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The Next NHL City to be added to the Western Conference could be… Detroit

By Brad

There seems to be a prevailing logic in NHL expansion circles that because the league currently has two fewer teams in its Western Conference than the Eastern, any expansion scenario would have to include the addition of at least one, if not two, west coast cities, in order to even things out. This would be our supposed advantage over places like Quebec or Toronto if the NHL were to add any more teams. You couldn’t add any more teams to the east coast because they’d have to play in the Western Conference and then they’d have weird travel schedules, or else they’d have to play in the Eastern Conference, which already has more teams and would become so out of balance that the league would actually tip over on its side and spill all its franchises into the Atlantic Ocean. Therefore, the next time the league expands, it will add teams to the Western Conference.

And I agree! If the NHL does expand, it definitely will add teams to the Western Conference. This is absolutely true. They just might not be the new teams.

The first problem with this “expansion must be in the west logic” is that it assumes that the NHL is locked into its current alignment, and that it would be unwilling to make the divisions any more uneven, or have a team in a division that doesn’t really make sense geographically. That would be really weird if it were true, because it would not only force them to add one team on the west coast, where at least there are two potential markets in Seattle and Portland, but also one in the Midwest/Mountain region where the prospects are slimmer. Are you going to put a team in Kansas City simply because you have a spot open in that division? Or Houston? Probably not, though I have to admit, it would be pretty funny if the NHL suddenly added a franchise to Houston without asking, like the neighbors dropping off a fruitcake on Christmas.

And once you accept the possibility of the NHL realigning its divisions again, you begin to see that they actually have a lot of flexibility right now. You’ve got Detroit, Minnesota, Chicago and Columbus all along the western Great Lakes but split into three different divisions, two teams in Florida chilling out all by themselves, and Colorado almost perfectly placed between the two western divisions. You could add one or two teams to just about anywhere on the map and be able to make it work.

Detroit is probably the most likely candidate to be shifted to the Western Conference. Geographically it makes sense, and they have a long history there already, as well as rivalries with Chicago and Minnesota that extend beyond hockey to all four major sports. There has been some talk that the team may have been eager to join the Eastern Conference in order to reduce their travel burden, but under the current scheduling format, they would actually travel less if they played in the Central Division. They’d be closer to the teams in their division, and only playing one additional game against Pacific division teams than the teams in the Eastern Conference. Besides that, the Red Wings have been playing in a predominantly western Conference since 1981, and during that time, the team has been pretty successful.

The other candidate to change conferences would be Columbus, which a quick glance at Google maps shows to be remarkably aligned with Detroit in terms of east-west geography. In the event of two teams being added to the east coast (such as Toronto and Quebec), both teams could added to the Central division, with Colorado sliding over to the Pacific. Colorado isn’t really close to the Pacific teams, but they aren’t close to the Central teams, either, so that move would be kind of a wash.

As an expansion candidate, Seattle has a lot of things going for it – a big, growing metro area, proximity to Canada, economic prosperity, and the prospect of a new, state-of-the-art arena being built here soon. But it’s a mistake to assume that the NHL would give preference to putting a franchise here just because we’re on the west coast.

John Barr
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