Expansion Soon -- Musical Chairs to Follow

With the news that Quebec City and Las Vegas have submitted expansion applications -- and Seattle has not --- it's time to begin looking at what this could mean as the NHL adjusts to becoming a 32 team league.

With the deadline having come and gone for submission of expansion applications, only two newcomers are standing in the queue: Quebec City and Las Vegas. Notably absent is Seattle, where the ongoing struggles between three competing groups of potential owners have scuttled any opportunity . . . at least for now. There are calls for the three groups to consolidate their efforts, which would make the potential $1 billion investment ($500 million in arena costs, $500 million in expansion fee) more attainable. Also absent from the table are any interests supporting a second Toronto-area franchise. That, of course, is a veritable hornet's nest of political intrigue, which we'll defer for later discussion.

Las Vegas is obviously no surprise, given the well publicized season ticket drive and NHL-backed hype over recent months. Neither is Quebec City, where a new venue is well under way and a palatable hunger for NHL hockey is evident. May shops in the city still carry Quebec Nordiques gear, and with the number of those sweaters seen on the streets, you would swear that the city still had an NHL squad in residence. So, clearly these are the two best prepared cities to participate in expansion. Given the fact that the application fee is $10 million, with $2 million non-refundable, this is one of those ventures that you really need to be sure about before tossing your hat into the ring.

As we all know, the process of expansion is not a peaceful frolic down a country lane. As solid as the two candidates this time around are, stuff happens. Political alliances shift, fiscal fortunes reverse and what looked so good on paper can start crumbling when you least expect it. Columbus is no stranger to this sequence of events, having seen its promising bid apparently die at the ballot box, only to be resurrected at the last minute through the efforts of John H. McConnell, Dimon McFerson, Greg Lashutka and others. However, for purposes of our current discussion, let's assume that the Quebec City and Las Vegas bids go smoothly, and enter the NHL on schedule. What then?

This brings us to the always-entertaining topics of alignment and schedule. Since the league doubled in size from six to twelve teams in 1967, few topics have generated more heated debate than alignment and scheduling. The fact that hockey, by its very nature and history, is a sport with roots to the North and East in North America inherently skews any attempted geographical allocations. This leads to some interesting side effects, such as Toronto having been a Western Conference team for years, and Columbus having spent years in the West, despite being geographically East of places such as Atlanta and Detroit, and just about on par with Tampa. Columbus only recently earned its "rightful" spot in the East, so any developments that even hint at a return to the West send shudders through both the front office and the fan base. So, let's look at the likely scenarios.

Assuming that the two new franchises take their geographically appropriate slots, the NHL would then have 17 teams in the East and 15 in the West, preserving the existing numerical discrepancy. They could take the easier and softer way out, and simply keep the status quo. However, while the difference between conferences is tolerable in the abstract, this new configuration would also result in intra-conference numerical disparities, which are more problematic, particularly in terms of schedule. It could be done, but it would be ugly in the extreme.

A second scenario would involve moving one club from the East to the West. This, of course, is the most feared prospect by Blue Jackets' fans. From pure geography, Columbus, Detroit and Tampa would be the most likely candidates to move (although there have been some rumblings about Carolina, for some inexplicable reason.) However, I think that the NHL really likes some of the more natural rivalries that have emerged with Detroit and Columbus joining the East, and recognizes the value to Columbus that devolves from the Eastern Conference affiliation. As much as folks tried to create a rivalry with Nashville during the Western Conference days, the fact is that there is little historical connection between Columbus and the venues to the West. In contrast, the rivalries with Pittsburgh, the Rangers and Philadelphia, are more organic and have blossomed in the new situation. Naturally, Detroit would similarly resist a move back West, and Tampa would presumably adopt the same posture. So, let's assume that the NHL foregoes this option as well.

A third option involves physical re-location of a franchise. While Gary Bettman remains steadfast in his public pronouncements that the 30 existing franchises are all healthy and are going nowhere, the same was said about the Atlanta Flames . . . I mean, Atlanta Thrashers . . well, both actually, They were healthy as could be, right up until the time they moved to Calgary and Winnipeg, respectively. In today's NHL, the two glaring prospects for relocation are Arizona and Florida. For all of its troubles, moving Arizona does nothing to solve the alignment imbalance, as any expansion site would likely be in the West. The other is Florida, where they introduce the fans instead of the players before each game, as it takes less time. The Panthers are a Dead Franchise Walking, despite improved play on the ice. Give Seattle a couple of years to align the divergent ownership groups and get an arena built, and it would be a good target site for the Panthers. If Arizona continues to flounder, they could be moved to Portland, creating another natural rivalry with Seattle, and providing a nice geographical "bridge" between Vancouver and the California squads.

Of course, relocation is itself a messy proposition, so let's take the Commissioner at his word and look at a fourth possibility. This one involves only minor tweaks to the existing structure, but requires a bit of open- mindedness in terms of how it operates.

First, understand that there is nothing in the semantic assignment of a given franchise to a given conference or division that makes any practical difference in how the club operates. On paper, you could put Buffalo in the West and San Jose in the East, and it makes no difference in the abstract. What makes that assignment matter is the schedule, not the structure. If you played a 62 game schedule, with a home and home against every other team in the league, it matters not what division or conference you are in. Every team will have precisely the same travel burden it would have under any alignment configuration. So the key is to but together a logical structure, but more importantly, a schedule that accommodates both the structure and competitive interests.

You do that by implementing four eight-team units. If you want, you can call them divisions, and align them into two conferences. However, with eight teams in each unit, that almost seems artificial. If you consider each one as the equivalent of a conference, your scheduling issues become less involved, as you are no longer compelled to adopt the three-level schedule currently in force, where you play the most games against the teams in your division, a middle amount against the teams in the other division in your conference, and a simple home-and-home against the teams in the other conference. Treating each eight-team unit as a conference allows you to play a home-and-home with the other 24 teams in the league (48 games) and five games against six of the other teams in your conference. Four games would be played against the seventh club, which would rotate from year to year. (Unless of course, the NHLPA agreed to an 83-game schedule, which would simplify things). Here's one possible alignment scenario (names optional):

Howe Plante Orr Richard
Anaheim Arizona Buffalo Boston
Calgary Chicago Columbus Carolina
Colorado Dallas Detroit Montreal
Edmonton Florida Minnesota New Jersey
Las Vegas Nashville N.Y. Rangers N.Y. Islanders
Los Angeles St. Louis Philadelphia Ottawa
San Jose Tampa Bay Pittsburgh Quebec City
Vancouver Winnipeg Toronto Washington

This is just one arrangement, of course. The Plante was designed to accommodate the southern oriented teams. with a couple of Midwest squads to round it out. Other moves are personal preference, Do you put Quebec City and Montreal in the same division, so they see each other four or five times per year, or do you split them up so that Quebec has a chance at two clubs in the final four?

For playoffs, lots of options are available. If you are on board with the four-conference approach, you simply have #1 vs. #4 and #2 vs. 3# in each conference in the first round, with the survivors determining your Final Four and conference champions in the next round. With those four in hand, you re-seed by point totals, with #1 vs. #4 and #2 vs. #3 again. The winners play for the Cup. The nice thing about this is that your Stanley Cup Final could have virtually any geographic distribution. You could have Toronto vs. Montreal, or Chicago vs. Los Angeles. That would add a bit of zest to the post-season, don't you think?

At this juncture, the specifics are not important. However, it's not too early to be thinking about the concepts, as before you know it the music is going to stop and someone will be without a chair. Stay tuned.

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