As the panel discussed, the Atlanta Spirit ownership group has been looking for a buyer for the Thrashers for some time. If they don't find a buyer within the next 6-8 weeks (and the National Hockey League is apparently pushing very, very hard right now to find a buyer), the speculation is that the League would likely move the Thrashers to Winnipeg, Manitoba...where an eager ownership group and a remodeled arena await.
Let's be realistic: When the NHL throws its full effort into salvaging a franchise, they go all in. Look at the protracted effort (legal and otherwise) to keep the Coyotes in Phoenix. But don't forget that they also helped broker the Jeff Vinik purchase of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Whether they had any active involvement in the Pegula purchase of the Buffalo Sabres, I'm not so sure. And that's only within the past 12 months. So I'm going to suggest that the odds of the Thrashers staying in Atlanta are at worst even odds.
That's not to say everything is sunshine and roses in Atlanta. Reports suggest that Atlanta Spirit has lost $130 million on the Thrashers over the past five seasons. Average attendance is third-worst in the NHL (just one spot behind Columbus, but Atlanta Spirit can't use the excuse that they're stuck in a [for them] arena deal)...and from what I've seen of Thrashers games on GameCenter Live, I'd be amazed if Atlanta REALLY is pulling in 13,000+ live bodies per game. If they are, then the upper bowl must be packed to the gills. Point is, this is a dog of a franchise...much like Phoenix is. Not that being a dog has stopped the NHL from going to the wall to keep that dog in its current city...
So what does all this mean to the Columbus Blue Jackets? Simple. If the Thrashers move to Winnipeg (or Kansas City, or Seattle...pretty much anywhere but Hamilton, Ontario!), one could reasonably presume that they will realign to the NHL's Western Conference. That would create an imbalance in the 30-team league (16 in the West, 14 in the East). Taking the presumption a step further, one would think that the NHL would then move a team from the West to the East to put things back into balance.
Who would move from the West to the East, you ask? If I may be so bold: How about Columbus?
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Start by looking at the League's current map. The Blue Jackets are actually east of Atlanta (as I've mentioned before), but Atlanta's presence in the East helps the NHL fill out the Southeast Division with Washington, Carolina, Tampa Bay and Florida. (That potential Southeast Division hole also makes me wonder if they would move Nashville...Nashville having a little more southern twang and proximity to the other Southeast teams than Columbus.)
Then look at timezones. As it stands, only two Western Conference teams are in the Eastern time zone - Columbus and Detroit. It would stand to reason that both teams will be first in line to jump to the East if the opportunity arises. What team wants a third of their games to start so late in the evening - what with the 7PM local start times in the Mountain and Pacific time zones working out to 9PM or 10PM? That situation stinks for the fans and the players, who have to travel so much to make their games. A move to the East would be a huge bonus for attracting travel-averse free agents and hometown fans who wouldn't need coffee IV drips the next morning after an away game.
Lastly, and I'm not sure you can underestimate this, there's the fact that Columbus' franchise is not exactly the healthiest...but (and I can't believe I'm saying this) there's this team about three-ish hours East of town that, for whatever reason, tends to fill Nationwide Arena to capacity every time they show up. Yeah, I'm talking about the Penguins. If recent history has shown us anything, it's that the Columbus affinity for Pittsburgh as a rival is at least as strong - if not stronger - than that for Detroit. I know, the NHL put Detroit and Columbus in the same division to capitalize on the natural Michigan-Ohio rivalry. The craziness of the Pittsburgh games at Nationwide, however, have to have the NHL offices perking up and taking notice. And tell me that ticket sale-starved Columbus won't bring this up.
Other teams would have a reasonable claim to realign to the East - Detroit and Nashville each make sense to a degree, as I've suggested. (Detroit also has many historic rivalries with East teams as part of the Original Six franchises...but would the NHL let the West be home to only one such historic franchise [Chicago] by allowing Detroit to move to the East?) But Columbus has the combination - geography, time zone affinity and natural rivalries - that could put it over the top.
(Also, with 64 points against a much more difficult Western Conference, the Blue Jackets would be still be tied for 8th place in the East right now. So you have that factor as well...)
I'll still maintain that this whole scenario - Atlanta franchise moving, league realigning, Columbus switching conferences - is highly unlikely. But, as the title of this post suggests, it's fun to dream!
What do you think?