Thursday, June 2, 2011

Thrashers to Winnipeg; Detroit to the East?

As has been rumored for months (years?), the Atlanta Thrashers have been sold, and will be moving to Winnipeg, giving them their first NHL team since 1996. I haven't been a true hockey fan long enough to offer much in the way of "How will this team do in Winnipeg?" or "Will the NHL ever return to Atlanta?" What I can talk about, however, is realignment.

As a sports fan, realignment is in my blood. Some of you may remember a time when the Atlanta Braves were in the NL West?* A time before wild cards and Central divisions? With expansion in all four major sports over the past few decades, we've seen countless adjustments and realignments, and with the Thrashers moving way, way north, we've got another one coming.

So how will it shake out? The NHL has basically committed to the new Winnipeg franchise being moved to the Western conference, and they've suggested three teams as possibly moving to the East to replace the old Thrashers: the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Detroit Red Wings, or the Nashville Predators.

First things first, I don't see the Red Wings going East. Ever since the Western Conference came into existence in 1993, Detroit has been one of the staples of the conference, a powerhouse that's won four Stanley Cups, made the finals two other times, and qualified for the playoffs every single year. Additionally, Chicago is the only other member of the Original Six in the Western Conference.

The NHL may like to say that they've got great parity, and they definitely have a strong salary cap system, but moving Detroit to the East would swing the balance of power (and hockey history) pretty heavily. So I think that will prevent them from getting realigned.

That leaves Columbus and Nashville. Both franchises are fairly new (Nashville started play in 1998, Columbus in 2000), and neither has had a great deal of success. Nashville won their first playoff series just this year, while Columbus has never actually won a playoff game. Geographically, both are far enough east that they would logically fit into the Eastern Conference, and neither has any tremendous history that would be lost with a realignment.

If Nashville were the team of choice, the move would be pretty easy, actually. They would slide right into Atlanta's old spot in the Southeast division, and would immediately contend with Washington and Tampa Bay for the top spot in the division. And their defense-first mentality would add another layer to a heavily offensive division.

Columbus coming to the East might complicate things a bit. They could still fit into the Southeast, but that wouldn't jive with geographical logic. Working from a purely geographical standpoint, we'd move Philadelphia into the Southeast, and Columbus would take their place in the Atlantic, joining Pittsburgh, New Jersey, and the two New York teams.

My expectation, and my preference, would be for Nashville to move to the Southeast. Not only does it make the most sense geographically, but I like the idea of Washington having to face a stout defensive team like Nashville six times a year. Obviously teams change over time, but in the short term, I think it'd help these Caps to continue to grow as a team.

*The Braves are the only team in baseball to win a division crown in both the East and West divisions; the Brewers are the only other team to play in both an East and a West, but they never won the West (where they started as the Seattle Pilots).

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