Jim Neveau, NHL Correspondent
With the Phoenix Coyotes and New York Islanders seemingly staying put (at least for the time being), all of the relocation talk in the NHL has now shifted full-bore onto the Atlanta Thrashers. Reports are popping up all over the place that the team is looking for owners to stay in Atlanta, and different reports are also coming in that they are on the verge of moving to Winnipeg. These conflicting stories have to be maddening for the team’s fans in Georgia, but they are an unfortunate consequence of the City of Glendale’s vote to subsidize the losses of the Coyotes.
The relocation talk surrounding the franchise has centered on True North Sports & Entertainment’s bid to bring a team back to Winnipeg. They are on a tight schedule to do so at this point for the 2011-12 season, as they would have to move the AHL’s Manitoba Moose from the MTS Centre in order to pave the way for NHL hockey. The NHL schedule for next season is currently being finalized, and if the Thrashers are going to move into the Western Conference, the divisional realignment would necessitate some tweaking to the schedule, and that decision would have to be made in a very short period of time.
If the Thrashers are to move to Winnipeg, the question of divisional realignment comes to the forefront. Obviously the Thrashers (or whatever they would be called if they move north) would move to the Western Conference, but which division would they find themselves in? Better yet, which other teams would have to switch divisions and conferences in order to keep the current configuration in place?
Here is the most likely scenario of what a divisional alignment with the Thrashers in the West would look like:
New Northwest Division:
The Thrashers would more than likely head to the Northwest Division, due to the easy geographical rivalries with teams like Calgary (who ironically also moved north from Atlanta) and Edmonton. This would mean that one of the current denizens of that division would have to switch out of it, and the two most likely contenders to be switched out of the Northwest would be Colorado and Minnesota. If the NHL wanted to move a team like Dallas to the Central, they would switch Colorado to the Pacific, but a more likely scenario would have Minnesota moving to the Central Division:
New Central Division:
St. Louis Blues
The Red Wings undoubtedly wouldn’t mind a move to the Eastern Conference, since they are one of two teams in the West (Columbus is the other) that plays its games in the Eastern time zone. The reality of the matter is that the NHL is probably not going to want to take away the rivalry between the Red Wings and Blackhawks, and they also won’t want only one Original Six team remaining in the West. It would weaken the conference substantially, so the more likely scenario would be to shift Columbus into the East instead.
New Southeast Division:
Columbus Blue Jackets
Tampa Bay Lightning
It isn’t the most ideal scenario to have a team in Ohio being part of a division comprised mostly of Southeast teams, but the NHL would never dream of shifting the Flyers or Penguins into a different division from the other. The Keystone rivalry is just too strong, and even though having the Penguins and Capitals in the same division would be a huge boost to the rivalry between those two teams, the NHL wouldn’t divide Pennsylvania in that fashion.
Even though the city of Atlanta doesn’t have nearly the stake invested in the Thrashers as Glendale does with the Coyotes, there are still strong rumors that the league will try to keep the team in the south. Their aggressive moves to keep the Coyotes in Arizona have set the tone by which they will be judged for the foreseeable future when it comes to moving teams, but if it doesn’t appear that a group can get the money together to keep Atlanta in the fold, the league might cut ties and allow a move to happen.
Stay tuned to The Hockey Writers for all of the latest relocation news.