September 30, 2011
Now that the Winter Classic in Philadelphia has been formally announced, the new worst-kept secret in the NHL is that the Detroit Red Wings will be moving to the Eastern Conference (or whatever it'll become) in next season's realignment.
Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch, in a wide-ranging interview with Bob Wojnowski of the Detroit News, said that the NHL has promised his team they're "next" for realignment when the Winnipeg Jets are sent westward for 2012:
Q. OK, once and for all, are you gonna get the Wings out of the Western Conference or not?
A. The commissioner (Gary Bettman) promised me I was next. We even had a meeting over lunch this past season, and he had all his people here, and he goes, 'Yeah, I promised Mike he'd be the next one to go in the Eastern Conference.' So I expect to be in next year. Jimmy D (Devellano) is on the phone every other week reminding them.
Well, if Jimmy D. is on the case, you know it's going to happen ...
Here's the NHL problem: It has promised Detroit a move, and Mike Ilitch is too important to not keep that word. But it also knows that the Columbus Blue Jackets need realignment to the East more than the Red Wings do, from a future-of-the-franchise perspective.
One team, despite a few empty seats at the Joe, is doing quite well despite the time zone challenges. The other team needs to grow a fan base than now has to watch nearly two dozen games a season that start past 9:30 at night; and that only gets to see the Pittsburgh Penguins, their clear geographic rival, once a season.
I suppose I should be surprised by the news out of Detroit. I'm not. The Wings are NHL bedrock. They took one for the team and stayed in the West in the last realignment while Toronto went East. They've been accumulating IOU's for years - probably longer than the Blue Jackets have been around. Now it's time to collect.
Let's hope that Priest, Howson & Co. are as deft with the Board of Governors as they have been in acquiring and developing talent for the 2011-2012 season. Because when you're David to Ilitch's Goliath, you're going to need all the help you can get.
Factor in the Nashville Predators potentially having a claim to move to the Southeast Division — albeit as a Central Time Zone team — and you have three franchises with their own legitimate claims of necessity for realignment.
So that's why instead of a simple one-for-one swap with the Jets, we're at a point in which the whole system might be blown up in realignment; because a few teams are in the mix, and because there's zero chance the NHL would ever move the Jackets over the Wings.
The answer, in the end, is to move both the Wings and the Jackets to the East, creating an unbalanced conference format until (a) further relocation or (b) expansion. It makes sense geographically, and it makes sense for the sake of their bleary-eyed fans.
Keep a promise to an Original Six team; do what's right for a recent expansion team. In the end, the only ones really pissed off are Western Conference teams that suddenly see their Winged Wheel meal ticket motoring East.
But that's the real issue, isn't it? That the NHL would be taking the marquee team from the Western Conference and moving it to the East, where five of the Original Six would now reside. That it would seriously impact teams like St. Louis, Nashville and Phoenix (to name a few) that fill the barn with the Wings come to town is undeniable; but is that compelling enough a reason to keep them in the West?
How do you see realignment shaking out?