07 March 2011
For nearly the last two years, we've been subjected to hearing about the state of the Phoenix Coyotes and whether or not they are relocating or staying put. The NHL is currently in control of the team and multiple offers and potential buyers of the franchise have come and gone with no sale ever materializing.
With potential lawsuits based of bond sales and other legal jargon swirling in Glendale, AZ, this is a big week for the future of the Coyotes and where they play. The simple breakdown is, either bonds are sold to help cover the cost of the team remaining in the city or they aren't sold, the NHL officially runs out of patience with the city and the team leaves town once their season is over, whether it end after 82 games or in the postseason.
But while the Coyote talk has dominated headlines in the NHL for the last 20 months, sitting quietly in the southeastern United States is another team with packed bags in one hand and crossed fingers on the other. No, it's not the Florida Panthers, yet, it's the Atlanta Thrashers. A team who has only one trip to the playoffs and a total record of 0-4 in the postseason.
If anyone has watched an entire game or just highlights of a Thrashers game, you can't help but notice the arena's blue seats; the arena's blue, empty seats, that are everywhere. Even if the upper bowl is filled to 100% capacity, which it isn't, the Thrashers would still have horrible attendance.
NHL bylaws mandate that when an owner wants to sell a franchise they must look to local interest groups that want to buy and keep the team in the current city. Only if that is done to great lengths and no one pops up will an owner have the opportunity to look to investors outside of the city.
With Phoenix, this bylaw is one reason why Jim Balsillie wasn't allowed to buy the team, or the Penguins or the Predators, because his intention was to move the team. But the NHL has more than tried to keep the team in Glendale and if this last potential buyer falls through the League should have no weight on the conscience for moving them away. With Atlanta, the owner has tried to find local interest but no one has decided to step up and buy the team.
So Winnipeg is sitting, waiting for, now, potentially one of two teams to relocate, or in Phoenix's case, re-relocate, and possibly bring back the Jets. And frankly, I think it's time to move a team.
I understand that during the lockout Commissioner Bettman made multiple verbal commitments to the 30 cities, saying no team will fold or move in light of the lockout and all teams will resume play healthier than ever. But in the cases of Atlanta and Phoenix, their records might be healthier than ever, but their attendance isn't, as the two teams sit 28th and 29th in the league in attendance numbers.
In Atlanta, the team never wins, so that's why people don't go, because their team is a historically backed failure. For Phoenix, the last two years they've had strong seasons, and still nobody shows up, clearly fans there just don't care.
So why keep a team, or teams, in places no one cares? Except for the hardcore fans in those cities, relocation is fun. It's a new team, new city, new logo, new jerseys and new expectations. So enough with the legal and stat backed side of things, let's look at how the divisions of the NHL would change if one of these teams relocated. And let's assume they'd be relocated to Winnipeg, since currently there is a rich group in line just waiting for their chance to buy and move the team.
First, what would happen if Phoenix moved? Well this is rather simple. You have to put the now seventh Canadian team in the League and fourth in the Western Conference in the division with the other Canadian teams. So Phoenix leaves the Pacific, becomes Winnipeg, and joins the Northwest. Easy solution, move Colorado into the Pacific and everything's covered.
What's really interesting is if Atlanta moves first and moves to Winnipeg because you would be moving an Eastern Conference team into the West. Same rule applies here, Atlanta to Winnipeg, out of the Southeast and into the Northwest. The two teams floated around rumor town that would move from the West to the East has been Detroit and Columbus. The League isn't about to take Detroit out of a division with Chicago, even though the Wings would join four other Original Six clubs in the East. The logical choice to move would be the Columbus Blue Jackets. Why? They're the eastern most Western Conference team, they aren't that old a franchise and they've never been good, so it isn't like they've developed strong rivalries with anyone in the West because they always lose. So Atlanta as Winnipeg is in the Northwest, with Columbus moving to the East, you take Minnesota out of the Northwest division and put them in the Central to fill the Jackets' spot. As far as Columbus goes, you can either just stick them in the Southeast and that's that, or you can put them in the Northeast and move Buffalo into the Southeast; if Washington can be in the Southeast why can't the Sabres?
But what if the planets of anti-Bettman really aligned and at the risk of contraction, both the Thrashers and the Coyotes have to be relocated this summer? Winnipeg is a done deal, outside of that, take your pick, Kansas City, Portland, Houston and Seattle are the four I've heard. Kansas City, like Atlanta, has already had an NHL team that failed once, but they seem pretty determined to make it stick given the chance this time. I mean, what city funds an arena for a team they don't even have yet? The Islanders play on Long Island now and can't get a new building, all the while Kansas City is building an arbitrary hockey arena with no team to play in it.
So Winnipeg and Kansas City wind up being the two cities selected to get the Coyotes and the Thrashers. Now the common sense thing to do would be to put Phoenix back in Winnipeg and let the Atlanta Franchise try not to fail in second former NHL city. But, if the NHL were smart, they wouldn't do this, they would move Atlanta to Winnipeg and Phoenix to Kansas City. Why? Winnipeg is in Canada and Canada loves hockey. Regardless of what happened in the mid-90s, this Winnipeg team will survive, no matter what. Kansas City has failed once before and would need to prove itself this time around. Look at the teams; Atlanta can't make the playoffs in the mediocre East, maybe if they actually had a home ice advantage they'd win more games and be a postseason club. So you put them in Winnipeg and hope the crowd can lead that team into the playoffs. Granted, you do move Atlanta into the move competitive West, but the players would be so energized from actually having a crowd to play in front of for once it might not matter. With Kansas City, you give them a team in Phoenix that is already good and already built to make it to the postseason. And in these untraditional markets you need success to keep fans happy. So you give a city a team that is playoff ready that will bring fans in. Plus, if Phoenix is top eight in the West, then they're probably top three or four in the East.
Who knows what's going to happen with Phoenix or Atlanta, but there could be a lot of interesting changes on the horizon if these franchises can't find local interests.