Everyone loves the Blue Jackets

Right about now, there’s a new revolution going on in the Eastern & Western NHL divisions. It would seem as though everyone is in love with the team from Columbus– and if they’re not, they should be. Why you ask? Well on Monday the NHL Board of Governors meet to discuss the league realignment thanks to the sale of the Atlanta Thrashers and their subsequent move to Winnipeg this past May.

There is essentially a zero percent chance that Winnipeg will stay in the current Southeast Division. But why should everyone love the Blue Jackets then? Well quite simply put, because they’d be better to keep than Detroit. Detroit is a powerhouse hockey team, and has always seemed to perform when it comes to reaching the post-season. Columbus on the other hand, not so much.

Since the Blue Jackets entered the league in 2000 they’ve qualified for post-season play once – in the 2008-09 season. Coincidentally, they were eliminated in the first round by the Detroit Red Wings. This is why any team would love to have Columbus in their division. It’s an easy win and an easier obstacle to overcome attempting to reach the quest for the cup. In comparison, the Red Wings last missed the playoffs in the 1989-90 season and have won the Stanley Cup four times, out of six attempts in the final round since not qualifying. There’s no doubt that Detroit is a much more formidable opponent.

All speculation has been that Winnipeg will move to the West and either Detroit or Columbus will move to the East. This is largely based around time-zones and travel distances.

What’s with time-zones?

As you scan the NHL landscape, your journey will travel through four different time zones – Pacific, Mountain, Central and Eastern. And it’s an unfortunate reality that there is no equal distribution of teams. Pacific and Mountain each have four teams, followed by six in Central and the remaining sixteen in the Eastern time-zone.

Based on all the whining that’s been going on, the time-zone differences seem to really come in to play when looking at league realignment. And this is why Detroit or Columbus becomes the swing vote. They’re the most western teams in the eastern time-zone. In fact, they’re both at 83 degrees longitude and only a difference of 2 hours (a unit of measure, not the time) west of each other, with Detroit (83°3’) being further west than Columbus (83°1’).

If the NHL were to split based solely on geography, then Detroit would remain in the west division while Columbus and Winnipeg would make a swap for the east.

Then there’s the discussion of divisions.

There’s been a lot of speculation that the league will go back to a four-division, two-conference league and abandon the current six-division format that it has. This means that there would be two divisions of seven and two divisions of eight in each conference. Some might consider this lop-sided, but it’s been done in the past when the league had only 26 teams in the 1997-98 season. Of course the argument then comes that another two expansion teams should join the league to make it equal, but the NHL has said nothing about expansion in recent history.

If we can assume for a second that the conferences and divisions will remain the same setup – two conferences, three divisions, five teams in each – then perhaps there’s a potential solution that minimizes travel and keeps the competition in similar time-zones.

West East
Vancouver Canucks
San Jose Sharks
Anaheim Ducks
Los Angeles Kings
Phoenix Coyotes
Montreal Canadiens
Ottawa Senators
Toronto Maple Leafs
Buffalo Sabres
Boston Bruins
Edmonton Oilers
Calgary Flames
Colorado Avalanche
Dallas Stars
St. Louis Blues
New York Rangers
New York Islanders
New Jersey Devils
Pittsburgh Penguins
Philadelphia Flyers
Winnipeg Jets
Minnesota Wild
Chicago Blackhawks
Nashville Predators
Detroit Red Wings
Florida Panthers
Tampa Bay Lightning
Carolina Hurricanes
Columbus Blue Jackets
Washington Capitals

Is it ideal? Of course not. Is it possible? I think so, but then again I’m just a nobody – remember that.

What about Phoenix?

No kidding! What the heck is going on in Phoenix. Last year they came close to moving back to Winnipeg. Had that happened, there would be minimal talk about realigning the divisions and I’d have nothing to write about; at least regarding the alignment concerns.

Call it speculation or hope or fan passion that the Coyotes are going to be sold this year and relocated somewhere else – like Quebec City for example. Either way, the odds are stacked that the team would move east as opposed to west, though who knows, a team in Seattle could always work.

Should the Phoenix Coyotes happen to be sold and relocated – which after attending a game for Jet Fuel, I hope doesn’t become fact – we’ll likely have to go through the same process again. Gather the Board, talk about strategy, realign – you know, rinse and repeat. We saw the NHL fight to keep the Coyotes but actually gave up on Atlanta pretty easily in comparison. This likely means that the ‘Yotes are here to stay so we can push the next alignment to the back burner – at least until the upcoming NHL expansion.

Keep the Jets in the East?

As a Jets fan, I’d love to keep the team in the East. It would just make the chances of a playoff appearance more realistic as the team matures. Over the past few seasons there’s been what appears to be, an ever-expanding gap in team performance when you look between the East and West.

In fact, let’s break it down a little bit more season-by-season to see the shift of teams that would make the playoffs with a cross-over since the lockout.

Season Team Pts West Rank East Rank
2010-11 Dallas 95 9 8
2009-10 St. Louis
2008-09 Florida 93 6 9
2007-08 Carolina 92 8 9
2006-07 Colorado 95 9 6
2005-06 N/A N/A N/A N/A

It’s not as glaring as you would think, and if you have a look at the standings now (November 30, 2011) only San Jose would cross-over with 27 points from 9 in the West to 8 in the East pushing Ottawa out of a playoff spot. In fact the total points awarded in the East are 390 (232 in the top 8 spots) compared to the West with 388 (236 in the top 8). The conferences are a lot closer than I had previously thought.

Is the cross-over a good idea? I’m not sure it is but it would make things a lot more interesting. It would mean that every team in the league would have to play each team at least once in a season, if not twice. It would make the playoff run a little more interesting. Of course, trying things out in the AHL, I’m sure I’ll get lamb-basted for this suggestion.

North vs. South

There is of course the opportunity to turn things on their side. Instead of dividing the league in an east-west fashion, why not go for north-south? This would see Canadian teams facing off against each other more regularly. Every team would suffer the same travel issues flying coast-to-coast causing fatigue to the players. Every market would have to watch it’s game times for TV viewership, leveling the business side of things again.

Of course, there’s the issue that the southern teams would no doubt suffer. There’s just something about Tampa playing Phoenix that doesn’t make sense to me…at any time of the year. I mean, when was the last time either city saw snow accumulate on the ground? Hockey isn’t ingrained in their fan base, though it seems to be slowly getting there.

In conclusion

I have absolutely, positively no recommendation. I don’t envy the NHL Board of Governors that have to ultimately decide the fate of the thirty-team league for next season. One thing is for sure that they won’t be able to make everyone happy – fans, players or ownership. There is one other alignment idea that I have, but I’ll save that for later as it will take some time to really put numbers behind.

What do you think? Where would you like to see the Jets end up and how should the league realign itself for next season – if at all? Let us know in the comments below.

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Marshall Stevenson regularly contributes to one of the best Winnipeg Jets blogs as an editor and co-founder while also working on JET FUEL – a documentary about Winnipeg Jets fans. Of course he's also behind the only official, unofficial Jets fan gear site. And as if he wasn't busy enough, a co-host on the popular Winnipeg Jets focused Jets Hockey Podcast.