NHL Relocation and Expansion Is Entangled with Realignment

Steve ThompsonAnalyst IIINovember 3, 2011

There has been intense speculation in the Canadian media about the next NHL owners meeting in December. There are rumored to be several issues on the table that will be brought to the forefront.

It is almost a foregone conclusion that the Winnipeg relocation issue will be resolved, with Detroit likely to be moved into the Eastern Conference as they have long desired.

The unresolved Phoenix situation is also rumored to be discussed.

But both these issues are entangled with another issue that the NHL ranks at the top of its problems: realignment.

Besides Detroit, Columbus and Nashville have voiced their unhappiness at being stuck in the Western Conference, where they have to play most of their games in later time zones. This situation causes more costly travel expenses, wears down players especially during playoffs and most importantly, hurts television ratings and television advertising revenue.

With three teams pressing Commissioner Gary Bettman and the Board of Governors for a resolution of financial problems, any changes to the schedule and structure of the NHL will be effected with a satisfactory solution to these teams in mind. It has already played a key role in getting Winnipeg back into the NHL.

The Jets had top notch investors to pitch their case this time, but were saddled with a small market and a miserably small arena. But Winnipeg had one other thing going for them: their time zone location.  Admitting Winnipeg back to the NHL gave the league the chance to resolve one of their realignment problems. Therefore, the NHL became more willing to accept a small market, pretend that Winnipeg's arena, originally built for an AHL team, was NHL size and give up the far larger Atlanta market.

Because two teams will still remain with alignment problems, the NHL will resolve the Phoenix situation and any other relocation and expansion issues in a way that solves the realignment issue. Most fans are speculating on what they believe to be an obvious solution to the Phoenix situation:  Move money-losing Phoenix to Quebec, which is planning to build an NHL size arena by 2015.

That won't happen.  As long as there are alignment problems, the NHL will tolerate an East-East transfer, a West-West transfer and a East-West transfer, but not a West-East move.  Just ask Jim Balsillie.

A more likely resolution would present itself if some potential owners from Kansas City appeared. Kansas City has a satisfactory NHL size arena and put itself back in the picture for an NHL team by a good attendance at an exhibition game this year.

So if Quebec wants a relocated team and the reconciled Balsillie wants to try again for Hamilton, they are going to have to target a troubled Eastern Conference team like the New York Islanders, New Jersey or Florida. As for expansion,  if the NHL wants to go to a symmetrical 32 teams with an NFL-type league structure, it would prefer to admit two Western teams so that the remaining two teams could be moved east. There has already been talks with Seattle earlier this year.  Another solution would be to move money-losing Columbus to another Western city. 

Change is coming.  The NHL can't ignore Quebec's new arena if it is built, and Bettman told the reconciled Balsillie to be patient like he told Winnipeg's investors. And if Hartford could find investors and resolve its arena issue, they would be in the picture, too. 

But for now, the NHL is looking to western cities to provide an answer to its alignment problems.

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