If the NHL loses the 2012-2013 season, how much could things change for the Columbus Blue Jackets...assuming they survive?
If you haven't already read Pierre LeBrun's latest lockout missive, I'd suggest you go process it for a few minutes and then come back, because I'm going to consider a few things he brings up.
First off, I'm going to assume that the Blue Jackets, as a team, will continue to exist. The alternative for me as a fan is just too painful. There are also some very good reasons why, despite the team's issues, I don't think they'd be on the chopping block.
It helps that the Blue Jackets organization is not currently in any kind of bankruptcy, or dealing with any ownership problems. If contraction would be seriously considered, I'd suspect that Phoenix and Florida are going to be on the chopping or relocation block a long time before Columbus. (Heck, believe it or not, I suspect the Devils could find themselves in trouble before Columbus does, given their recent major debt problems...) If anything, the arena deal has provided the team with a decent cash influx that I doubt the NHL wants to walk away from - particularly if the team can pull themselves back up into competition and grab a bigger piece of a very lucrative market.
Now, that's not to say they don't have problems. Consider that if the NHL wins their lawsuit, and the NHLPA does go ahead with decertification, every NHL contract is null and void. That isn't just guys like James Wisniewski and R.J. Umberger - it's prospects like Ryan Murray, guys on two way deals like Ryan Russell or Curtis McIlhenny, and talented rookies like Cam Atkinson and Ryan Johansen. Imagine losing EVERYONE, and being forced to go out and try to get them back.
Would some guys stay? Yeah, I think they would. But how many would jump for a chance to go play in Pittsburgh, Toronto, San Jose, or Detroit? How many would want to see what the market says they're worth, and how many players would see their salaries driven up, in particular prospects like Murray and Johansen who could be seen as "cornerstones" to build around?
Could the NHL negotiate a way to give the Jackets exclusive bidding windows on players with less than three years of NHL experience or something similar? Probably - after all, something would have to be worked out in the new CBA to handle this - but on the other hand, this is uncharted territory.
It could also mean major problems for the guys down in Springfield - the majority of their talent are on contracts to the Columbus organization, not the Falcons, so either they'd have to sign everyone to new AHL only contracts to finish the season (possible), or we might see the AHL forced to shut down, too, depending on the legal maneuvering.
Assuming the NHL survives that, and Columbus manages to hang on to the players they already have, the next big hurdle is likely to be the draft.
On the one hand, the team has their first rounder, New York's, and LA's. If the NHL decided to use a system similar to the Sidney Crosby lottery, that would give Columbus five chances to secure the first overall pick. But if they also used the lottery balls to determine the entire draft order, there's no guaranteed consolation of being able to take the #2 overall should Edmonton's unholy luck continue - as a friend of mine put it the other day "We could end up with the last three picks in the first round, back to back, and knowing our luck..."
After the draft, things will get really interesting.
If the NHL does contract, realignment is going to have to go onto the table. Even if one Eastern team and one Western team are removed (and, yes, assuming they're only looking to chop two teams from the league...), the current divisions would become unbalanced - I suspect we'd be more likely to end up with four 7 team divisions split into two conferences, but we'll see. In chaos, after all, there is opportunity.
More importantly, there will suddenly be a bunch of players looking for work. Perhaps a contraction draft would be held to spread them "fairly" around the league, but I wouldn't be shocked if a lot of them simply go out as free agents. (Would you like to see Oliver Ekman-Larsson wearing Union Blue? I sure would.) We'd be looking at a fast and furious free agency - a really, truly, unpredictable market.
It might be the greatest test we'll ever see of Scott Howson's skill as GM (assuming he wasn't replaced beforehand) - would current players be leveraged in deals to acquire contracted assets? Could he move some prospect depth to help land a big signing or two?
The team could go through their third radical makeover in as many seasons. Talk about living in interesting times - and perhaps one of the few ways to get the scorched fanbase here to agree to turn over their hard won dollars for tickets once again, especially if the structure of the league made it "easier" for the club to secure a playoff berth.
It's entirely possible that it wouldn't happen, of course. Cooler heads could prevail, or the bloodied backs of the PA might finally bow. A CBA could be signed tomorrow and they'd be pretending it's business as usual in the new year.
It's also possible that in a year or two, we could be talking about the end of the Blue Jackets franchise, the arena dark, the businesses closing. The painful, frustrating end.
A number of people have described the NHL as teetering on a cliff, but that's not really true.
As any computer geek of sufficient vintage will tell you, they are in a maze of many twisty little passages, all alike...