With the Thrashers moving to Winnipeg, the NHL needs to undergo their first realignment since the Predators entered the league in the 1998-99 season. There are plenty of different scenarios out there, with some of the most extreme summarized by Puck Daddy two weeks ago. SB Nation's own Derek Zona was the first one listed there, but his MLB-style plan was met with resistance from Eastern Conference fans.
This resistence is part of why the NHL first has to identify what their goal is. Do they simply want to trade Winnipeg to the West for a team that can easily go East or do they want to use this opportunity to fix problems around the league?
The Eastern Conference teams currently have a huge advantage: of the teams who travel the most miles this season, eight of the top nine and fourteen of the top seventeen are in the Western Conference. Because Winnipeg is still in the Southeast, the only three Eastern Conference teams who travel more than ANY Western Conference team this year are Florida, Winnipeg, and Tampa Bay.
Simply put, the Western Conference travels more than the East, with the average team traveling over 8,800 miles more over the course of the season. Last year - before Atlanta moved to Winnipeg - that number was over 12,500 more travel miles for Western teams than Eastern.
This makes sense - all of the teams in the East are in the same timezone - with the clustered location of NHL teams, but it still represents a competitive advantage for nearly half of the league. Realignment plans may not completely solve this problem, of course. However, going from six geographic divisions to four should go a long way to leveling out the disparity in distance traveled.
Even more than the travel distances, however, is the fact that three NHL franchises - Nashville, Columbus, and Detroit - have 40 percent of their games start after 9 p.m. local time.
That is a shockingly large number. The damage this does to a franchise, however, is difficult to quantify. Detroit has one of the strongest fan-bases in the league while Columbus ranked in the middle of the NHL in local TV ratings last year, according to the Sports Business Journal. Add in the poor product on the ice in Ohio, and it may be true that Columbus has a rather strong fan base despite the start times of their games.
But the problem is even more pronounced than just those three Western Conference teams. There are five Western Conference teams located in the central time zone (Chicago, Dallas, St. Louis, Minnesota, and Nashville) and two located in the eastern time zone (Detroit and Columbus). For Vancouver, San Jose, Anaheim, and Los Angeles, this represents 15 games beginning at 5 p.m. or earlier local time, on top of their roughly nine games per year in Eastern Conference cities.
Having games start before the work-day is over or having them end around midnight is not a sustainable model for these teams. The solution isn't to make more teams suffer - by giving the Eastern Conference teams more 10 p.m. starts - but rather to reduce the suffering across the board.
It is for this reason that the NHL needs to do more than just swap Winnipeg for an Eastern team. Whether it is Zona's MLB-style re-alignment or the one Elliotte Friedman reported on CBC, something needs to change.
In both scenarios, however, the opposing argument is that rivalries will suffer. While we all would love the Flyers to continue playing the Penguins as a division opponent, it is important not to get too attached to rivalries. The hatred between teams comes and goes with time.
In the newly aligned NHL, the Flyers will have new rivals once more. Whether it be the Lightning, Capitals, Red Wings, and Blackhawks in Zona's proposal or something else, rivalries are born from repeatedly playing close, physical games against good teams.
Any rivalries that die from realignment will be replaced with new ones. Remember when the Flyers and Sabres were big rivals? They were. How about when the Flyers and Senators were big rivals? They were.
The point is: Rivalries only exist when both teams are good, and they're only relevant when the two teams meet in the playoffs. The Flyers and Maple Leafs aren't big rivals any more, but when they met in the playoffs in back-to-back years? It didn't get much bigger than that.
The Eastern Conference and their fans may not like the changes, but the NHL needs to think about the bigger picture. They should maintain geographic rivalries where possible, but the primary goal must be ensuring that all teams play an overwhelming majority of their games at reasonable times.