With the Atlanta Thrashers’ inevitable move to Winnipeg, the NHL will undergo its’ first major realignment since 1998. The Winnipeg team will likely play as a member of the Southeast Division during the 11-12 NHL season, before the league realigns in 2012. The Thrashers, Jets, or whatever their name is, will move from the Eastern Conference to the West. So a Western team will have to move East to balance out the conferences.
There are three logical possibilities to take Atlanta’s spot in the East.
Detroit has wanted to move East for a while now, citing travel and TV viewership. But, with the Red Wings as a huge draw for Western Conference teams, a Detroit move seems unlikely. Columbus would benefit by moving to the East. They’ve struggled with attendance; it’s hard to grow a fanbase of a young franchise with a quarter of the team’s games starting after 9:00. Out of the three, Nashville makes the most geographical sense. Even in the Central time zone, they’re the closest team to the other four currently in the Southeast.
One of those three will likely move into the East; but who will replace them in the Central? There are a few possibilities.
Dallas was in the original Central Division with current members, Chicago, Detroit and St. Louis until 1998. When the NHL last realigned, the Stars were put into the Pacific Division, pretty much by default. Dallas’s closest current divisional rival is Phoenix, over 1000 miles away. Chicago, Columbus, St. Louis and Nashville are all closer to Dallas than Phoenix.
If Dallas moves into the Central, that could lead Colorado rejoining the Pacific Division, where they resided from 1995-98. Colorado’s average flight distance is a bit closer to the current members of the Pacific than the five Northwest teams in this scenario. In addition, Colorado and Los Angeles can carry over their Frozen Fury rivalry to divisional play.
(For the purpose of the Western illustration, I chose Nashville to go into the East, and the current Thrashers logo to represent Winnipeg.)
One other possibility, if Dallas moves to the Central, could be to move Vancouver into the Pacific. This one would break up the trio (or potential foursome) of Canadian teams in the Northwest. It gets messy shuffling teams and doesn’t really benefit anyone except Dallas, so it’s not even worth diagramming.
Another option would be moving Minnesota into the Central Division. Minnesota has played in the Northwest Division since the team’s inception in 2000. However, Minnesota’s former team, the North Stars, were in the Norris Division (precursor to the Central) from 1981 until the league realigned in 1993, so there is a little history there. Minnesota’s current closest division mate is Colorado; although Winnipeg is half the distance, but the overall travel would be easier on the Wild.
Of course, Phoenix can make this post pointless if they decide to move before the NHL finishes realignment.
Hopefully the league will preserve most of the current rivalries. The worst thing the league can do is a complete overhaul and create a setup like the MLB, two conferences with three divisions (East, Central, West).