Thursday, April 21, 2011

Northward Migration? A Proposal for the Inevitable NHL Realignment

Yes, I am aware its the middle of the playoffs, but the Pens got a few days I wanted to talk about a story that has been underlying for a while now and is about to come to a head, in my opinion. 

Lets begin by getting a few things straight. First, I am a believer that two competing ideas can both be right at once. What this means is that yes, the NHL did make some errors in judgement regarding southern and western expansion in the United States. However, this does not mean that hockey is a failure in the southern and western United States. One simply needs to look at the on-ice and attendance successes in Anaheim, Dallas, and Tampa Bay to see evidence that the sport is at worst doing well enough in these markets. Lets keep in mind that it takes years for a true following to be grown from a brand-new expansion market (just think about how long it took Pittsburgh to really establish itself as a market). As Pens fans we can gloat about our robust attendance in recent seasons and blame the near move/bankruptcy on bad ownership by Howard Baldwin all we want, but the truth is we were fortunate for Mario and fortunate what needed to happen happened for us.
The NHL will be moving out of Phoenix and Atlanta at some point very soon. I know both places have good fans, the sad thing is that they just don't have enough or are victims of bad circumstance (such as Phoenix playing across the metro area from their fan base). My point of view, like some others, is that the NHL was simply waiting until the Coyotes are out of the playoffs (regardless of what they say) to cut their losses in Glendale and head back to Winnipeg. Perhaps this last minute meeting with Goldwater and Glendale will change things; but I seriously doubt it.
Atlanta is also in the midst of total chaos and indifference in a notoriously fickle sports market. The way the residents of Quebec City have made waves, combined with the construction of a new arena, suggests that an NHL team will be there in short order. The New York Islanders, playing in what is rated as the worst pro sports venue and receiving negative vibes about their plans to build a new center, may not be far behind. It seems clear at the current time, that the NHL will be migrating north again and will re-adjust Canada back to 8 teams. While Southern Ontatio/Toronto could certainly use a second team, the Leafs and Sabres will never allow it to happen. People are tending to forget about Kansas City, with a tenant-less modern arena in a place. From all reports of the people I've met from the area, KC has transformed itself from a Cow-Town to a pretty eclectic town with a pretty strong "white collar" presence. In other words, the kind of market that the NHL loves.
To summarize my beliefs, I feel that Phoenix, Atlanta, and the NY Islanders will all move, with the Isles being the last domino to fall. They will move to Winnipeg, Quebec, and Kansas City. Now the question must be asked, how does the NHL sensibly adjust to this switch in their Eastern/Western Conference labeling. In the old days, when the divisions were named for long gone icons (e.g., Norris, Patrick, Smythe divisions), this wouldn't be a short-term problem. For example, Tampa moved into the Norris upon league entry, which was dumb, but held fort for a few years. Now, can the league really put Winnipeg in the Pacific Division? A second option, which failed miserably the first time around, is to make "mega-divisions" like was done in the 1990s. This was stupid and was not effective (hence the current divisions).
Since the NHL is really good at doing this all wrong, here is some sensible realignment options that help maintain the current format, but don't really confuse the fans and the general sports fan public.

The new Eastern Conference

Mid-Atlantic Division - Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, NY Rangers, NJ Devils, Buffalo
Yes, I went ahead and changed the name. Buffalo and Pittsburgh are not on the East Coast. The most obvious thing that jumps at you is Buffalo being pulled away from their natural rival Toronto. Well, yes...but those two franchises have lobbied so hard for keeping a third team out of Southern Ontario (which Buffalo draws well from) that they should take this as a compromise. Lets not forget these two spent decades in different conferences. They will still play 4 times a year; don't get too worked up over it. Additionally, I feel the Sabres/Flyers have had a kind of under the radar rivalry since the 1970's. Working that angle, both Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Buffalo were all early expansion teams (1967 or 1970) and are geographically close. Rivalries will emerge. Personally, I felt the Pens/Sabres were beginning a good rivalry in the old Northeast Division in the early 90's. This division makes perfect sense from a logistics and geography point of view and maintains more "classic rivalries" (i.e., PIT/PHI. PHI/NYR, NYR/NJD).

Northeast Division - Toronto, Boston, Montreal, Ottawa, Quebec
Again, this just makes sense and keeps classic rivalries intact. Not much to note here really. This division has to happen. No way powerful Original 6 franchises allow long-standing (or dormant) rivalries to dissipate. These are obvious - Boston/Montreal, Quebec/Montreal, Toronto/Montreal. Beyond this, the mileage between cities is so close, its like a bulls eye on a dartboard. If I am thinking correctly, this entire division is accessible via relatively short train rides. While this division seems "stacked" because it has half of the original six teams, also consider the relative lack of success that has been a part of Ottawa's franchise and Atlanta's current franchise (and even the past franchise in Quebec City). Its a good mix of powerhouse franchises and franchises that are new to the league or really haven't established themselves.

Southeast Division - Washington, Tampa Bay, Florida, Carolina, Nashville
The biggest change here is the move of Nashville from the West to the East. People tend to get worked up about this thing. For instance, it took a bit of time, but we all got used to Toronto being an Eastern Conference team because it made geographical sense and felt right. I feel the same holds true here. Honestly, who is Nashville's biggest rival? You could say St. Louis or Columbus, but both cities are really far away and have no real natural rivalry with Tennessee as a region. They are essentially rival-less and do well for themselves in a really tough division; consider their lack of success in a power division relative to Columbus, another expansion team. While you could say "ok, who is there rival in this division?" and that would be a fair question to which I have no answer. But what I do know, based on my limited experience living in the region is that Nashville is in a weird place. Its often referred to as the "Mid-South" as it is both Midwestern and Southern in geography. But, from a social categorization standpoint, Tennesseans in the area see themselves as "Southern" (as do West KY residents where I live 2 hrs north and west).
 A second thing that may jump out at some people is that this division will be the "weak one"; the "NFC West" of the NHL that will earn a 3-seed and then get beat by some 6 seed every year, prompting debate over the merit of division champion seeding. But I don't see this as being true at all. Here are some important things to consider. Washington, as much as we hate them as Pens fans, has developed a good niche in the DC market and have young superstar players. They will be a force for a while. Carolina seems to be treading water lately, but have an unheralded fan base and are well run. Nashville is also another well run franchise that will remain competitive. Tampa is successful sun belt franchise that has a young star, older stars, and a good following. The only "weak link" here is Florida; and I fully believe their biggest issues are (1) bad management and (2) a fickle market. I mean, its Miami. Even if you like hockey, theres a lot going on (see Heat, Miami, 2010-11). In sum, this division has two well-run franchises that haven't quite broken through to go all the way (Washington, Nashville), Two Cup winning franchises (Tampa, Carolina), and a market that has struggled, but seems to be stable based on the "Snowbird" population, newer arena, and a stable ownership situation. They just need to turn it around on the ice. I feel this is a competitive division that simply lacks name value. It will improve over time if...simply left alone by Canadian haters and Original 6 blowhards.

The new Western Conference
Northern Division - Vancouver, Minnesota, Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton
Speaking of Canadian blowhards, it seems they will get what they want with this division. Four Central/Western Canadian teams with one of those pesky American teams that ruin the sport. Too bad its Minnesota, which is the State of Hockey in the U.S. You can even give them a name that makes them feel good (a change from "Northwest" to "North"). People get the idea with geography, and the north designation has worked out okay for the NFL. All sarcasm aside, this division, at the end of the day, may be the weakest one. Consider the spotty history of the Jets-Coyotes-soon to be Jets again, the Wild as an expansion franchise, and the up-and-down nature of the Alberta franchises and Vancouver. What I am getting at is that people will pick on the Southeast for a lack of name value; but if the Canadian dollar goes back to sucking, this could easily become a division of mediocre teams at best. Still, you have the iconic Oilers from the Gretzky days; so they still have name value. Calgary has won a cup and been mostly competitive. Vancouver seems to have it all figured out at the moment. They are a good base for the division, which has 5 good markets for hockey (finances aside). As long as a cap system remains in place, this will be a good, competitive division with some great rivalry material. The obvious ones are there with the Western Canada teams (VAN/EDM, VAN/CAL, CAL/EDM) but Minnesota and Winnipeg could develop a strong rivalry as they are relatively close and have the "border" issue. Its a potential rivalry that both franchises desperately need. The Wild have no real rivals yet (aside from hating Dallas) because they are in the current Northwest, which puts them hours from the West Canada teams. But putting Winnipeg is a game-changer for them. Perhaps both franchises could grow into strong teams and the league can build a lucrative new rivalry. 

Western Division - Los Angeles, Anaheim, Dallas, San Jose, Colorado
Much like the above change to the "Northern" division, and the change I proposed for the Penguins division, the Western Division proposed here makes sense. Colorado is certainly "northwest" (current), but Dallas sure as heck isn't "pacific". But both are certainly "Western". Of course, so are the California teams. Thus, we have the Western Division. This division basically swaps out Phoenix for Colorado. It has been an uber-competitive division lately with some really close battles and standings. Just about every year, hockey fans find themselves saying "wow, how did ___ finish last in the Pacific?"; its a good division, that's why! Of course, just like the Northern Division's Western Canadian teams are the heart of the division, the Cali teams are the heart of the Western division. This playoff's storyline of "all 3 California teams making it" has shown that the implementation of hockey has been a rousing success there. San Jose has an unreal building. I could see it being waxed poetic in a decade or so as being an "old school barn" because its 15 years old or so, but it has a loudness to it that is remarkable. San Jose is a great market and is just waiting for a breakthrough. They are well run and will be a player going forward.
I feel the same can be said for both Dallas and Anaheim. Two newer markets that have both won the hardware and have won over a solid fan bases. Although it feels like the Ducks building a bit antiseptic and quiet, there are always full seats and plenty of noise when it matters. Dallas has great fans and is a major success. The whole "standing for the long stretches/game" thing is sure annoying as a TV viewer, but is a great tradition for them. Consider these factors about Dallas as well. First, they were won over by a team that played Hitchcock hockey (ugh). Second, their division road games are almost ALWAYS 8:30 MST or 9:30 PST starts for the home TV viewers. Just sayin'. Los Angeles is an original expansion team that has underrated support and will always have the massive transplant population (and general population) to be a success.
All in all, this division has showed it can be a great one in recent history. I don't see that stopping. Adding Colorado to the mix makes sense. Now that the Sakic/Forsberg era is over, the franchise seems to have a bit of an identity crisis. Who is the big rival in the Northwest Division? I can see the whole "Rockies" thing with Calgary or Edmonton, but it don't seem right. I hate to bring the NFL into it, but the Broncos have robust rivalries with California teams there, I think the same would hold true here.

Midwest Division - Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, Kansas City, Columbus
Another name change! Again, "Central" is kind of sterile and not befitting the great rivalries and mindset of Midwesterners. The "Midwest Division" gives some pizzazz and emotional meaning. You think of things like Big Ten football, Tornadoes, Wrigley Field, and potentially abandoned industry. Its the heartland for crying out loud (that would have been a hokey name for this division though). I feel this division would be a winner because the current Central Division has a good balance of powerhouses (Detroit, Chicago), solid markets (St. Louis) and lesser-runs (Columbus). It never felt like Nashville fit in here, as noted before. But I DO think Kansas City would fit in wonderfully here.
In this new division, you keep the classic rivalries (DET/CHI, STL/CHI) but allow other natural rivalries to develop; immensely helping struggling (CLB) or uprooted franchises (KC). For example, Columbus desperately wants a rivalry with Detroit, via the Ohio/Michigan natural rivalry. Once Detroit comes back down to earth/Columbus comes to Detroit's level, I feel that will occur. Also, while Saint Lou has some good rivalries with Chicago, and to a lesser degree, Detroit, a great Missouri rivalry with Kansas City would be a boon to both STL and KC. The newly uprooted Islanders/whoever gets moved there will then have a clear rival and a robust division of geographic rivals that make sense. The ticket buying public in KC can get behind going to see the hometown boys take on teams like Chicago and Detroit. They are Original 6 teams that are close. Much like STL, they will get to hate seeing their fans come south to invade their arena and divisional hate is born along with a hockey market.

Okay, I think it makes sense. Now its just about watching it happen. My hearts go out to fans of teams that may get moved, but its a fact of life in the NHL.

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