Relocation? Southern teams not scapegoat anymore

Updated: November 14, 2005, 4:10 PM ET
ESPN.com

OPENING FACEOFF
Sidney Crosby and Mario Lemieux
Mention relocation or attendance issues in the NHL and the reflex for many is to rattle off teams in the Sunbelt as ones that are prime candidates to be rolled up and sent somewhere else like an old carpet.

The issue percolated again this week, when officials representing a new downtown arena in Kansas City, a group that includes Los Angeles Kings president Tim Leiweke, reiterated their desire to have an NHL team as their anchor tenant.

Specifically, Anschutz Entertainment Group would like to have Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins come to Kansas City when their new building opens in fall 2007. The Penguins play in the NHL's oldest building, the Mellon Arena, and the team has been embroiled in a lengthy battle with city and state officials over funding for a new arena that will be crucial to the team's future in Pittsburgh.

If the Penguins don't have a new arena in the offing when their lease ends at the end of the 2006-07 season, they'll be gone. Where they might end up will make for hours of debate -- another American, non-hockey market like Kansas City or a return to a hockey hotbed like Winnipeg, which has a new arena. But the topic leads to a broader discussion of franchise health and which teams can be expected to make it in the new NHL and which should start packing up.

Critics quickly toss out Atlanta, Nashville and Carolina as teams that ought to get the heave-ho. Yet early into this season, those teams have regularly outdrawn teams in so-called hockey markets like Chicago, Long Island, New Jersey and Buffalo.

The Islanders have been angling for a new arena to replace what many consider the worst rink on the circuit, the Nassau Veterans' Memorial Coliseum. And the Devils' new arena in Newark has been the subject of vigorous debate in New York state. But if the Islanders organization can't get its arena business in order, is that group any more deserving of a team than the Carolina Hurricanes'?

The Isles, winners of four straight Cups from 1980 to 1983, have averaged 12,948 through their first eight home games. They have one sellout and couldn't manage to sell out against the crosstown rival Rangers.

The Devils, winners of three Stanley Cups since 1995, have failed to sell out a single home game.

In Buffalo, the Sabres are averaging 15,711 through nine home games and boast two sellouts (against Montreal and Toronto), along with an embarrassing announced crowd of 8,552 against Washington.

And then there's Original Six member Chicago, which has one sellout and three home dates with fewer than 13,000 in attendance.

In three Southern markets, history has shown attendance jumps with the start of the holiday season and the end of the college football and NFL seasons. Through eight home games, the Hurricanes are averaging 14,934 with one sellout and the Thrashers have averaged 14,025 with one sellout. The Predators are averaging 14,261 with two sellouts through nine.

If we assume that "real" hockey towns would have embraced the new NHL instantly, as has been the case in Philadelphia, Detroit and all of the Canadian markets, then maybe we've misjudged the standing of the game in markets like Long Island, New Jersey and Buffalo. Or perhaps we've unfairly besmirched hockey fans in places like Carolina, Atlanta and Nashville.

-- Scott Burnside

THE HAT TRICK
TOUGH LOSS DOUBLE TAKE NOT SO SLICK
Montreal has been on a roll, mainly because of the heroics of forward Alexei Kovalev. He is second on the team with seven goals and 12 assists, helping the Canadiens jump to a 12-3-3 start. Now, they'll have to find a way without him. Kovalev will be out almost a month (knee), which will pose a true test for the Habs. Well, well, look who's creeping up on the rest of the West. It's the Flames, who have won six straight to move within two points of the Northwest-leading Vancouver Canucks. Captain Jarome Iginla also has broken out of his slumber, scoring eight goals in his last nine games. Miikka Kiprusoff also had two shutouts during the run. The Oilers will try to turn things around this week after a disappointing few games. After failing to convert on any of eight power-play chances Sunday against the lowly Blackhawks, Edmonton must rebound in games against Colorado and Detroit. The Oilers have to hope G Jussi Markkanen doesn't have many more meltdowns.

ENOUGH ALREADY
Last week, former tough guy Dave "Tiger" Williams went on record saying he doesn't like the new NHL. Gee. That's a surprise coming from a guy who collected 3,966 penalty minutes during his 14-year NHL career, tops on the all-time list. And while it's interesting to note what former players and coaches think of the league's efforts to remake itself in the wake of the lockout, surely there's a line that shouldn't be crossed. And for us, Williams is it. What's next? Walt Poddubny waxing poetic on the new icing rules? Orland Kurtenbach on the shootout? Pat Riggin on the new goalie equipment? Enough.

SCORING MACHINES?
If players keep up this pace, we could see some huge numbers this season. According to a Canadian Press report, the NHL could have its biggest 50-goal club since a record 14 players reached the milestone during 1992-93. During 2003-04, only three players came close to 50 as Jarome Iginla, Ilya Kovalchuk and Rick Nash finished with 41 goals apiece. Other landmarks in reach this season: 60 goals and the 100-point mark. We last saw 60 from both Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr in 1995-96, and Sidney Crosby is on pace to become the youngest player in NHL history to eclipse the 100-point mark.

THE FIVE HOLE

Barry Melrose
Is this the year where we have the top three scorers from the same team? Dany Heatley, Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza are making a case in Ottawa. I'll be watching to see whether the Senators show any kinks in the armor this week. They've lost just once in their last eight games and have outscored their opponents 17-3 in their last three games. They have been so solid. It will make Tuesday's game against Carolina (one of the NHL's other great stories) that much more interesting.
E.J. Hradek
At GM Place, the Canucks have been dynamic, winning eight of nine. On the road, however, they seem to be mere mortals at 3-4-2. I'll be looking to see whether Marc Crawford's crew can improve its road record when the team begins a three-game swing through California on Wednesday in San Jose. The Canucks' PP unit has converted just 7 of 63 on the road, one of the reasons for their mediocre mark outside of B.C. I'll also be watching to see whether Todd Bertuzzi can follow up on his three-goal performance vs. the Wings. Bertuzzi, who looked like his old self, had scored just four goals in his first 17 games.
Scott Burnside
I'll be watching Monday's game between Philadelphia and Tampa Bay. The defending Cup champion Lightning are in a freefall, having lost six straight games. Their scorers aren't scoring, and their goaltending has been spotty. Coach John Tortorella has benched captain Dave Andreychuk and juggled his lines, but has yet to get his team on track. Now, they have to contend with a Flyers team that seems to find a way to win every night, including Mike Knuble's shorthanded winner Saturday night against Florida with 3.2 seconds left in regulation.
FANTASY ISLAND
Who to pick up: If you don't have him already or dropped him at the start of the season, C Alexei Zhamnov might start to contribute this week for a Bruins team that needs a little boost.
Who to drop: After being listed as doubtful for Monday's game with a knee injury, Avs RW Dan Hinote likely will be ineffective for rosters this week. Local papers are reporting him as day-to-day.
IN THE BOX
Reporting to Old School this week. Kind of. We head back to 1995 for the awesome tune "Down" by 311. The buildup of guitar and drums at the end of the song is the perfect icing on the hockey cake. We're "down-down" with it.
THEY SAID IT
"It's been awhile. I think I would've done anything. I would've used my teeth if I had to."
-- The Islanders' Trent Hunter after snapping a 12-game scoring drought this weekend.

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