Red Wings' Next Stop: The Eastern Conference?

Lost in the hysteria of Red Wings-Sharks Game 7 was the news coming out of Atlanta, where the future of the Thrashers franchise seems even more bleak than the Coyotes in Phoenix.

The team's struggles and lack of a local buyer have led to speculation that Atlanta, not Phoenix as previously thought, is more likely to move to Winnipeg as soon as next season (the Thrashers beat writer said that a move was '95 percent' probable). The Thrashers have been bleeding money for a long time, the result of missing 10 of the past 11 postseasons. Atlanta has only made the postseason once, which came during the 2006-07 season when they won the Southeast Division; they were then promptly swept by the New York Rangers in the first round. 

The Thrashers have never been a big sell in the Atlanta market. They've never finished higher than 21st in attendance (which came in their division title season); their usual spot is right around 28th, right above the New York Islanders and the Coyotes. 

If Atlanta does move it opens up the possibility that a Western Conference team could move into the Eastern Conference. That moves the Red Wings right to the top of the list.

In the East-West alignment, it would make no sense for the new Winnipeg Jets to play in the Southeast Division, where the Thrashers play. It would be much more sensible to move Detroit or Columbus, the only two teams operating out the Eastern Time Zone playing in the Western Conference, back to the Eastern Conference.

Red Wings senior vice president Jim Devellano has said that move won't happen next season, but the club has made no secret it would like to be moved back to the East. Owner Mike Ilitch has a lot of pull with the league and the club's storied history make it first in line should the opportunity arise. A move East would be a lot easier on Red Bird II and those 10:30 p.m. start times would be a thing of the past. 

The question then becomes how to realign the divisions. Detroit could seamlessly transition to the Northeast, where it has Original Six rivalries with Boston, Toronto and Montreal. However, one of those teams would have to move out, and Ottawa or Buffalo in the Southeast doesn't make much more sense than Winnipeg in the Southeast.

One option would be to realign the divisions geographically but not the conferences, in the mold of the NFL and MLB. This scenario would still require some trips out West, but Eastern Conference teams would also be subject to it, eliminating the travel advantage that many Eastern teams have. For example, the Pittsburgh Penguins only had to play San Jose once this season (and it was a home game), but under the "MLB" alignment would have to make an equal number of trips out West as everybody else. 

According to Devellano, the move won't happen regardless of what happens in Atlanta, which could make an interesting scenario next year. Would the NHL make Winnipeg gut out a season in the Southeast despite making no logical sense? Well, it is the NHL, so nothing would surprise me. 

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