How Phoenix Coyotes Relocation May Pose Huge Realignment Headache for NHL

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How Phoenix Coyotes Relocation May Pose Huge Realignment Headache for NHL
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Time is running out on the Phoenix Coyotes, and if the league-owned franchise is unable to find new ownership in the near future, relocation will be the best option for the club long term.

TSN's Darren Dreger reported late last month that the fate of the struggling franchise might be determined prior to postseason play, which begins on April 30.

This drama in Glendale has gone on for far too long, and the league has not been able to find a buyer despite several people/groups expressing interest in owning the team over the last few years.

The most recent attempt was made by former San Jose Sharks CEO Greg Jamison, who failed to complete a sale prior to his January 31 deadline.

Not only does the league have a tough task in finding someone to buy this financially challenged team, relocating it will also be difficult, especially since the new realignment plan for the 2013-14 season doesn't give the NHL many options to move Phoenix unless it wants to re-do the plan.

When the NHL originally came up with the plan for four conferences/divisions, the two with the Eastern clubs had seven teams each, while the other two with Western franchises had eight teams each.

This left two spots open in the East for possible relocation and expansion, with three of the most talked-about destinations being Hamilton, Markham/Toronto and Quebec City.

When the NHL and NHLPA finally agreed on a final realignment format for next season, the Western divisions had the two open spots with seven teams each and the Eastern ones had eight teams each. Here is what the plan looks like.

Photo Credit: NHL.com
Photo Credit: NHL.com

The destination for the Coyotes that makes the most sense is Quebec City. The team would be able to play in the Colisée Pepsi (pictured below) until the new arena, which should be a modern work of art, is built.

Per the Edmonton Journal on March 26, 2012:

Quebec city council approved recently a $7-million refurbishment of the city’s aging Colisee, built in 1949, if an NHL team is approved before the new arena is built.

Sunday’s announcement comes as the future of the Phoenix Coyotes is uncertain. Quebec City, Seattle and Kansas City could be considered as potential homes by the NHL if the league decides to move the team from Arizona.

Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images

Since the construction of the Amphithéâtre de Québec is already underway (per CBC), the league doesn't have to worry about having a new arena for the Coyotes if they are moved to Quebec City.

After seeing the incredible success that the Winnipeg Jets have enjoyed since relocating from Atlanta prior to the 2011-12 season, there should be no concerns about the NHL being able to thrive in a small Canadian market in 2013.

Quebec City would be the second-smallest market in the four major North American sports leagues if it got an NHL team (Green Bay of the NFL is the smallest), but there are plenty of hockey fans in the region to help a team thrive on and off the ice.

When you look at the approved realignment plan, the logical decision would be to move the Coyotes to Seattle because that would not result in any changes to the new realignment plan since the franchise would stay in Division A.

Here's the problem with Seattle. It doesn't have an NHL-ready building for the Coyotes to play in while a new arena is constructed. Key Arena is not fit for an NHL team, so while Seattle might be the ideal spot for the NHL to expand or relocate to in the near future, it's not the best option for relocation in 2013. There is a proposed arena in Seattle, but construction has not started, so there's no way that the city could be a home for the Coyotes during the 2013-14 season.

Complicating matters is the fact that there are no other traditional hockey markets in the Western United States or Western Canada that are a strong fit for a team right now. Kansas City has an arena fit for an NBA and NHL franchise, but that's not a traditional hockey market and doesn't deserve to get a team before Seattle, Quebec or Southern Ontario.

Portland is one possible relocation option if the NHL wants to keep the Coyotes in the West, but it's not a large market and it's uncertain if there are any owners willing to bring a team to the city.

It was puzzling that the NHL would go ahead and complete realignment before the Coyotes situation for next season was finalized. If the team needs to be relocated for next season and Quebec City is the only quality option, the league and the NHLPA are going to have to sit down and adjust the new conference format, which would be a difficult process.

A Quebec City team would need to go into Division C (in the above picture) because it would be the best fit geographically, and it would allow Quebec to renew divisional rivalries with the Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators, Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins.

If that were to happen, Division C would have nine teams, which means one team in that division has to go to the West or a team in Division D would need to go to the West and be replaced by a club from Division C.

There are probably only a few possible scenarios for the NHL to consider if the Coyotes went to Quebec City and were placed in Division C:

  • Detroit Red Wings move from Division C to Division B, Colorado Avalanche move to Division A
  • Columbus Blue Jackets move from Division D to Division B, Detroit moves to Division D, Colorado Avalanche move to Division A
  • Move Coyotes to Kansas City, put them in Division B, move Colorado Avalanche to Division A

Other than Detroit and Columbus, there are no other teams that the league could justify putting in Division B, which is made up of mostly Central time zone teams.

One of the main goals of realignment was to put the Red Wings and Blue Jackets in the Eastern divisions, so it would be surprising if either franchise moved to a West division in the event that Quebec City gets a team for the 2013-14 season.

Despite being in the Eastern time zone, the Red Wings have been in the Western Conference since the NHL realigned in the 1993-94 season, which has forced the Original Six club to travel a lot more than anyone else in the Eastern time zone. Detroit helped the league in 1994 by going to the West, and it was time for the NHL to repay the favor.

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The Blue Jackets have struggled as a franchise since entering the league for the 2000-01 season, and to help the team thrive financially and on the ice, moving it to the East so it could form rivalries with the current Atlantic Division teams was a decision that had to be made.

When a team is being relocated, the No. 1 goal is finding a market that allows the franchise to succeed financially long term, not the one that fits into the current alignment of the league. With that said, it's very difficult to find a scenario where the Coyotes could be relocated this summer and the NHL would not have to change its realignment plan.

The issue for the NHL is that it has too many teams that need to be in the Eastern divisions for rivalry, geography and financial reasons.

One way to fix this would be to expand, but for a league that had 13 teams lose money during the 2011-12 season (per Forbes) and has gone through three lockouts since 1990, expanding isn't the best plan for the NHL.

Unless the NHL finds a market in the Western United States that's a good fit for the Coyotes and has an arena that meets the league's standards, relocating this franchise could create a huge realignment headache for the league and the NHLPA this summer.

 

Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter. He was a credentialed reporter at the 2011 Stanley Cup Final and 2012 NHL playoffs in Boston.

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