Tuesday, April 24, 2012

NHL Expansion and Realignment Option

Currently the NHL is a 30 team league. The current collective bargaining agreement is about to expire, and last season the Atlanta Thrashers moved to Winnipeg and the League has had a potential realignment plan rejected by the NHLPA. The Phoenix Coyotes have no owner and several other teams are in financial distress. With so many issues swirling and surrounding the NHL when the dust settles, what will the map look like?

Before I get into too many issues, let’s assume the new CBA is agreed upon in a timely manner, and very little changes.

With that out of the way, let’s look at realignment, relocation, and expansion.

Relocation and Expansion:
Several teams are potential suitors for relocation including Phoenix, The New York Islanders, and the New Jersey Devils. These four teams are perhaps the teams that are struggling the most financially, need a new facility, or simply have no ownership.

Potential destinations for relocating teams or expansion include Quebec City, Seattle, Toronto, Kansas city, and Las Vegas.

Quebec City:
Hockey is religion in Canada and Quebec has supported the NHL in the past. The disparities between the American and Canadian dollars were the cause of Quebec needing to move in the past. Those concerns are now gone as the parity between the two currencies is negligible.  Furthermore the city of Quebec is set to begin construction on a 18,000-seat, $400-million NHL-style rink in September. Until the rink is constructed the NHL could play out of Le Colisee, the former home of the Nordiques. The Ottawa Senators spent several seasons in Lansdowne Stadium until the now Scotiabank Place was constructed. With the success of the return of the NHL in Winnipeg, the NHL must be looking at Quebec as a viable and attractive option.

Seattle: Both the NHL, and NBA have quietly expressed interest in expanding back into Seattle. A coalition of real estate and area civic leaders has thrown their collective efforts into plans for a multipurpose arena that could house both the NBA and NHL. The Sacramento Kings of the NBA are looking likely to be relocated to Seattle, but that plan only is financially viable if there is a second tenant. An NHL franchise for example.

Toronto: The Greater Toronto Area (GTA) is a hockey hot bed and with a population over six million there is a desperate need for more NHL hockey than one franchise can provide. Markham, a town just north of Toronto is could be announcing any day approval for plans to build a new facility.  Graeme Roustan and real estate mogul Rudolph Bratty are behind the project. The 20,000-seater is designed to host major sporting events and concerts. If construction starts this year, the arena could be up and running in 2014. Meanwhile a team could temporarily play out of Copps Coliseum in Hamilton.

Kansas: Kansas City already has a rink, the Sprint center. The Pittsburgh Penguins almost moved there a short while ago before they finalized a deal to build the CONSOLE Energy Center and keep the Penguins in Pittsburgh. The catch with Kansas city seems to be the potential owners there know that Kansas City is not Winnipeg and fans will not flock to see the team unless they are competitive.

Las Vegas: Believe it or not, there is hockey history in Sin City! There was a minor league team, the Las Vegas Thunder that played from 1993-1999. Every NHL pre-season since 1997, the Los Angeles Kings and Colorado Avalanche play the Frozen Fury at the 16,800 seat capacity MGM Grand Garden Arena. It has been sold out every year, with substantial attendance from Las Vegas locals as well as traveling Kings and Avalanche fans. Furthermore, the NHL Awards are annually held in Vegas and Hollywood Producer Jerry Bruckheimer has been rumored to be interested in bringing the NHL to Sin City.

The NHL is resistant to the notion of allowing teams to relocate. In specific cases there is no better alternative. The lack of ownership interested in keeping the Coyotes in Phoenix makes them a prime candidate. The Islanders lease on an insufficient Nassau Coliseum will expire soon and they will need a new home. Commissioner Gary Bettman recently refuted the notion of the Islanders moving to Brooklyn saying that it would be hard for the fan base in Long Island and Queens to reach the team at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. An article on The Hockey Writers disagrees, but regardless, it appears that the NHL does not like the idea of moving the Islanders to Brooklyn.

So assuming both Phoenix and the Islanders need to relocate, where do they go?

If at the same time the NHL is considering expansion, this would be an ideal time to do so. Adding two new franchises would add an influx of cash into the league, and beginning the new season armed with a new CBA, and four new franchises including two in Canada would create a tremendous buzz around the NHL.

By virtue of either relocation, or expansion, the NHL could see franchises in four new cities in, Las Vegas, Markham, Seattle, and Quebec.

With a 32 team League the NHL would have two 16 team Conferences and could have four divisions with four teams in each. A potential playoff format could see the first round playoff seeding be a division first and second place rival match up. After the divisional playoff round, the conference final four revert to overall seeding through to the Cup Finals.

With two teams relocating, one from the East (Phoenix), and one from the West (New York Islanders) and shifting Winnipeg into the West, and Detroit into the East here is what the Conferences could look like

Western Conference             Eastern Conference

Division 1.
Calgary                Montreal
Edmonton            Ottawa
Seattle                  Quebec City
Vancouver           Toronto

Division 2.
Anaheim              Boston
Las Vegas            Buffalo
Los Angeles         Detroit
San Jose               Markham

Division 3.
Chicago               New Jersey
Minnesota            New York
St. Louis              Philadelphia
Winnipeg             Pittsburgh

Division 4.
Colorado             Carolina
Columbus           Florida
Dallas                 Tampa Bay
Nashville            Washington

While this number of, and magnitude of changes is logistically impossible to accomplish in one off season, it is within the realm of possibilities that in the not too distant future the map of the NHL resembles something similar to this.

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