Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Future Realignment Issues?

The man in charge of the NHL, Gary Bettman, had some interesting things to say before the Stanley Cup Playoffs began, but I didn't find very much of it to be worthy of comments. However, I began thinking more about his comments on realigning the divisions and conferences, and it dawned on me that the problems facing the NHL this season may only compound next season if the NHL can't find a way to salvage the Phoenix Coyotes for 2012-13. If the Coyotes are moved after next season to possibly Quebec City or Kansas City, the NHL faces a whole new set of problems in their realignment.

Bettman spoke of how realignment cannot allow a competitive disadvantage to occur if, say, the Detroit Red Wings moved to the Eastern Conference. Obviously, the powerful Red Wings would be one of the better Eastern Conference teams based solely on their record from past seasons, so Bettman was cautious in ensuring that any team that moves won't find themselves at an advantage or disadvantage. Those that would like to move and those teams receiving the newly-moved team, however, would get a say on what they thought of the potential move.

"All those clubs need an opportunity to be heard," Bettman said. "That's a process we'll go through the first half of next season, looking at the issues that clubs want to raise, looking at various possibilities, and trying to figure out what will make the most sense moving forward."

I truly believe that the Columbus Blue Jackets will be the team that gets shifted to the Eastern Conference. While I have nothing but speculation to go on, it seems that the Blue Jackets are the most likely selection for a few reasons:

  • Competitive balance. The Southeast Division loses an up-and-coming team in the Atlanta Thrashers/Manitoba NHLers, and replaces it with another up-and-coming team in the Columbus Blue Jackets. Both teams have only appeared in the playoffs once, but the Blue Jackets played in the ultra-competitive Central Division, so they should hopefully improve if playing in the Southeast Division.
  • Money. The Blue Jackets have lost a reported $80 million since the lockout, so cutting travel costs by reducing the number of west coast trips would help immensely. It would make up all the money they've lost, but it is a way to cut costs. Especially when you consider that Columbus-to-Anaheim is 1963 miles one-way while Columbus-to-Florida is 968 miles one-way. Significant difference, indeed.
  • Time zones. The Blue Jackets play in the Central Division, but operate in Eastern Time. Therefore, almost all of their conference games are played in time zones other than Eastern Time. Only Detroit and Nashville games would be played in Eastern Time, so you have to think that has a serious effect on the team after 82 games.
Of course, Nashville and Detroit can claim the same issues as Columbus when it comes to time zones and travel, but the difference is that neither of those teams are bleeding money at this point, and both are extremely competitive in the Western Conference.

Personally, I believe that if Detroit left the Western Conference, there would be an immediate shift of power to the Eastern Conference. If Detroit was to swap conferences, there would only be three Western Conference Stanley Cup winners since 2000. While Detroit has maintained that they want to be moved to the Eastern Conference for the travel relief, I can't see the NHL breaking up rivalries such as Chicago-Detroit and San Jose-Detroit just to help Detroit with travel across time zones.

As for Nashville, I can't see them requesting a shift in conferences simply due to the rivalries they have built with a number of Western Conference teams like Detroit, Chicago, and Vancouver. Walking away from those guaranteed sell-outs is nothing short of idiotic, so I believe that Detroit and Nashville will remain as Western Conference teams.

There are a few options that can happen in the realignment situations. I want to be clear that none of these options have been confirmed, discussed, or even tabled in front of the NHL Board of Governors at this point, so this is just my own speculation. Here are the options that I've thought about and considered:
  • Option 1: Manitoba joins the Northwest Division. Colorado would shift to the Pacific Division. Dallas would shift to the Central Division. Columbus would shift to the Southeast Division. This works out well for all the teams involved, and seems to be the most logical of the solutions so that all of the respective teams play within or very near to their home time zones. Manitoba would be the only team that has to cross multiple time zones to play division rivals.
  • Option 2: Manitoba joins the Central Division. Columbus would shift to the Southeast Division. While this works, it also leaves Dallas in the Pacific Division which doesn't help them at all. Dallas has wanted out of the Pacific Division due to the multiple time zone problem, so the league would have to review another move to accommodate this request.
Option 1 seems like the best choice for everyone. Colorado and Dallas get to play in divisions that are much closer to home, Manitoba gets a number of Canadian rivals plus Minnesota, and Columbus gets to travel much less and play in a division that isn't quite as difficult as the Central Division.

So what happens in 2012-13 if Phoenix's time runs out? Well, Kansas City has an arena, but no ownership. Quebec City has an ownership group, but no suitable arena. Seattle and Portland have neither an NHL-ready arena nor waiting ownership. Atlanta - do you even consider them for a third time? - has an arena, but no ownership. Hamilton has ownership, but no suitable arena.

Realignment after this season will work for the teams in their current locations, but it seems as though this realignment situation could become a headache if Phoenix suddenly becomes a team with no home. Had the NHL simply allowed the Coyotes to leave Phoenix for Winnipeg, the picture of realignment would be much easier even if the Thrashers could have survived for one more season. Instead, the realignment proposed for 2012-13 could mean more realignment in the future.

Of course, if the city of Glendale enjoys seeing $25 million eliminated from its bottom line year after year, this may not be an issue at all. Boy, what a tangled web weaved!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!


Anonymous said...

Two remarks :

-I'm pretty sure the Rose Garden in Portland is a suitable arena.

-What about Houston ? Don't they have an arena ready and some interest in NHL last expansions ?

Teebz said...

Two things on that:

1) NHL-ready is different from ready. The Rose Garden, while being adequate, is locked down by the Portland Trail Blazers as the main tenant. There would have to be some major changes for the NHL to move in.

2) Houston had interest in the 1980s, but they have seen little in the way of bringing an NHL team to town over the last twenty years. The Toyota Center is a great venue, but the AHL Aeros are the main draw in town for hockey, and the Houston Rockets get the prime dates for their home games.

JTH said...

How does the fact that the Blazers play in the Rose Garden preclude it from being an NHL-ready arena? There are plenty of NHL teams that co-habitate with an NBA team (or two, in the LA Kings' case).

At any rate, unless the NHL adopts a balanced schedule, I really hope the Wings stay put. It would mean that the Blackhawks would pretty much never play any O6 teams.

Actually, I think the concept of geographical divisions is bogus.

Teebz said...

Paul Allen, the owner of the Blazers, owns the Rose Garden. I'm pretty sure he calls the shots as to which teams play there and who gets first billing.

The WHL's Portland Winterhawks don't even play all of their home games there. Why would Allen consider putting an NHL team in there to bump dates from his Trail Blazers? He even declined an offer to purchase the Penguins when they went through bankruptcy.

Portland is simply a "no" until someone can loosen Paul Allen's grip on the Rose Garden.

JTH said...

Do you really expect a WHL team to play all its home games in a 20,000 seat arena?

Just because Allen didn't want to buy the Pens doesn't mean he's completely opposed to an NHL tenant. If he thought it made financial sense to buy them, he would have.

And NBA teams play 2 or 3 home games a week. Put an NHL team in there and that's another 2 or 3 days' worth of parking and concessions sold. Not to mention the inevitable sponsorships, etc.

Teebz said...

The whole point is that he said no to the NHL when he had a chance to get in at rock-bottom prices when the Penguins were up for sale. If he didn't want in then with an up-and-coming team like the Penguins, why would he want in any other time?

Tod Leiweke, a hockey man who worked for Allen as CEO of his Vulcan Holdings company, said of the NHL in Portland, "I've never thought of Portland as a two winter-sport town. I was dubious when I heard David Kahn talking about Major League Baseball there. It's just not a huge market. I was somewhat protective of wanting to see the Blazers work. By the way, the Buckaroos - hockey was a big deal in the Northwest. The Vancouver Millionaires, the Seattle Totems, there's still a lot of passionate hockey fans. I always felt that job one was that the Blazers would be long-term successful and that's how it sure looks now."

Further, it seems that anyone who is involved with Vulcan has never even entertained the idea of having the NHL in Portland.

"We’ve been asked over the years whether Paul has an interest in bringing an NHL team to Portland and we’ve consistently said no," said David Postman, a spokesman for Allen’s Seattle-based Vulcan Ventures Inc. "It’s nothing that’s even been discussed" during Postman’s three years with Vulcan.

JTH said...

Again, I'm not saying Allen has to own the hockey team for them to come to town. And the conspiracy theorist in me thinks along these lines.

Back when the Penguins were up for sale, there was no NBA vacancy in Seattle. Today, there is one.

Bring an NHL team to town and it might take some of the spotlight away from his basketball team, giving Paul a convenient excuse to turn the Trail Blazers into the SuperSonics.

James said...

Houston (3 different prospective owners) had a shot in the late nineties. At the time, the Toyota Center was not built. So they didn't get a NHL team, even if they were seen as frontrunner.

It is well rumored that Les Alexander wants a NHL team in the building.

I think it would work. And Dallas would be pretty happy too !

Daniel #2 said...

Shouldn't MN be in the central rather than the NW? Every road game they play is in a different time zone and significanty far away...I guess Winnipeg has the same problem, but it seems more fitting that they would be in the NW for a natural rivalry with the Canadian teams.

Teebz said...

You're right, Daniel, but Dallas plays three division rivals in the Pacific time zone as compared to Minnesota's one. Therefore, Minnesota has a less arduous road schedule within their own division.