Could Southeast Division fans be losing one of their own members to the great white north?
In 1996, during the ‘Canadian Flight Era’ of the NHL, the Winnipeg Jets were one of several teams that crossed the border to an American professional sports market. Moving to Phoenix and becoming the Coyotes, the Manitoba city has been without an NHL team now for 15 years – but financial troubles in the last few years by the Coyotes have left Winnipeg hovering the team like someone waiting for a bar stool to open up.
The Coyotes needed to find some $25m to stay operating or a new buyer (presumably the True North group of, you guessed it, Winnipeg) could swoop in, but thanks to some idiosyncrasies of the team and the hockey-only-arena they play in out in the Phoenix suburb of Glendale, the town and the NHL are sinking more money into the franchise to keep them around.
If only the same lifeline could be thrown to the Caps Southeast Division rival, the Atlanta Thrashers.
The expansion Thrashers just finished their 12th season in the NHL, with only one playoff appearance to their name. Even though they are the last team not named the Capitals to win the Southeast (that would be the 06-07 season), they have finished fourth in three of the four years since. In addition to mediocrity on the ice, the Thrashers have had some issues with ownership and finances themselves. Now that the Coyotes aren’t going anywhere for now, that Winnipeg group – still so set on getting a team – may try to acquire the Thrashers and move them north. Interestingly, this stands as potentially the second time Atlanta would lose an NHL team to Canada; the Calgary Flames once too called Atlanta home.
The commissioner is continuing to deny reports that a deal is done or even on the table, but a lot of that may have to do with trying to not divert attention away from the ongoing conference finals. That won’t stop us from doing what we do best: hypothesizing.
As it has been whenever we get to one of these columns, the disclaimer that must accompany this article is “this is pure speculation” on my part.
Here’s the thing about moving a team from Atlanta to Winnipeg – Manitoba isn’t exactly in the southeast, nor really even in the east at all. In fact, it lines up almost directly with Dallas, just about 1,285 miles up the road north. If the Thrashers were to move to Winnipeg, there stands a very good chance that the NHL could conduct a little realignment. After all, the relocated franchise would be further west than no less than six Western Conference teams.
What is very likely is that the eastern most Western Conference team – the Columbus Blue Jackets – could be flipped across to the Eastern side of things. However, that still wouldn’t make sense from a “Southeast Division” perspective, what, with it being just across the Ohio border from Pittsburgh.
So, let’s play a game. Let’s realign the divisions, shall we?
If Columbus comes across, it makes a ton of sense to pair them with Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Toronto and Ottawa. Geographically, travel, potential rivals with the two other American teams. Let’s call that the North Division. That leaves a few other teams in limbo who had been in divisions with those teams. Boston and Montreal could unite with the three New York-area teams, rebuilding the Northeast Division. After that, the only team without a home is Philadelphia, which could take Atlanta’s place in what we’ll call the South Division.
I actually like this a lot for the Capitals. Playing in what has been a weak division over the past few years, while it has certainly helped the Caps gain one seeds and the Presidents’ Trophy, hasn’t exactly been beneficial when the competition gets fierce in the playoffs. Bringing in Philly, while it may make things more challenging during the season, could also benefit the team in the long run. Not only does it continue and perhaps make the Philly rivalry more intense, a full season race for the division crown with them may help prepare the Caps better for the playoffs.
This is just one scenario – there are simpler ones that aren’t as geographically nice (i.e., move Nashville instead of Columbus, and just slide them right into the Southeast); there are more complicated ones (move to two imbalanced divisions of North/South with eight teams in one, seven in the other). I don’t know if any as work as nicely as the one above, which is still far from perfect since you split up the Pennsylvania teams and take away the Flyers/Rangers division rivalry. Then again, this is all for fun.
We’ll find out if the Southeast loses Atlanta over the next month or so, and at that point, the people who get paid to do this will have at the realignments as they deem fit.