A Nashville Predators move to the Eastern Conference may not be so easy

With rumor transforming into published reports that indeed the Atlanta Thrashers owners are negotiating with True North on a team sale that would involve the Thrashers moving to Winnipeg in time for next season, speculation naturally leads to how the NHL landscape might change in light this change. According to the Winnipeg Free Press, the league is already working on two draft versions of the 2011-12 regular season schedule, one with the Thrashers in Atlanta, and the other with them in Winnipeg.

Realignment of conferences and divisions would likely see the Thrashers move to the Western Conference, and one team (Detroit? Columbus? Nashville?) moving to the East. There has long been a notion that the Predators would make a more natural fit with the Southeast Division, particularly with Atlanta just a 4-hour drive down I-24, but with the Thrashers gone, would it still make sense?

The opportunity to play against high-profile teams like the Rangers, Flyers, Maple Leafs, Penguins and Capitals would certainly be welcomed, and one would think that travel burdens would certainly be easier if the Preds played in the Eastern Conference.

But you know what? In actuality, travel might be a little tougher for an Eastern Conference Nashville Predators team. Follow after the jump to see why... 

Each summer I compile something I call the NHL Super Schedule, which tracks a number of different pieces of information related to the regular season, most notably the distance traveled by teams from one game to the next. In the table below, I show the data from the just-completed regular season, along with a hypothetical scenario:

  • Thrashers move to Winnipeg and play in the Northwest Division
  • Colorado moves from the Northwest to the Pacific
  • Dallas moves from the Pacific to the Central
  • Nashville moves to the Southeast

I basically swapped these team's schedules, and adjusted all the other teams as well, so the Red Wings head to Dallas 3 times a year rather than Nashville, etc. The columns below show the total travel miles each team would face in that hypothetical scenario as opposed to the "real" 2010-11 season, as well as the impact of Time Zone differences. There, I'm totaling up the number of time zones a team has to move from game to game. If a team plays in New York, then jets out to Vancouver, that counts as "3" in that column, which is then summed up over the entire 82-game season (check out how rarely some of those East Coast teams have to reset their watches, folks).

2010-11 Hypothetical
 Team  Distance   TZ Diff   Distance   TZ Diff 
 Anaheim Ducks 45,868 49 48,655 55
 Atlanta/Winnipeg 44,079 20 42,950 42
 Boston Bruins 35,673 20 37,242 22
 Buffalo Sabres 30,124 16 30,551 18
 Carolina Hurricanes 40,874 16 42,501 19
 Columbus Blue Jackets 44,600 56 44,943 57
 Calgary Flames 47,827 42 45,794 40
 Chicago Blackhawks 39,580 41 40,569 36
 Colorado Avalanche 44,190 42 44,230 53
 Dallas Stars 44,880 41 54,906 46
 Detroit Red Wings 39,793 49 42,469 51
 Edmonton Oilers 50,309 42 47,361 39
 Florida Panthers 40,601 14 42,112 20
 Los Angeles Kings 39,348 42 38,947 44
 Minnesota Wild 50,805 51 48,352 46
 Montreal Canadiens 32,910 14 33,004 18
 New Jersey Devils 27,152 10 28,224 16
 Nashville Predators 42,379 42 46,783 50
 New York Islanders 28,210 12 28,936 16
 New York Rangers 29,063 14 29,834 18
 Ottawa Senators 32,157 16 32,481 18
 Philadelphia Flyers 29,716 14 30,527 18
 Phoenix Coyotes 53,843 59 49,697 51
 Pittsburgh Penguins 28,948 12 29,221 13
 San Jose Sharks 56,254 57 55,938 58
 St. Louis Blues 41,473 42 41,693 44
 Tampa Bay Lightning 40,522 14 41,566 20
 Toronto Maple Leafs 33,470 16 32,437 16
 Vancouver Canucks 51,213 55 49,786 57
 Washington Capitals 31,858 14 33,776 21
 Average 39,924 31 40,516 34

Surprisingly, the Predators would actually travel more, and go through more time zone changes playing in the Southeast Division. Why is that?

First, their division rivals in the Southeast would be further away then their current Central brethren, an average of just over 600 miles as opposed to ~365 today. Secondly, since they'd only play most Western teams once each season, they wouldn't be able to combine road trips to remote outposts like Vancouver or Calgary as easily as they do now, with a 4-5 game swing. Those one-shot road trips tend to really impact a team's overall totals. When it comes to time zones, the Preds would be the only Eastern Conference team in the Central time zone, so that would account for the increase there.

Personally, I think on balance the positives greatly outweigh the negatives, and would heartily welcome a move to the East for the Preds. They would likely get a greater opportunity at the NHL limelight playing against the higher-profile teams in the league, and I would bet the city of Nashville would probably get more visitors coming to see their team's away games at Bridgestone. But at least on the travel front, a switch to the East would probably add to the Preds' burden.

Dallas, too, would face a big jump in travel mileage, having to jet up to Columbus, Chicago and Detroit more often. These figures are an approximation, of course, but they go to show just how complicated NHL scheduling can get, and the fact that sometimes, there are no easy answers to questions like this.

I'd be glad to re-run this analysis for one or two other scenarios... feel free to suggest a reasonable one below. I know Columbus is jawboning hard to make this move, for example, but that's probably because their best competitive hope is to get out of the Central Division.

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