With multiple sources now reporting that the deal that will send the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg is all but complete, the NHL will need some serious realignment. The Thrashers currently play in the Southeast Division alongside Tampa Bay, Florida, Carolina, and Washington DC. Winnipeg is just northwest of Minneapolis.
Rumors persist that next season will see no realignment due to the lateness of the move; team relocations are typically finalized in January. Instead, the Winnipeg team may play in the Southeast for a year before the league changes things up in time for the 2012-13 season. As awkward as this would be for both travel and the TV schedule, it would allow the league plenty of time to make a calculated and rational realignment decision.
Of course the NHL wants to minimize disruption as much as possible, meaning that only a couple of teams will be affected by the realignment. As of right now, the three leading candidates to take Atlanta's place in the East all come from the Central Division: Detroit, Columbus, and Nashville. Detroit is the oldest of the group and seeks to resume their old rivalry with Toronto. However, this would diminish their rekindled rivalry with Chicago and strong rivalry with St. Louis. The Redwings are also further north than a good chunk of the Atlantic Division teams. Columbus is the eastern most team in the Western Conference. The Blue Jackets do not have any strong rivalries and are one of the youngest teams in the league. Although they are closer to Pittsburgh than anyone else and would appreciate that rivalry, the Jackets are further south than the Atlantic teams. Nashville is a nice geographical fit for the Southeast. Coincidentally, the Predators are the closest team to the Thrashers, and they will still be among the closest to the Hurricanes and Florida teams. Both Detroit and Columbus are in the Eastern Time Zone; Nashville is in the Central Time Zone. Regardless of which team it is, the hole in the Southeast Division will most likely be plugged by a team from the Central Division.
So now we have another hole to fill. Winnipeg could simply slide into the Central, but they are further west than Minnesota and almost due north of Dallas. Minnesota currently plays in the Northwest Division and Dallas plays in the Pacific Division. Given that Minnesota is the closest team to Winnipeg, it makes sense to keep them together, which means that Winnipeg would join Minnesota in the Northwest. Dallas would move to the Central. This scenario would require a team to move from the Northwest to the Pacific. One one hand, Colorado would make sense because of their proximity to Phoenix and the California teams. On the other hand, Vancouver makes sense because Winnipeg would be the fourth Canadian team in the Northwest. I think that the NHL will rely on geography and Colorado will take Dallas' spot in the Pacific.
I think the NHL realignment will look something like this:
Northeast: Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, Buffalo, Boston
Atlantic: New York Rangers, NY Islanders, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh
Southeast: DC, Florida, Tampa Bay, Carolina, Columbus
Central: Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, Nashville, Dallas
Northwest: Minnesota, Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver
Pacific: San Jose, LA, Anaheim, Phoenix, Colorado
However, I think that this is a prime opportunity to really change things up. Stronger divisions and rivalries can arise. Better TV schedules can be made (a major argument coming out of Detroit and Columbus). Fans may be able to travel to more away games in the Western Conference.
The guidelines I am using are as follows: the league will maintain two conferences with three divisions each, both will be geographically based (ie no Original Six conference), the conferences will carry an equal number of teams, historical/natural rivalries will be preserved as much as possible, and no division can span more than two time zones. However, division names can be changed. I am also not counting on expansion or retraction.
Northeastern: Montreal, Boston, NY Rangers, NY Islanders, New Jersey
Colonial: Columbus, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Washington, Carolina
Great Lakes: Detroit, Toronto, Buffalo, Chicago, Ottawa
Southern: Florida, Tampa Bay, Nashville, Dallas, St. Louis
Pacific: LA, San Jose, Anaheim, Phoenix, Vancouver
Prairies: Colorado, Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg, Minnesota
While it is not perfect, I think that this would provide for better TV schedules and create stronger rivalries within the divisions themselves. The Eastern Conference came out fairly well rounded and looks to be considerably dominant. Because so many teams are located so closely together, TV times are less of a concern than they are in the West. Travel distances are also less of an issue. Every team is located in the Eastern Time Zone except Chicago.
Detroit moves away from the Western Conference travel schedule and rekindle their rivalry with Toronto while also maintaining the Wings' rivalry with Chicago. Though the Canadians lose their extensive series with the Maple Leafs, they retain their rivalry with the Bruins and add fellow Original Six member New York Rangers. Pittsburgh maintains its rivalry with Philadelphia while picking up nearby Columbus and adding more games against Washington. Philadelphia and Washington should pick up intensity as well, given their proximity. Columbus and Carolina benefit from the popularity and strength of their new opponents.
Keeping Minnesota and Winnipeg together makes sense considering that they are closer to each other than to anybody else; they are also the only remaining Central Time Zone teams. Calgary and Edmonton are also closely tied. The Alberta teams seem to fit best with Winnipeg and Minnesota, which establishes a Central and Mountain Time Zone. Unfortunately this creates an issue with the division's fifth team. Despite Colorado being further from all of the teams than Vancouver is from the Alberta pair, the Avalanche's location in the Mountain Time Zone pushed them into this group.
By default, Vancouver joins the Pacific, which keeps the entire division in one time zone for most of the year (stupid Arizona!). The Canucks join all three California teams in a division rounded out by the Coyotes. Other than Vancouver, this division is fairly compact compared to the rest of the Western Conference and should continue to build on current rivalries.
Of course this whole thing could be blown to hell if the Coyotes or Islanders end up moving after next season...
There are several different proposals floating around right now. And I invite you to post yours below, whether directly or as a post to your blog. I will definitely check them out and possibly comment in return.