Ever since 2008, when it was discovered that the NHL had been supporting the Coyotes financially and corporately, there has been an uncertainty as to where the team would be located the next season.
Enter into the ring the Atlanta Thrashers.
Georgia’s compensation for losing the Flames in 1980, the Thrashers have been plagued for the better part of their 11-year existence by mediocre play and less-than-stellar attendance.
Combined with ownership issues, the possibility for relocation of the Thrashers has become equally as prevalent as that of the Coyotes.
What would happen if the Coyotes or the Thrashers moved north of the border?
They most certainly would not play in their current divisions, so the NHL would be required to shift division and possibly conference alignments to compensate. And while there are plenty of possibilities, there are a few scenarios that seem to make most sense.
Let’s take a look at the Coyotes first, since they were first in line, after all.
The Coyotes would almost certainly move back to Winnipeg, Manitoba, their original home when the franchise operated under the “Jets” name. The city has made it very clear that they want their team back, and would roll out the red carpet, in the form of an arena and enthusiastic ownership, if they were to return.
This is likely the simplest scenario for the NHL. All they would need to do is have the Coyotes/Jets and the Colorado Avalanche trade places.
The Avalanche are the only team that would make geographic sense to insert into the spot left vacant by the Coyotes departure, and Winnipeg is located much closer to Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, and Minnesota than Colorado is.
The Avalanche even have a history in the Pacific division, sporting three division titles during their three year membership from 1995-1998.
The other scenario sees the Coyotes franchise moving to Québec.
While les fidèles Nordiques would love to have an NHL team back in their city, this move creates the biggest headache for NHL brass. The Québec team would most certainly be put into the Northeast division, but it's anybody's guess as to which team would be moved out.
New Jersey makes the most geographical sense, but the NHL could also see fit to put the two New York teams in different divisions, the way they are in the NFL and MLB. Beyond that, the dominoes could fall in any one of a hundred ways.
The league may or may not want to have an "all-Canadian" division. They may want to maintain or create certain marquee match-ups (Pittsburgh-Washington, anybody?). Which team would move to the Western Conference?
There are too many options and too much politics for this option to be a viable one.
Conversely, the Atlanta Thrashers could move to Québec with relative ease, maintaining the current conference alignments and forcing the shift of just one team to the Southeast Division.
That team would likely be Philadelphia or Pittsburgh, the southernmost Eastern Conference teams not in the Southeast.
Geographically, given this scenario, it makes much more sense to shift the Nashville Predators into the Eastern Conference and Southeast Division with Tampa Bay, Florida, Carolina, and Washington. The Penguins, Maple Leafs, or Sabres would be viable transfers into the Western Conference's Central Division.
Ironically, it's much easier for the Thrashers to shift cross-conference than it would be for the Coyotes. Atlanta could move to Winnipeg, and the Predators, as mentioned above, could shift to the Eastern Conference.
While it would be easiest to maintain the Atlanta franchise in the Central Division, the most logical divisional alignment would see the new Winnipeg franchise move to the Northwest Division, while the Minnesota Wild would shift to the Central Division, playing opponents like Detroit, Chicago, and St. Louis, which are much closer to Minneapolis than the west coast.
The simple fact is that it's a shame to see an NHL team be forced to relocate. It's been done before with success (Colorado, and later, Carolina both won Stanley Cups), so there's no reason to believe it wouldn't benefit the team.
But there are people with their livelihoods at stake—people who rely on jobs at the arena, reporters for their local team, and retailers who sell the team's merchandise.
Change can be a good thing, but it always has two sides. When and if that change happens, the NHL will have plenty of options to choose from to keep the league running smoothly.