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If Thrashers move to Winnipeg will Preds move to East?

Rumors are abound that the Atlanta Thrashers will be moving to Winnipeg, Manitoba before next season.

But if the Nashville Predators lose their closest georaphical rival, does it really matter? The Preds are in the Western Conference while the Thrashers are in the East and, therefore, rarely play each other. So is this a situation we should be monitoring closely here in Music City?

Absolutely.

If Atlanta moves to Winnipeg, it would almost certainly free up a spot in the Eastern Conference that a West team would need to fill. Considering the Columbus Blue Jackets, Detroit Red Wings and Nashville Predators are the three clubs closest to the Eastern Conference without being a member, you’d have to assume that one of them will be moving. But which one?

Columbus is the eastern-most West team but Detroit is just a stones throw away from northern teams like Toronto, Buffalo and Pittsburgh. But, then again, the East isn’t losing a team up north. They’re losing a team from the Southeast and the closest team to the Southeast is Nashville.

So who goes?

Rather than speculate who should go (because all three teams mentioned above have a case), I propose a complete Conference realignment in the National Hockey League.

Below is the current geographical map of the NHL.

The league is made up of 30 teams with five teams in each of the six divisions and three divisions in each conference. Working by that current model, it would be easiest if the NHL put the Winnipeg Thrashers in the Central Division and moved the Nashville Predators into the Southeast Division. There. Done.

But what if they killed several birds with one stone? Vancouver, a Pacific Time Zone team, has long been in the Northwest while Dallas, a Central Time Zone team, has long been in the Pacific. Yes, the Canucks are closer to their division rivals the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames but those teams are also in a division with the Minnesota Wild, a team that’s 1,800 miles away from Vancouver.

That’s just ridiculous.

So I propose the NHL realign the entire league. But not just by reshuffling the divisional deck. Why not shuffle the entire system? Why not think outside the box a little bit and create three conferences with two divisions in each? It would look as such:

[table id=11 /]

Below is the proposed geographical map of the NHL, seperated into the three conferences. You can see that the western most teams are grouped together, the central and southern most teams are grouped together and then the eastern and northern most teams are grouped together.

Does this make the NHL a perfect world? Absolutely not. After all, the Red Wings are just a lake hop from the Toronto Maple Leafs but, to keep the conferences at 10 teams each, this makes the most sense. Unless you want to put the Washington Capitals, who are in the Philadelphia Flyers’ backyard in with the southern teams but they’re clearly in the cluster in the northeast.

So, no, it doesn’t solve all the problems and complaints but it does create a more even playing field. Especially with the time zones alone. Travel is brutal and every team is going to have to do it. But, if you’re Los Angeles, why would you want to travel four hours on a plane and then lose two hours in the time change just to play a divisional game in Dallas, Texas three times a year?

As the league is structered now, each team plays the other teams in its division six times. That’s 24 games that each team is required to play against their divisional opponents. Each team then plays the other teams in their conference four times each, giving us 40 more games. Then, the teams play opponents in the opposite conference 18 times (spread over 15 teams), giving us the grand total of 82 regular season games.

In my proposal, the NHL would go from an 82 game schedule back to an 80 game schedule. Each team would play the other nine teams in its conference four times each (two games at home, two games on the road) for a total of 36 games. They would then play one additional game against the other four teams in their own division (alternating home games each year) for a total of four games. Then they would play each of the teams in the other conferences once at home and once away for a total of 40 more games. This gives you an even 80 games, 40 at home and 40 on the road, and something the NHL fails to have now: everyone playing everyone at least once home and away.

Obviously this solves a lot of problems in the regular season but a three conference league poses questions about the playoff structure. So when it comes to the post season and the seeding, instead of 1 plays 8, 2 plays 7, etc., I say 1 plays 16, 2 plays 15, etc. While this may seem lopsided, it really isn’t. Sure, if they had this system in the NBA, they’d have a 37-45 Indiana Pacers squad going up against a 62-20 Chicago Bulls team. But this isn’t the NBA. This is the NHL. Parity exists here and, with this system, the 95 point Dallas Stars would’ve went toe-to-toe with the 117 point Canucks in the first round, the 107 point Caps would’ve played the 96 point Buffalo Sabres, the 106 point Flyers would’ve squared off against the 96 point Montreal Canadiens, and so on. (Remember, if you’re pooling everyone together, the New York Rangers wouldn’t have gotten in thanks to a weaker Eastern Conference).

What this system also does is eliminate the “they’re only there because they beat up on an inferior division” argument. We’ve heard that so often about the team coming out of the Southeast where high-flying Washington obliterates bad Atlanta, Carolina and Florida teams and has basically won the division title before the NHL Trade Deadline in February. This way, it’s more spread out. You’re only playing your divisional foes five times instead of six and everyone else is playing them as well. Albeit less frequently but that’s better than what goes on now. With the current system, you could go two years before playing against Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins while other unfortunate teams are subjected to playing them twice in a single season.

Regardless of whether they take this opportunity to make over the entire league or not, the NHL should at least entertain the idea. Simply relocating the Atlanta franchise to the city of Winnipeg and putting them in the Central while moving Nashville to the Southeast would be the easiest solution and, quite honetly, may be necessary logistically for the 2011-12 season. But, going forward, it has to be something the league looks at.

You’re never going to please everyone, we know that. But you also get very rare opportunities to revisit how you do things and the relocation of a franchise is one of those rare opportunities.

SPECIAL THANKS TO: Oilers Nation for the NHL map.

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