With the subtraction of the Atlanta Thrashers and the re-born Winnipeg Jets coming to the 2011-12 season, the NHL has a problem on its hands. Following this year, the Jets will move out of the Southeast Division and join the Western Conference, creating a conference unbalance with the West having 16 teams and its East cousin sporting just 14.
Three teams have been rumored to make the leap from the West to the East: the Detroit Red Wings, Nashville Predators and Columbus Blue Jackets.
If the league adjusts by timezone, which is appears it is, Columbus and Detroit are the more viable options, since both cities are in Eastern time zones, whereas Nashville is on Central time.
Columbus has said it wants to make the move because the organization believes it would be more competitive in the Eastern Conference. The problem is finding a place for the Jackets in the East without moving some teams and possibly severing several rivalries. If Columbus is placed in the Atlantic, the NHL could move the Penguins to the Southeast, something the NHL and its networks would love. Sid the Kid matching up against Alex the Great six times a year.
If they’re placed into the Northeast, the Bruins could be moved to the Atlantic, and again, the Penguins to the Southeast.
Detroit doesn’t enjoy traveling out West for 40 games a year, but the NHL doesn’t want to lose the Red Wings, a major market in a conference full of many small-market teams.
Geographically, Nashville could make the most sense and be the easiest transition. The Preds could right into the Southeast division where the Thrashers/Jets once called home.
According to various reports, though, the NHL may be looking to a complete re-alignment of the league, doing away with the current divisions in favor of four new divisions based around time zones. Two divisions (Pacific and Eastern time zones) will have eight teams, while the other two divisions will house seven teams.
Rumors are also surfacing the current playoff format may change as well, with the first round being exclusive to division matchups. Following the opening round, the teams would re-seed.
The NHL clearly has several options, and it will be interesting to see where the league goes. If the leagues stays with its current six division format, I believe the Wings will stay in the West, and the Blue Jackets will be ushered into the East.