A crazy discussion started up today with the official TMMOTS twitter account. What if the NHL had a relegation policy, similar to that of the English Premier League in soccer or some international hockey leagues? I’ll preface this idea by saying I understand that with the current AHL / NHL relationship something like this would not be possible, as every NHL team has an AHL affiliate (though it would be funny to see the Edmonton Oilers relegated to the AHL, and the Oklahoma City Barons promoted to the NHL).
If we ignore the fact that such a system is currently impossible, there are some interesting advantages to relegation in a league. The first is that it prevents tanking. Teams like the Calgary Flames, Buffalo Sabres, and Edmonton Oilers have been out of the playoff race well before the Christmas Holiday. They are pretty much playing for pride at this point, and really their goal (whether they will admit it or not) is to get the first overall pick in the draft. However, imagine if two of these teams were being sent down to the AHL at the end of the season. I bet all three would be fighting just as hard as the top seeded playoff teams right now.
It would likely have a big effect on the NHL trade deadline, as teams near the bottom of the standings would not dump assets for draft picks and prospects. Some might even stock up on talent to avoid being bounced down to the AHL.
While relegation would be a negative for some teams, on the other side of things is promotion. Imagine being a minor league city, like Oklahoma City, Cleveland, or Rochester and suddenly see your team promoted to the NHL. Since this isn’t like the old days of the AHL, where some of the teams could compete with the six NHL franchises, these promoted teams would in turn be in a fight to avoid relegation the following season.
It’s likely we will never see such a system in place in the NHL, as fun and interesting as it would be, the logistics and existing league agreements make it impossible. The difference in talent between the NHL and AHL is too great, and it could potentially hurt league revenue.
Even if the Lake Erie Monsters were promoted to the NHL, it is unlikely they would sell more seats than the Edmonton Oilers could have. It could potentially hurt existing markets as well; imagine if the Phoenix Coyotes were relegated to the AHL, it would be a disaster for them.
Another issue is that the bottom teams would continue to shuffle to and from the AHL, instead of growing and improving. Teams would do just good enough to avoid relegation, but wouldn’t trade away the assets that are necessary to build through the draft.
While a fun idea in theory, relegation would not be good for the NHL. Thankfully it is something we are likely to never see.