Top Shelf: Realignment fuels questions about NHL's future

Since the Atlanta Thrashers became the Winnipeg Jets prior to the 2011-12 season, it's been obvious the NHL would have to make alterations to accommodate them.

After all, having a team based in Winnipeg playing in the Southeast Division doesn't make a lick of sense for anybody involved. The Jets want less trips to the American South, and the Carolina Hurricanes, Tampa Bay Lightning, Pittsburgh Panthers and Washington Capitals would appreciate fewer sojourns to Manitoba. It makes sense.

What doesn't compute, however, is why does the NHL's forthcoming realignment plans, which have leaked to media outlets over the past week, have to be so drastic?

A quick glance at the NHL's current landscape suggests realigning could be as simple as moving Winnipeg to the Western Conference's Central Division and sending Nashville to take the Jets' spot in the Southeast. Or maybe you'd take an extra step and move Minnesota from the Northwest to the Central and put Winnipeg in the Wild's place.

Anything more drastic than that just seems like change for the sake of change, and the NHL's forthcoming proposal is nothing short of radical.

In case you haven't seen it, the proposed realignment plan and altered playoff format can be found all over the Internet, including here at

While changing the league from a six-division format to four divisions seems unnecessary and pointless, it's something most of us could get used to fairly quickly and go about our normal hockey-loving lives. The problem is there's good reason to believe this realignment is only step No. 1 in a process that could lead to the already-bloated NHL become even bigger.

That dreaded word "expansion" has been bandied about a great deal recently, especially since former NHLPA director Paul Kelly said the league discussed the topic of adding two more teams with him during his time running the labor union from 2007-09. It just so happens two additional teams would be the same amount needed to balance out the conferences under the NHL's realignment plan.

Kelly unleashed his expansion bombshell on Jan. 29 at a city council meeting in Markham, Ontario, where the town is debating whether to build a new NHL- caliber arena.

According to Kelly, the aforementioned city in Southern Ontario as well as Quebec City would be the NHL's preferred destinations for its two newest franchises. Few people are arguing that either of those locales wouldn't be able to support an NHL franchise, the real question is whether this is a good idea for the league or sport.

Unfortunately, the on-ice product often is not at the forefront of either the owners or players' minds. No, the concept of expansion is thought of first and foremost as a money-maker. After all, new franchises are forced to pay large expansion fees and the process adds millions upon millions of dollars into the hockey-related revenue pile, something both owners and players would be ecstatic about.

The NHLPA also would love having more NHL jobs for its constituents to fill, even if that new group of players mostly consists of glorified goons who can hardly skate.

As far as balancing out the conferences goes, adding two teams would certainly solve that simple math problem. Although, if Kelly's take is to be believed, one would assume further realignment would be necessary since neither Markham nor Quebec City seem to fit into the Western Conference and that's the side with two less teams under the new plan.

The only real losers expansion are fans who love the sport of hockey and don't want to see the talent pool become even more diluted than it already has become. Sure, you'll make thousands of people happy in South Ontario and Quebec City, but the millions watching on TV from locations all over the world will see an on-ice product that's been sullied by the never-ending quest for more money.

Greed may be good if your name is Gordon Gecko, but it should be the sworn enemy of hockey purists everywhere.