A lot of coverage has been given to the nearly inevitable move of the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg, resulting in what many people believe will be the long-anticipated return of the Winnipeg Jets to the NHL (I'm sure I'm not the only one who thinks "Winnipeg Thrashers" sounds like a terrible team name).
However I'm going to shed some light on something that has been often overlooked when talking about this move: how will this affect the NHL's division structure?
It's not hard to see that Winnipeg is too far away to be the fifth and final spot in the Southeast division, so this opens a lot of questions about what the NHL's standings and schedule will look like next season.
If we take a look at a map, we can find the city of Winnipeg in south-central Canada, just inside the Western border of the state of Minnesota, were it extended into Canada.
This geography more or less guarantees that the Winnipeg Thrashers/Jets will no doubt be moving from the Eastern Conference to the Western Conference. However, this will completely throw the balance of 15 teams in each conference off.
So who moves?
While the NHL will no doubt be making its decision based most closely on the input of its owners, here are a few solutions that I believe will be presented and possibly seen next season should the Thrashers be on their way to Canada.
If we were going to go purely geographically, the Western Conference team located the furthest East is the Detroit Red Wings, though not by much with Columbus sitting almost directly south.
However, with both the Red Wings and Blue Jackets playing in the Western Conference, the West plays across all four North American time zones, while the East plays exclusively on Eastern Time.
It appears right now the most popular consensus is for the Detroit Red Wings to change conferences.
Moving one of these teams makes sense because it will appease the Eastern Conference owners in that they will not have to leave their time zone to play their in-conference games, the large bulk of their schedule.
However, moving the powerhouse Red Wings to the East doesn't make sense because it suddenly throws the talent balance of that conference way out of whack.
Were the Red Wings to move over, one of the strongest teams in the far-superior Western Conference will suddenly be playing the bulk of their schedule in a much easier Eastern Conference.
While this would help to balance the huge talent disparity between the East and the West that has been so heavily prominent over the past five-or-so years, the competition in the East will suffer undoubtedly for at least a couple years due to the Red Wings' inevitable dominance.
If the Wings were to move, I wouldn't be surprised whatsoever if they absolutely dominated the East for the next couple years, winning the Eastern Conference with very little challenge.
However, this could be a good thing in the long run because it will force the East to improve to compete in a suddenly much tougher conference.
On the other hand, this move will also no doubt create a complete restructuring of the East that just about every team is not going to like (consider this before chewing my head off in the comments). Pretty much any way you look at it, divisional rivalries that have been created over the past several years will be broken as teams will find themselves in new division to accommodate the Red Wings, resulting in tougher divisions with tougher travel schedules.
However, as a Western Conference fan, I really believe this increase in travel will actually help even out the travel disparity between the East and the West, where the travel schedule would still be far tougher than the East even if the Wings moved.
So here are some divisional suggestions if the Red Wings were to be moved over:
If we wanted to go with something simple:
Northwest: Winnipeg, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Colorado. Central: Minnesota, Chicago, Nashville, St. Louis, Columbus. Inland Division (Eastern Conference): Detroit, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Toronto, Ottawa, Northeast: Boston, Montreal, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, New Jersey. Southeast: Philadelphia, Washington, Tampa Bay, Florida, Carolina
Yeah, you read that right, this would create an entirely new division that I call the "Inland Division" and do away with the Atlantic Division completely.
On the positive side, this layout would bring back a few very old rivalries, such as the Red Wings-Maple Leafs, which has just about gone extinct since the Wings became part of the West.
Likewise, this sticks the Wings in what is probably one of the tougher divisions in the NHL, with both a very talented Pittsburgh and a maturing and improving Buffalo team. This would create a huge rivalry between Sidney Crosby and the duo of Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, widely regarded as one of the best shut-down units in addition to their scoring talents.
However, negatively is this does split up the established rivalry between the Penguins and the Philadelphia Flyers, who would now become part of the Southeast, and this would reduce their meetings from six times a season to four.
On the other hand, if we wanted to try to keep the Eastern divisions as close as possible to what they are now, the West would have the capability to adapt, but it wouldn't involve sending the Red Wings to the East:
Northwest: Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Colorado. Central: Detroit, Chicago, Nashville, Minnesota, St. Louis. Southeast: Washington, Tampa Bay, Florida, Carolina, Columbus.
Geographically, the Blue Jackets are the closest team to the Southeast Division, sitting virtually directly south of the Detroit Red Wings.
From a competitive standpoint, this would change the competitive standpoint of the two conferences very little, as it would be trading a mediocre Atlanta franchise for an equally, if not more mediocre Columbus one (that is also showing very little resolve to improve its lineup).
This is good in that this move will not drastically change the landscape of the Southeast division or the Eastern Conference, other than maybe a slightly more difficult travel schedule for teams like Florida or Tampa Bay.
This move would also help the Blue Jackets in that it will put them in a less competitive division and give them room to build and possibly have a better chance at a playoff spot since they aren't being beat up by the Red Wings, Blackhawks, and Predators six times a season.
This change would involve Columbus having to fly East to play a Western team, a fact the NHL will probably not like. But, from a competitive balance standpoint and a geographical and time-zone perspective, the Blue Jackets would be a good addition to the Southeast Division.
However, if the NHL wanted to use this move to really overhaul their division structure, things could get a little crazy:
Pacific: Anaheim, Los Angeles, San Jose, Phoenix, Colorado. Northwest: Calgary, Vancouver, Edmonton, Minnesota, Winnipeg. Central: Chicago, Columbus, Nashville, St. Louis, Dallas. Inland: Detroit, Toronto, Ottawa, Buffalo, Pittsburgh. Northeast: Boston, Montreal, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, New Jersey Devils. Southeast: Washington, Tampa Bay, Florida, Carolina, Philadelphia
This sort of a change would affect every single team in the NHL as every division would face some sort of a change.
Again, this change would result in the elimination of the Atlantic Division in favor of what I call the "Inland Division" (in that these teams are all inland from the eastern seaboard).
And again, this would also bring back the old Detroit-Toronto rivalry as well as build on the already budding Detroit-Pittsburgh rivalry (as well as give NBC six more games to broadcast since let's face it, Detroit or Pittsburgh is on NBC virtually every week).
However, this would involve sending the Red Wings to the East, which, as I've stated before, will be negative in the short-term as it will throw a major bump into the competitive landscape of the East, but will be beneficial in the long-term as teams will be forced to improve to compete with Detroit, which will balance the skill between the East and the West.
Additionally, the owners (and most specifically the Central Division owners) will not like the fact that their divisional play will require them to travel all the way south to Dallas three times a season. Add the fact that this is a divisional game and it could be on the tail end of a back-to-back, making games on consecutive nights possibly over a thousand miles apart.
Of course, all of this is assuming the Thrashers will move from Atlanta to Winnipeg.
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