Possible NHL Realignment Scenarios If The Atlanta Thrashers Jet For Winnipeg

With the impending doom of the Atlanta Thrashers franchise, the NHL could be in for a shakeup in how it aligns its divisions. The Red Wings are hoping it spells a move to the more friendly Eastern Conference.

Though nothing is official yet, it appears that the Atlanta Thrashers have played their last game in The Peach State. Rumors have been swirling all month since the city of Glendale saved the Phoenix Coyotes, who were the first candidates for relocation, for at least another year. Recent reports indicate that a deal is in place between the Atlanta Spirit and True North Sports and Entertainment, who would then in turn relocate the club to Manitoba and revive the Winnipeg Jets or create a team in Winnipeg with a different name.

However, the Winnipeg Free Press is playing it safe as they've been close to landing the NHL before, refuting the initial report by the Globe and Mail. Deal or not, there doesn't appear to be a viable local owner, meaning the Thrashers' time in Atlanta is done. The Spirit group has struggled to find a local buyer, and the NHL has for some reason refused to support the Atlanta franchise as vigorously as it did Phoenix. True North seems determined to find an NHL tenant for the MTS Centre in Winnipeg and it would be very surprising if they didn't land the Thrashers. 

The failure of the NHL a second time in Atlanta (the Atlanta Flames moved to Calgary in 1980) would mean that a shakeup is on the way in the NHL. The new Winnipeg franchise would certainly move to the Western Conference where it originally played, unbalancing the perfect 15-team split between the two leagues. The most popular theory is that a Western Conference team would move to the East and the divisions would then be realigned accordingly. That's where Detroit comes in.

The Red Wings have been questionably mired in the Western Conference since the league realigned last in 1993, being one of two teams from the Eastern Time Zone that plays in the West. It creates a hectic schedule that produces high travel costs for the team. Owner Mike Ilitch has long desired to leave the West for the more mileage-friendly East. 

Detroit has two things working in its favor: Ilitch's pull with the league and their storied history. Ilitch is extremely influential with the NHL's Board of Governors and could easily axe a move by Columbus or Nashville to the East. According to John Niyo of the Detroit News, Ilitch has been promised first dibs on the East should the stars align accordingly. Detroit has a bunch of history with Eastern Conference teams like Toronto and Montreal and has been around substantially longer than the Nashville and Columbus franchises. 

However, Nashville and Columbus have a legitimate case to make for a move East. Columbus also plays in the Eastern Time Zone and could develop a rivalry with nearby Pittsburgh. Nashville is the next southernmost team after Atlanta, and could quickly fill the void left by the Thrashers in the Southeast Division. However, they also play in the Central Time Zone, making their move a lot more puzzling. In my opinion, it should be between Detroit and Columbus because the West Coast start times are harder on their fans.

So that brings us to the question of what to do with these new-fangled divisions. I previously touched on the subject last week, but didn't go in depth with any predictions. Here's the current setup used by the NHL:


West
C

entral: Detroit, Chicago, Nashville, Columbus, St. Louis
Northwest: Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Minnesota, Colorado
Pacific: San Jose, Anaheim, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Dallas

East
Atlantic: Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, New York Rangers, New York Islanders, New Jersey
Northeast: Boston, Montreal, Buffalo, Toronto, Ottawa
Southeast: Washington, Tampa Bay, Florida, Atlanta, Carolina 

Scenario 1: Detroit moves to the Eastern Conference, Winnipeg to the West

West
Central: Minnesota, Chicago, Nashville, Columbus, St. Louis
Northwest: Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Colorado
Pacific: San Jose, Anaheim, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Dallas

East
Atlantic: Philadelphia, New York Rangers, New York Islanders, New Jersey, Buffalo
Northeast: Boston, Detroit, Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa
Southeast: Pittsburgh, Washington, Carolina, Florida, Tampa Bay

Pittsburgh’s move to the Southeast will increase their travel slightly since they rarely leave Pennsylvania and New York, but it also ramps up the rivalry between Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby. Another downside is that it splits up the Pittsburgh-Philadelphia rivalry, but they remain in the same conference and would still play each other four times. If Detroit moves to the East, there's really no choice but to split up the rivalry because the Flyers and Penguins are the next southernmost teams left. No matter how you slice it, realignment is going to split up some rivalries and upset some people (just ask the Big Ten).

Buffalo's move to the Atlantic puts all three New York teams and New Jersey in the same division. Detroit slides into Buffalo's spot in the Northeast, creating a mouth-watering division featuring four Original Six squads. However, this leaves Chicago as the only Original Six team in the West (which is going to happen no matter what if Detroit is selected). The NHL could use that to work against Detroit moving East. But hey, maybe you should have thought about that before you placed two-thirds of the league east of the Mississippi River.

Scenario 2: Nashville or Columbus moves to the East, Winnipeg to the West

West
Central: Detroit, Chicago, Minnesota, Columbus OR Nashville, St. Louis
Northwest: Winnipeg, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Colorado
Pacific: San Jose, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Anaheim, Dallas

East
Atlantic: Philadelphia, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh
Northeast: Buffalo, Boston, Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa
Southeast: Tampa Bay, Florida, Nashville OR Columbus, Washington, Carolina

If Columbus or Nashville move to the East, the formula becomes much simpler: the Blue Jackets or Predators are plugged into Atlanta's spot in the Southeast Division. Nashville seems to be the better fit in this situation, but again they come out of the Central Time Zone and are much further west than Detroit or Columbus, so by the East-West geographical split it makes no sense. It's not who makes the most sense in the division (by that logic you could also throw Dallas into the mix), it's who makes more sense for the conference. This alignment also reunites most of the old Norris Division, minus Toronto.

Scenario 3: Non-Geographical Conferences

Another option would be to scrap the East-West format and adopt a non-geographical conference alignment. This is the system currently employed by the NFL and MLB and it seems to work quite well for them. Under this format the Red Wings would still have to travel West, but the travel would be evenly spread out among the 30 teams. Right now a team like Pittsburgh or Washington barely has to leave the Eastern Time Zone; under a non-geographical format they would have to make as many trips out West as everyone else. This eliminates the travel advantage many Eastern Conference squads have.

Conference X
East: Toronto, Montreal, Boston, New York Islanders, New Jersey
Central: St. Louis, Columbus, Tampa Bay, Ottawa, Minnesota
West: San Jose, Los Angeles, Anaheim, Dallas, Phoenix

Conference Y
East: Carolina, Philadelphia, New York Rangers, Washington, Florida 
Central: Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Nashville, Chicago, Detroit
West: Winnipeg, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Colorado

I tried to make everything fair travel-wise for every team, and also balance the traditional powerhouses between conferences. The Original Six is evenly split, with three teams in each conference. Conference X is anchored by Toronto, Montreal and Boston, keeping intact most of the current rivalries from the Northeast Division. Detroit and Chicago's placement in Conference Y weakens the Conference X Central Division, but I feel that rivalry should be kept intact. The Pacific Division is also kept completely intact, as the four original Northwest members (with the new Winnipeg team) creates an equal rivalry-driven West Division for the other conference.

Conference Y pits Detroit and Pittsburgh in the same division to stoke their new-found rivalry, along with fellow Central Division "friends" Chicago and Nashville. Again, this also splits the Pittsburgh-Philadelphia rivalry, but keep in mind the Philadelphia Eagles and Pittsburgh Steelers are in different conferences in the NFL under this format, so at least they still get to see each other four times a year. One option could be to move Florida to the Central in place of Pittsburgh, but it puts the division on a silver platter for Detroit and Chicago. 

Like the NFL and MLB, the two New York teams are also split into different conferences. I thought about keeping San Jose and Detroit in the same conference, but decided to split them to more evenly balance Conference X. This alignment isn’t perfect, but no alignment is going to be perfect with 20 of the 30 teams based east of Minnesota. The East-West alignment made no sense the first time, and a non-geographical split levels the playing field somewhat in terms of travel.

Scenario 4: The Wacky North-South Split

One more possibility is the radical North-South alignment. This is unlikely to ever happen because it takes the traditional powerhouse teams (which are mostly based in the North) and places them all in the same conference. Also it conjures up memories of that whole Civil War thing, but it's still fun to play with.

North
East: Boston, Montreal, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, New Jersey
Central: Detroit, Chicago, Toronto, Buffalo, Ottawa
West: Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg, Minnesota

South
East: Washington, Philadelphia, Carolina, Florida, Pittsburgh
Central: Dallas, Nashville, Columbus, Tampa Bay, St. Louis
West: San Jose, Los Angeles, Anaheim, Phoenix, Colorado

Philadelphia and Pittsburgh are not split under this alignment, much to the delight of fans in those cities. San Jose, Washington and Pittsburgh are the anchors of the Southern Conference, but this type of split would put a plethora of traditional clubs in the North, including all of the Original Six. With Atlanta headed for the Great White North it makes even less sense than an East-West alignment.

However, this could all be a moot point in a couple years. There are several NHL franchises struggling right now, and the Glendale bailout of Phoenix is anything but a guarantee that the club will remain there. Columbus is also teetering and could be a possible relocation candidate in the near future. Quebec City has been itching for a club since the Nordiques bolted for Colorado, so if a Western team like Phoenix moves there it would blow up all of these realignment scenarios and throw the balance between East and West off again. 

So, how do you think the conferences should be realigned (if at all)? Drop us a line in the comments section and share your thoughts!

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