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NHL expansion team realignment: where to put Quebec's new Nordiques

NHL expansion causes odd conference realignments, so will the new Quebec Nordiques end up in the Western Conference?
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In a perfect world, the NHL’s recent expansion cattle call would have lured interested parties from locations across the Western U.S., giving the league a chance to select two geographically ideal locations to balance the conferences at 16 teams each.

Instead, it got Las Vegas and Quebec City.

Vegas, located about an hour away from Phoenix and Los Angeles by air, fits perfectly into the Western Conference footprint. Quebec City, an eight-hour flight from Phoenix and L.A. with no non-stop service, is somewhat less ideal.

But that won’t stop the league from considering it as an expansion option ... or from slotting the new edition of the Nordiques into the Western Conference, if necessary.

“That’s something we would obviously have to consider,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman told Amalie Benjamin of The Boston Globe.

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Obviously, that’s not the best-case scenario. But the league has created and dealt with its own imperfect and sometimes goofy geography in the past. It was only a couple of years ago that the Blue Jackets and the Red Wings were part of the West. The Maple Leafs have spent time in the West as well. So have the Penguins and the Flyers. The Canucks entered the league in the East Division in 1970–71 and stayed there for four seasons. After a quickie relocation from Atlanta in 2011, the Jets were forced to play in the Southeast Division along with the Panthers, the Lightning and the Hurricanes. Florida and Tampa Bay now play in the Atlantic Division, but they are lumped in there with the Bruins, the Canadiens, the Sabres, the Senators, Detroit and Toronto.

It’s a problem, but not the biggest one out there.

“The experience with Winnipeg in the Southeast was less than ideal,” Bettman said. “The experience over time with Detroit and Columbus in the West—and they’re farther west geographically—they couldn’t wait to get into the East. So geography is an issue. But the fact that we identify it as an issue doesn’t mean we’ve reached a conclusion. It means it’s one of the things that has to be considered.”

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In other words, no one’s putting the expansion cart before the horse just yet. Before the NHL worries about where to put Quebec City in the league, it has to first decide if it wants to add Quebec City to the league. But you can bet that it’s going to happen. Quebecor, the media entity behind the bid, is already a partner with the NHL through the Rogers broadcasting deal. An arena is in place. So is the market support—no need for a ticket drive to measure interest there.

That’s not all Quebec City has going for it. There aren’t many owners who would turn down the chance to cash a $500 million expansion fee check. And the logistics of expanding to 32 teams rather than taking Vegas only and settling for 31 works in QC’s favor as well.

If the new Nordiques have to play in the West to earn admission to the NHL, well, you can bet they’ll happily bite the bullet. But surely that inelegant solution isn’t the only one on the table.

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Probably the best option is to create an eight-team all-Canadian division, which would guarantee the extension of some of the best rivalries in the game—Edmonton vs. Calgary, Toronto vs. Montreal, Toronto vs. Ottawa, Montreal vs. Quebec City—and also would see the popular eastern Canadian teams make more visits out west. The league would have to make some accommodations in terms of scheduling and, possibly, also offer compensation for higher travel expenses, but it’s a sensible approach for those teams. It would also allow for simple geographic division of the remaining 24 U.S.-based teams and would ensure that a Canadian market would be involved in the final four—a boon for broadcast partner Rogers.

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It’s also conceivable that Quebec could be placed in the East with another team, possibly Columbus, moving back to the West. That’s not ideal for the Blue Jackets, who no doubt would demand compensation for accepting divisional relocation. But there were never any guarantees that Columbus would remain in the East after the current three-year realignment “expires” following the 2015-16 season. Moving them back to the West might be the least painful recourse.

It’s also possible that Quebec City will be slotted in the East and that the league would stick with an unbalanced conference lineup in which one side has two more teams than the other.

And those are hardly the only options as this wildly creative realignment website shows.

Clearly there are solutions that go beyond tossing Quebec into the West out of convenience. We’ll see if the NHL can agree on one of them.

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