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Winnipeg forces NHL to realign

No one wanted to own the poor Atlanta Thrashers down in Georgia so now they're back in Winnipeg. And Friday at the NHL Draft in St. Paul, Minn., the official word came the team would once again be known as the Winnipeg Jets.

(They had to be the Jets. It was silly there was so much thought about another name. The fans didn't want a different one and it's a good thing ownership listened. It's like when the NFL returned to Cleveland. They were the Browns. Nothing else. Period.).

The good folks in Winnipeg blew a major marketing opportunity by not having their logo and jersey ready when the entire hockey world was watching (no shop.nhl.com for them), so we're still waiting how the Jets will impact us fashion wise. We've already seen how they're going to impact the 2011-12 schedule, which also came out Friday.

Winnipeg is (gulp) going to be in the Eastern Conference. That means teams like the Sabres must go there twice and Southeast Division teams (Washington, Carolina, Florida and Tampa Bay) go thrice. Good luck with that in January. And it's havoc for the Jets too, who have crazy road trips like the seven-gamer that ends in Buffalo Nov. 8 after stops in Philadelphia, Tampa, Florida, Long Island, New Jersey and New York.

Thankfully, this is a one-year stopgap as realignment was a major off-ice topic during draft weekend.

If we're going to keep the status quo, the simplest move for 2012-13 and beyond would be to send Nashville to the East, putting the Predators in the Southeast. Minnesota would take Nashville's spot in the Central with Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis and Columbus while Winnipeg would take the Wild's old spot in the Northwest with Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and Colorado. Easy.

But it's pretty apparent the NHL is going to blow things up for 2012-13 and beyond. And that's probably a good call.

For one thing, the Phoenix situation remains unsettled and the Coyotes could end up elsewhere. And if you're dealing with moves of two teams (Winnipeg and wherever Phoenix lands), the summer of 2012 is a good opportunity to basically start over.

Canadian media reports say Commissioner Gary Bettman is hatching a plan to take the NHL from six divisions to four, which would be dubbed East, South, Midwest and Pacific. Each conference would have an eight-team division and a seven-team division. Other plans have a 16-team East with two eight-team divisions and a 14-team West with two seven-team divisions.

Columbus and Detroit, burdened by heavy travel and late starting times back home that hurt TV ratings, would both get their wishes and get moved to the East. Western teams won't like that because the Red Wings sell a ton of tickets.

Sabres GM Darcy Regier said Monday he'd love to have the Red Wings in Buffalo's division. (Be careful what you wish for). There's long been rumors the Wings have been promised a move back to the East but it will not be an easy sell to Western clubs.

Be ready for a big shift with the Sabres. You could easily see them in a division with Columbus, Detroit and Pittsburgh. Then add Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa (and how about Quebec City?)

Something will have to give in any arrangement. The Sabres might lose their rivalry with Boston but gain Detroit and Pittsburgh. The Penguins might get split up division-wise from Philadelphia.

But that's a small price to pay to avoid having to go to Winnipeg more than once a year.

e-mail: mharrington@buffnews.com

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