The Sports Page: NHL Team on the Move
Once upon a time there was a town called Winnipeg in the mysterious land of Manitoba, Canada. Though the natural climate was cold, the sports climate was anything but. Many moons ago, the Winnipeg Jets were the toast of the town. Founded with the World Hockey Association in 1972, the team joined the National Hockey League in 1979. During the 1990s operation costs rose for NHL teams and the Jets began to feel the strain of being in the one of the league’s smallest markets. The team slipped into the red despite the tenacious fan base and their relentless desire to keep the club in town. (We’re talking Cleveland Browns’ fans level dedication ironically enough dealing with something similar at the same time on Lake Erie.) In 1996, the Jets left the Canadian tundra for the Arizona desert. Winnipeg has been without an NHL team since then.
Once upon a time there was a town called Atlanta. Situated in the heart of Georgia, it was an unlikely home of an NHL franchise. From 1972-1980 the Flames called Atlanta home but the tepid fan base led to financial troubles. The team fled to Calgary where they now reside. In 1999, Atlanta was given a new club, the Thrashers. The team struggled both at the gate and on the ice, making the playoffs only once. The bankroll struggled to the tune of $130 million over six years. (At this point putting an NHL team in Atlanta is like giving cash to a compulsive gambler in Vegas; you won’t have it for long). The team fell into disrepair and was bought by True North Sports and Entertainment for the purpose of being relocated to Winnipeg. The Jets were reborn.
Once upon a time there was a town called Columbus. They had a team called the Blue Jackets who have made the playoffs once in ten seasons. Even though the city is located in the Midwest and is in the Eastern Conference, they play in the Western Conference’s Central Division. When the dust is settled, they may be the second biggest winner in this relocation.
Though the deal has been finalized, the Winnipeg Jets will still play in the Southeast Division of the Eastern Conference for the 2011-2012 season. They will be logging some major airline miles this season, but the ship will be righted by divisional realignment next summer. The thirty NHL teams are divided into two 15-team conferences with six total divisions and five teams per division. The Jets returning to the Western Conference creates an imbalance between the conferences which can and will be rectified with a Western Conference team relocating to the East. This is where the Blue Jackets can benefit. The Unionmen are on the short list of clubs that are potential movers to the East. Below is a proposed re-alignment format:
All lines drawn in red are the current setup for divisions. The blue parameters are my suggestions. Winnipeg naturally joins the Pacific Division. Colorado drops down to the Pacific and Dallas shift over to the Central. The Atlantic and Northeast Divisions remain the same with Columbus joining the Southeast. Admittedly it’s odd to think of Columbus being in the country’s “southeast” but it makes even less sense to say they are in the “west.” These moves not only balance the conferences in terms of number but also benefit Columbus in terms of competition. Last season teams in the Western Conference averaged 92.73 points per team. The East’s teams averaged 91.07 points. More close to home, the Jackets finished with 81 points which earned them 13th place and a sixteen point buffer between them and the playoffs. If Columbus were in the East they would have finished in 11th place with a mere 12 points separating them from Stanley. Though these differences may not seem tremendous, consider that if Columbus were in the East they would have on average played teams that were not as good as their opponents in both division and conference. Also, it’s not fair to project wildly into the future that current trends will continue but I’ll take my odds and see what shorter plane rides and traditionally less dominant play do to the team’s morale and position in the standings.
No decision has been rendered yet on realignment and there is no timetable for such a decision. Rumors include Nashville and Detroit on the list of potential relocations but I think (with an ounce or two of bias) that Columbus is the best bet to move East. I hope I am right. I hope the change leads to more balanced competition that can bring the Jackets back to the playoffs. Then again I also hope Steve Mason is taking notes on Tim Thomas playoff performance. There’s only so much a fan can do.