Thrashers debate: Realignment questions

ESPN.com's Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun debate how the NHL will change its current conference system now that the Atlanta Thrashers are moving to Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Burnside: Well, my friend, the moving trucks are idling near Philips Arena, and the fans in Winnipeg are dancing in the streets. No doubt this ranks as a seminal moment for the NHL as it abandons a major media market in the South for a small prairie market in Canada. The NHL will never be the same, and this move is likely to create some significant changes in how the NHL looks over the next year. The Winnipeg squad (I like to tentatively call it the Frostbites) will play in the Southeast Division next season, and the NHL is going to take its time figuring out all the ramifications of the relocation. So, how do you feel, my Canadian friend? Is this a proud day for you?

LeBrun: Mixed feelings. I don't feel like the Atlanta market was given a real chance had there been proper ownership. You eloquently hammered that point home in your column today. On the other hand, having the NHL back in Winnipeg is fantastic. It's never a bad move to put a team in a market where the sport is king. I'm not sure the Thrashers players share that thought, but it'll grow on them. Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews, a Winnipeg native, told me this morning that the players will realize it's a privilege to play in that market where the sport is beloved. And I chatted today with Wayne Gretzky, who shared the same sentiment.

"When I had my years in Edmonton, it was really special," Gretzky told ESPN.com. "People live and die with what the hockey team is doing. Whether it's the next day at work, or going to school the next day, everyone lives and dies with the team's success. I played in two cities like that, I was lucky. In junior, I played up in Sault Ste. Marie [Ontario] and a lot of kids didn't want to go play up there. But I loved it. People live and die with the Greyhounds up there. That's similar to how people are in Winnipeg and Edmonton with the NHL. You're going to get great support, and you'll have the comfort of knowing the fans are with you 100 percent."

Burnside: You know that Toews is nothing if not sincere, although let's see whether he bolts Chicago for Winnipeg as a free agent when his current deal comes up. Doubt it. And regardless of what players say, it's going to be a tough sell for the folks in Winnipeg to draw top free agents. That's just the reality. Whoever is running that franchise, and right now we don't know whether it will be current GM Rick Dudley, had better draft and develop properly because that is the only way this team will move on from the perpetually mediocre past that doomed it in Atlanta. But let's look big picture, my friend, after one year of limbo playing in the Southeast Division, Winnipeg will move to the Western Conference and will set in motion dominoes that might mean seminal changes for the league. You've been talking to league officials who say this will be an opportunity for the league to make meaningful changes and for officials to think outside the box about how they want the league to look. Will the current six-division, two-conference setup remain? If it's just a one-for-one swap, which of the handful of Western Conference teams that want to move to the East will get the nod? Many questions. Not so many answers at this stage.

LeBrun: The obvious realignment to me is this: Detroit goes East, Winnipeg into the Northwest, Colorado into the Pacific, Dallas into the Central.

But a league source told me recently that the reason realignment is being delayed a year is that the league wants to properly canvass all its governors and get everyone's feedback on what is always a contentious issue. The Red Wings desperately want to move east. They're tired of playing most of their games outside of their time zone, and it's brutal for TV ratings when you're asking your fans to stay up late to watch most of your road games. Having said that, many Western Conference governors will oppose losing Detroit because of the Wings' gate power. So then, what to do? I think the league will examine all kinds of possibilities, perhaps use this opportunity to revamp the entire division and conference setup, not just plug in one team for another. There will be lots of talk and ideas leaked in the next 12 months.

Burnside: I think a simple swap of Detroit for Atlanta/Winnipeg is short-sighted and would be a significant blow to the two-conference setup that has, I think, worked pretty well. You could lose the divisions, as far as I am concerned, especially given that they have no bearing on the playoff seeding. You play an unbalanced schedule that includes six games against each division rival, then throw that out the window come playoff time and seed one through eight based on points.

But here's the thing that many people are forgetting as we imagine what the new NHL will look like post-Atlanta: A year from now, we might be having this exact discussion about the Phoenix Coyotes. All the City of Glendale did was buy another year of uncertainty in the desert by anteing up another $25 million of taxpayer money to cover the team's losses this season. If the city can't nail down an owner by midway through the 2011-12 season, the NHL will be looking for a new home for the Coyotes. Could it be Retreat North Part Deux with a new team in Quebec? Doubtful unless the arena plans there get fast-tracked. Deputy commissioner Bill Daly raised the idea of Seattle recently, saying there are potential owners interested there. The bottom line is that Winnipeg might not be the last of the upheavals the league will be confronting.

LeBrun: I think the uncertainty that remains in Phoenix is an important part of why realignment is being delayed for a year, whether the league wants to do admit it or not. You don't want to realign two years in a row. My sense is that things in Glendale will finally get figured out, but if they don't, there's a group of cities in play for relocation: Quebec City, Seattle, Houston, Portland (Ore.) and Kansas City. Quebec City and Seattle do not have rinks. The race is on to build one if they want any chance at getting a team. In the meantime, what about Vancouver's Winnipeg-based AHL affiliate, the Manitoba Moose? St. John's, Newfoundland, and Thunder Bay, Ontario, have been among the possibilities discussed.

"The Canucks are examining a number of options in the AHL," AHL president Dave Andrews told ESPN.com via email Tuesday. "I anticipate that it will be a couple of weeks before the various affiliation agreement changes are finalized."

And finally, will it work in Winnipeg? The strength of the Canadian dollar is a huge factor in favor of success. Should the dollar ever go back to mid-'90s levels, that will seriously endanger the viability of the Winnipeg franchise. Either way, it beats playing in front of a half-empty arena in Atlanta.