Jim Neveau, NHL Senior Columnist
Ever since the Winnipeg Jets took their act from Atlanta and moved north of the border, a lot of talk has been going on throughout the league as to which teams would shuffle around and what the league would look like when the dust settled. The Detroit Red Wings have long been rumored to be itching for a move East, as have the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Nashville Predators have also been mentioned as a team potentially on the move to the Eastern Conference, and several other teams, like the Dallas Stars and Minnesota Wild, have discussed potentially switching divisions to compensate for the Central team that would be leaving.
All of this talk about realignment reared its ugly head again on Tuesday night, as TSN’s Bob McKenzie, always a bastion of NHL knowledge and a leading breaker of stories in an industry full of wannabes, let out a series of tweets that had the internet abuzz with realignment talk yet again. McKenzie reported that more NHL governors are of the belief that the Red Wings would be headed to the Southeast Division for the 2012-13 season, and they would be replaced in the Central by the Jets according to his sources. Obviously this would make teams like Dallas and Columbus angry, since they both are wanting to lighten their travel burden, but a ton of talk has the NHL basically promising the Wings a spot in the Eastern Conference, and that has never changed.
Of course, McKenzie’s scenario comes with a couple of huge question marks attached. For starters, why on Earth would the league put the Wings in the Southeast Division? It wouldn’t make any sense to have a team in that division that is over 500 miles north of another team that is staying in the West in the Predators, and there are an equal number of questions about the Jets joining the Central over a more practical team like the Wild or Stars. McKenzie did address those directly, however, when he tweeted that the league doesn’t want to have a division with four Canadian teams and an American squad, so a Northwest Division of the Avalanche, Canucks, Flames, Jets, and Oilers isn’t likely to happen.
With questioning of the league’s sanity at a high level, there are several relocation scenarios that would make a lot more sense than the ones being currently rumored to be going through league executives’ heads. They each have their positives and negatives, but no matter what the outcome ends up being, there is little doubt that there will be at least a few teams and fanbases that are aggravated by the results.
Scenario 1: Detroit Moves East, Joins Atlantic Division; Philadelphia or Pittsburgh Joins the Southeast
One solution that has been thrown out there quite a bit involves the Red Wings heading East, but instead of joining the Southeast and creating a vacuum in the Geographical Common Sense Continuum, they would join the Atlantic Division. This would of course result in either the Flyers or Penguins having to join the Southeast, with the Pens being a very viable candidate to do so. It would allow them to play the Washington Capitals six times per year, and it would give the Southeast an instant boost in terms of talent level.
In this scenario, the Jets would either join the Central or the Northwest, and the Wild or Stars could be in line for a move to the Central if the Jets join the Northwest. Both teams would clearly be angling for such a move, but again, it wouldn’t jibe with what the NHL seems to want in terms of having at least two American teams per division.
This scenario would also irritate the Blue Jackets, who are slightly further East than the Wings and have a great rivalry already built in with the Penguins. They are angling to lessen their travel burden, and to have the Wings join a division with the Penguins would be a huge potential slap in the face.
The move of the Wings would also irritate a lot of lower-level teams in terms of attendance, such as the Phoenix Coyotes and Colorado Avalanche, who rely on the Wings for a couple of guaranteed sell-outs per season. Moving the Blue Jackets or Predators wouldn’t affect their bottom line as much, but a Wings move East would put an even bigger financial strain on those teams.
Scenario 2: Detroit Moves East, Joins Northeast Division; Boston or Buffalo Joins Atlantic and Either Philadelphia or Pittsburgh Joins the Southeast
In another Detroit moves East scenario, they could join a division that could potentially be a bastion of Original Six hockey. Yes, they would be leaving the Blackhawks behind in the Central, but they could theoretically join the Canadiens, Maple Leafs and Bruins in this scenario. It would probably make more sense for the Bruins to move to the Atlantic from a geographical perspective in this scenario, but shifting Buffalo down would give the NHL a great division to trumpet historical rivalries, and that could always be a good thing.
The only negatives in this scenario remain that the Blue Jackets would still be angered by the move, and that the Bruins may not want to move to a division with two or three solid teams already entrenched in the Penguins, Devils, and Rangers, and a team on the rise with the Islanders. It would be a huge competitive disadvantage for the B’s, and they may not be thrilled with the prospect of having their rivalry with the Canadiens diminished to four games instead of six.
Scenario 3: Columbus Moves East, Joins Atlantic Division; Philadelphia Moves to Southeast
The Keystone State rivalry between the Penguins and Flyers would be knocked from six to four games in this scenario, but the Blue Jackets would be absolutely thrilled to play the Penguins two more times at Nationwide Arena if this scenario came to pass.
Obviously, the Red Wings would be livid if they didn’t get their wish to move East, and they would probably continue to raise all sorts of hell with the league offices until they eventually got their way.
Scenario 4: Nashville Moves East, Joins Southeast Division; Winnipeg Joins Northwest; Minnesota or Dallas Joins Central
In the move that probably makes the most geographical sense (and would require the least shuffling), the Nashville Predators would join the Southeast and potentially help keep fans in Atlanta at least somewhat interested in the league (which is already happening, as 42 Preds games will be available in the city), and since they don’t really have any big rivalries with their Central Division cohorts, it wouldn’t really upset the order of things in that respect.
Detroit and Columbus obviously wouldn’t be happy with this, and the league would have to drop its opposition to four Canadian teams in the Northwest Division if they were to move Minnesota to the Central.
Scenario 5: League Shifts to a Four Division Format
If the league is willing to think outside the box, there is always the possibility that they could set up a four team divisional format. They could still maintain the 15 teams per conference formula, but they would have to have unbalanced divisions in this scenario, with eight teams in one division and seven in the other.
Since the league is so heavily dominated by East Coast teams, it would be difficult to move the Wings and/or the Jackets over there and maintain some type of balance. The unbalanced divisions would also raise havoc with the league’s scheduling formula, and would force them to adjust their current procedure of having divisional opponents play six times and conference foes to face-off four times. Neither of these things is probably that palatable to the league, who has generally shown a willingness to embrace the status quo over doing anything to massively shake things up.
Scenario 6: League Expands, Uses Four Eight Team Divisions
In what is probably the second least likely scenario, the NHL would expand to 32 teams and get their wish of having balanced divisions. Three of the most likely cities for that would be Quebec City, Kansas City, and Seattle, but since the league isn’t exactly swimming with profitable teams, the idea of adding two more teams to the line at the feeding trough is a big stretch.
Scenario 7: League Completely Eliminates Divisions, Takes Top 8 or 16 Records for Playoffs
In what would be a truly out of the box idea for an American sports league, the NHL could say to heck with divisions and just have a division-free system. Obviously the schedule would be completely unbalanced if that was the case, and it would be the idea’s ultimate undoing. There’s also the factor of travel expenses going out of control, but the discussion wouldn’t even get to that before this idea would likely be laughed out of the room.
Overall, even though the league may be leaning towards the Detroit SE/Winnipeg CEN scenario, any of the first four scenarios in this piece would be more common sense alternatives. The one that has the most appeal, at least to hardcore hockey fans, and would still make sense from a league perspective, would be the second one, with Buffalo moving to the Atlantic and Philadelphia moving to the Southeast. A division with four of the Original Six teams playing each other that often, and the league could market the ever living hell out of that type of move.
As stated earlier, none of these solutions will make every team happy, but one thing is for certain: the NHL isn’t going to play another season with Winnipeg in the Southeast Division just to kick the can further down the road. A decision will likely be made by December, and it is going to be fascinating to see what direction the league ends up going in. Will they go out of the box, or will they acquiesce to the demands of the Red Wings to move East? We’ll find out soon enough, but not before plenty of other hockey pundits have had their say.