How NHL Conference Realignment Opens Up Possibilities for Expansion

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How NHL Conference Realignment Opens Up Possibilities for Expansion
Phillip MacCallum/Getty Images
Are the Nordiques on their way back? It looks unlikely, but Kansas City and Seattle might get a team.

The National Hockey League has realigned its teams into four divisions instead of six three-team divisions. As it stands, there are 14 teams in the Western Conference and 16 in the Eastern Conference. Like Major League Baseball before the Houston Astros moved to the American League, the NHL will be imbalanced and will make it easier for teams in the West to make the playoffs than those in the East.

Here are the current divisions:

Division A: Anaheim Ducks, Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, Los Angeles Kings, Phoenix Coyotes, San Jose Sharks and Vancouver Canucks

Division B: Chicago Blackhawks, Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars, Minnesota Wild, Nashville Predators, St. Louis Blues and Winnipeg Jets

Division C: Detroit Red Wings, Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres, Florida Panthers, Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators, Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs

Division D: Carolina Hurricanes, Columbus Blue Jackets, New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals

Having an imbalance in each conference is problematic in any league, especially one like the NHL where just about any team that makes the playoffs can win the Stanley Cup. In 2011, all three division winners in the East lost in the first round and two seasons ago the Los Angeles Kings won as a No. 8 seed.

Eventually, the league will have to even things out.

This opens up the possibility for two new teams to enter the league. As it stands, Kansas City, Seattle and Quebec City appear to be the most likely candidates to get a new team.

Kansas City has the Sprint Center, a currently unoccupied arena in the middle of the city that can hold 17,500 for hockey games. They would have a natural rivalry with the St. Louis Blues, which are located 250 miles east.

There is an ownership group in Seattle that has plans to build a new arena in the Emerald City in hopes of bringing the SuperSonics back. Seattle has nearly four million in its metro area, making it similar in size to Boston, Denver and Washington, D.C.—three cities with a current NHL team as well as franchises in the NFL, NBA and MLB.

Seattle is also located 150 miles away from Vancouver, British Columbia, which would create a natural rivalry with the Canucks.

Finally, Quebec City is erecting an 18,000-seat arena that will be ready by September 2015. Like Kansas City, the city does not currently have a hockey team, but had a team that was relocated to Denver.

The Kansas City Scouts played two seasons in Missouri before moving out west in 1976 and ultimately becoming the New Jersey Devils in 1982. The Quebec Nordiques became the Colorado Avalanche in 1995 and won a championship in their first season in Denver.

To look at the likelihood of Kansas City, Seattle and Quebec City getting an NHL team, Bleacher Report will examine each case individually.

 

Kansas City

Kansas City has two things going for it.

First, it has an arena already built that could be used by an NHL season immediately after either expansion or relocation. There have already been two exhibition games played at the Sprint Center.

Secondly, it has a great location.

Division B needs a sixth team, and K.C. would not only have an organic rivalry with the crosstown St. Louis Blues, but also the Minnesota Wild and Chicago Blackhawks which play in close by locations. The Kansas City Royals already play in a division with MLB’s Minnesota Twins and Chicago White Sox.

Furthermore, Kansas City is actually closer to Denver and Nashville than any other city in the division save for St. Louis.

With only 460,000 people located in the city and just over two million in its metro area, Kansas City is not a particularly big market, but its proximity to the other teams in Division B would make it a natural addition.

The team could easily adapt the name Scouts, used by K.C.’s original NHL team. It is a reference to The Scout, an iconic statue that overlooks downtown. While there is little history of the NHL in western Missouri, the original Scouts lasted only two years, the uniforms were appealing and the moniker was original.

If I’m a hockey fan in Kansas City, I like my chances of landing an NHL team in the near future.

 

Seattle

It was surprising that the NHL Board of Governors voted to keep the Coyotes in Phoenix. The concept of putting a hockey team in the desert remains puzzling, and the combination of a notoriously poor stadium location in Glendale (rather than downtown Phoenix or thriving Scottsdale) compounded by a disinterested fanbase makes this one of the league’s least popular teams.

Phoenix is not really a sports town like say, Pittsburgh or St. Louis. Neither city is a traditional hockey market, but they have loyal sports fans and are home to nationally supported teams like the Steelers and Cardinals. Even though Glendale’s arena is relatively new, it seems asinine to think that re-branding them as the Arizona Coyotes is going to change the fortunes of that franchise.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images
The Coyotes are rebranding themselves as the Arizona Coyotes next season.

Seattle would have been a natural fit for the Coyotes. There would be an organic rivalry with the Vancouver Canucks and the three teams in California, and the city has historically supported the WHL’s Everett Silvertips and Seattle Thunderbirds and the Seattle Metropolitans were the first American team to win the Stanley Cup back in 1917.

The league would be in better position to expand without a financial black hole in Arizona, and it would create a domino effect that would ultimately help Quebec City’s cause in getting a team.

Here is how this would work: The Coyotes would move to Seattle and remain in Division A. The Colorado Avalanche, which are really “out west” rather than “midwest,” would move to Division A as well, creating a six-team division.

Division B would add the Kansas City Scouts through expansion and the Detroit Red Wings from Division C. The Red Wings will complain about moving away from other teams in the Eastern Time Zone again, but by being in the Eastern Conference, they play less games against two traditional rivals, the Avalanche and Blackhawks, and are less likely to form a rivalry with the nearby Wild or Blues.

Division C would be a natural fit for the new Quebec Nordiques, where they would have an instant rivalry with the Montreal Canadiens as well as the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Ottawa Senators.

Even with Phoenix in Division A, the NHL would still be wise to move to Seattle. It is a large city that supports their local teams, and there still is a natural rivalry that would form between the new Metropolitans and the Canucks, Sharks, Kings and Ducks.

 

Quebec City

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
These guys want to see Quebec City get a hockey team again (and are probably trashed).

Quebec City is making a strong argument that they should have a team. They have an arena, people there have not converted into Canadiens, fans and, well, Winnipeg got one!

There are two reasons why the NHL moved from Quebec City in the first place: It’s the smallest North American market to have a team other than Green Bay (which can also draw from Milwaukee) and it’s francophonic. As we all learned with the Eric Lindros draft-day fiasco, players don’t want to play hockey in a place where they have to speak French.

Furthermore, hockey is already popular in Quebec City. By putting teams in large states like California, Florida and Texas, the sport as a whole grows and more talented athletes choose to play it and it becomes more of a national sport—even if it always will have a niche status.

Hockey has taken off in California, the Tampa Bay Lightning have a strong following and the Stars were popular until Tom Hicks went bankrupt and tanked the team.

Sure, the Florida Panthers and Anaheim Ducks may never sell out an entire season, but young players are playing hockey in Miami and Orange County because there are teams located there, and, hey, there are a few die-hard fans in those cities that probably would not have taken to the sport otherwise.

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
This is at an Atlanta Thrashers game (remember them?).

Hockey fans in Quebec City, like people in many other traditional markets, are upset that there are teams with lousy fanbases in Sun Belt cities while puckheads in smaller northern cities are left without a team. By that logic, however, Saskatoon and Regina deserve teams, and the lack of population in those cities would probably turn those teams into the next Phoenix Coyotes anyways.

The major selling point in Quebec City is that they already have an NHL-ready area.

What this might mean is that the Florida teams get screwed. The Lightning will remain in Tampa because the St. Pete Times Forum was just re-done and is in a central location.

The Panthers situation will be watched closely because they have an older arena (circa 1998) in suburban Sunrise, Fla. They are unlikely to move, however, because Miami is a much larger metro area (5.5 million) than Quebec City (700,000), and by relocating the Panthers, the Lightning essentially get left out on an island in Division C.

 

Conclusion

It looks like Quebec City is gets the short end of the stick right now.

The NHL eventually has to even out its league and teams in Seattle, and Kansas City would be immensely successful, given how those cities support the franchises that are already there.

Seattle would fit in nicely with Vancouver and the West Coast teams, and K.C. would have an immediate rivalry with the Blues and the other Midwest teams and kind of connect the Avalanche to the rest of the division.

Adding Quebec City creates a lot of problems. Detroit really belongs with teams in the Eastern Time Zone and still will get to play Chicago, Colorado and St. Louis every year.

While traditionalists will complain about hockey in Florida, the Lightning are well supported, and there are legitimate prospects like Gabe Guertler coming out of the South Florida. Plus, the NHL would hesitate to move a team from a large city like Miami to a small, French-speaking one with Quebec City.

All in all, the conference realignment has opened the door for professional hockey to be played in more places. Expect change to come soon.

 

Tom Schreier covers Minnesota sports for Bleacher Report and is a contributor to Yahoo! Sports.

 

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