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Quebec franchise in Western Conference? Bettman says maybe, but don't believe it

In a recent interview, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said the league would have to consider placing a potential Quebec City expansion team in the Western Conference. Don’t count on it, though.
The Hockey News

The Hockey News

If Quebec City lands an expansion team, don’t expect the club to be jet setting across the continent to play a Western Conference schedule. It’s not that it’s impossible to achieve, it’s just that it doesn’t make any sense.

In an interview with the Boston Globe’s Amalie Benjamin, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman talked about the expansion process and the submitted bids by groups from Las Vegas and Quebec City. What caught the attention of most, however, were his comments regarding the possibility for the potential Quebec City franchise to be playing in the Western Conference.

“(Putting Quebec City in the Western Conference) is something we would obviously have to consider,” Bettman told Benjamin. “The experience with Winnipeg in the Southeast was less than ideal. 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.”

The last line is the kicker: it’s something the league has considered. Just because they’ve considered the idea, though, doesn’t mean it will even come close to becoming a reality. And really, it likely never will.

Some have believed that the present Conference alignment, with 14 teams in the West and 16 in the East, would eventually give way to two expansion teams in what could be considered Western Conference cities. The thought, before the NHL's application process, was those two teams would be in Las Vegas and Seattle. As Benjamin wrote in the Globe, “the best-case scenario,” would have then seen Quebec City’s new arena house a club in need of relocation.

By putting two teams out west, the NHL would level off its four divisions and make the two conferences an even 16/16 split. The thing is, Bettman has never said explicitly the league is looking at an even split. Even in the last realignment, the possibility of keeping one of either the Detroit Red Wings or Columbus Blue Jackets in the Western Conference would have evened the conferences. Instead, the league went with 16/14 and Bettman himself has said that if a 16/14 split has worked for the past two seasons, there’s no reason why a 17/15 split wouldn’t work as well.

The system isn’t perfect, but it’s better than one that sees either the Blue Jackets or Red Wings play outside of their time zone for the majority of the season. On top of that, it’s something both of those clubs wanted out of realignment. The same would likely be said for a new Quebec City franchise. So why, then, would the NHL bring Quebec City into the fold as a Western Conference club only to shift them back to the East within a few years’ time?

Beyond that, Bettman’s comments regarding the Southeast Division tenure of the Winnipeg Jets makes it clear the NHL would rather keep Quebec City from having to compete in the West. And considering Winnipeg’s situation wasn’t by design, it’s hard to imagine the NHL specifically planning for a Eastern Time Zone-based Western Conference team, especially when Boston would be the only NHL club further east than Quebec City.

Consider that when the Jets were stuck into the Eastern Conference’s now-defunct Southeast Division, they took the place of the Atlanta Thrashers, the club that had relocated north of the border to Winnipeg. It was a one-for-one replacement and a situation that didn't appear to have the legs to last more than one campaign. As soon as the first season was over – and before the NHL could adjust the league’s makeup to fit the Jets into the West – the 2012-13 lockout happened. When the league opened its doors for the abridged campaign, a 48-game schedule was slapped together and realignment was put on hold, to be revisited in 2013-14. The 2013-14 realignment gave us the current structure.

If an expansion club is granted to Quebec City – and if the process comes to a close with enough time to spare – it wouldn’t begin play until the 2016-17 campaign at the earliest. That would give the NHL almost a full season to discuss and devise a plan for a new realignment that would fit Quebec City out east. The expansion process would help avoid the under-the-gun pressure the league faced for two consecutive seasons when Winnipeg joined the fray in 2011-12.

With the money put into television contracts, the league will want the highest viewership it can get. That comes from keeping teams within their regional time zone. Putting Quebec City in the West wouldn’t kill its television audience, but it would certainly shrink it by a few here and there, something neither the club nor the league would be pleased with.

All this is to say that if a rebirth of the Nordiques occurs, it won’t come with Quebec City battling the Colorado Avalanche for a playoff berth. Sure, the league may be “considering” putting Quebec City in the West, but that’s probably only if every other conceivable option fails first.

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