Let me preface this entire post by saying, that because the NHL has well established teams that paid a lot of money for the reight to play in the league. There is no way relegation would actually work in the NHL (or in any professional sport in the United States).
If I have already lost you, this is what relegation is: it is a system used most notably in European soccer that punishes teams that finish at the bottom of their respective divisions or leagues by sending them to lower levels. Let's say it worked like the English Premier League in the NHL. This would mean the bottom three teams in the NHL would be sent to the AHL, while the top three teams in the AHL would be promoted to the NHL. If it was strictly like this, Colorado, Edmonton and Florida would be playing in the NHL this year, while Wilkes-Barre, Portland and Milwaukee would be playing in the NHL.
Obviously, this wouldn't quite work. To initiate something like this, you would probably instead need to contract the NHL, just so, in those first couple of seasons, large market, "former" NHL teams would return to the NHL until relegation had it's footing. Besides, if you are basically relegating based on points, it makes better sense to lump all teams into the same division and have everyone play each other the same number of times. I would propose, in order to keep things about the same as they are now, in terms of games played, anyways, I would propose a 22 team NHL, playing every other team 4 times, creating an 84 game regular season, two more than what is seen now. At 22 teams, the new members of the AHL would be New Jersey, Columbus, Winnipeg, Ottawa, the Islanders and the aforementioned Panthers, Avalanche and Oilers. Instead of Wilkes-Barre and Portland finding their way into the NHL, you would likely see Columbus and the Islanders turning it around next year.
Minor leagues would likely reflect what they do over in Europe, wiht a "loan" structure, where a team like Wilkes-Barre, for example, can be stocked with Penguin prospects, thought Wilkes-Barre had better have a few of their own players, just in case they got promoted. (In the EPL, loaned players simply can't play against their parent teams, otherwise they are free to play in any game for the team they are loaned to. I allows for playing time for youngsters in a competetive environment)
A benefit, as I see it, of this plan is a gradual move from the south to northern teams. As teams like Florida fall off, they would almost always be replaced by teams from, say, Hamilton or another from Toronto (the Marlies in the NHL!). Phoenix or Atlanta would be perfect minor league hockey markets, which is probably where they would eventually stay without the proper funding or fan support.
Cities that want hockey teams would do well in an environemnt with relegation as well. It would be much easier to expand, say, the Federal League, with the expectation that some of the new teams would be trying to work their way up the food chain. Teams would join lower levels with the intention of finding their footing, finding their market trying to eventually get to the NHL. Every team, every market for hockey could dream of someday winning the Stanley Cup. Places like Phoenix would some day be able to play in a much lower division, in which they could still use the arena, but not have to worry about paying Ed Jovanovski several million dollars.
There are many other advantages, not the least of which would be a better quality hockey in the NHL. I will stop here though, because I want to leave it open for discussion here. What do you think? Questions on logistics? Ideas to make it better? I know Schultz will hate it, because it would mean the Islanders would e playing AHL hockeyfor at least one season.