the pro ranks.
Now, I know what you're saying to yourself. You're saying, Arenacale (which is a funny thing to say to yourself), doesn't that mean that the Cup can be won by even the bottom tier? And that, therefore, the system is pointless? Well, conceded, maybe a bit. I see benefits, however, to the Campbell teams: They still get to play for the Cup, which helps their marketing schemes and getting fans to care despite being in the lower tier, and the 2 teams that will play for it will both be in the Wales the next year, so they're effectively premiere league calibre at that point, anyhow. The other thing is, because of the lower salary cap, they're at a distinct disadvantage to the Wales teams, and that's just enough of an ice tilter to establish the Wales as the premiership.
There are still some negatives to the system: it would be difficult to avoid the gulf between the two leagues that has seemed to develop in UK soccer; the smaller market owners aren't going to like suddenly being second class citizens, and this would be devastating to the existing AHL system (although, they could always develop into a 3rd tier...). Also, I'm sure everyone is going to let me know about other problems below. But, think of the initial publicity bump the league would get from announcing this (guaranteed lead on SportsCenter, not to mention PTI and others), and the long term stability that could result for the currently struggling franchises. A healthy league, bringing competitive, entertaining, and financially sustanable hockey to the widest number of people in North America. Isn't that supposed to be the NHL's goal in the first place?