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Is it time for the NHL to consider expansion?

Aug 11, 2010, 9:30 AM EDT

Thumbnail image for garybettman2.jpgWith the glut of available players in free agency there’s a definitive issue at hand for the NHL and their players. While we’re sure that a lot of folks would like to hang the blame on Ilya Kovalchuk for seemingly bogging down the market for weeks with his free agency, that’s just not how it worked in reality. The truth of the matter is that a lot of teams that would traditionally spend on free agents were pushed to or are well over the cap this summer while many other teams are operating on an internal budget.

The Globe and Mail’s James Mirtle has kept a running tally of who has signed and who is available this off-season both unrestricted and restricted and some of the names still left out there are noticeable and still useful players. Many of these players either have over-estimated their worth and won’t compromise on salary or they’ve found that the market has dried up completely thanks to teams spending on cheaper players or opting to promote from within. If that sounds familiar it’s because it sounds an awful lot like how life is in the real world for job seekers. In the NHL world, it stinks to lose veteran players, especially good ones but there’s one way out there to help make sure some players can still have the NHL to call home:

Expansion

I know what you’re saying, it’s crazy and the game already has too much going on with it as it is and adding more teams to what seems like a crowded NHL landscape would be madness. Yeah, that’s all true without a doubt. But is the talent level enough right now to be able to sustain two more NHL franchises? Taking a look around at the players sitting in the free agent pool and the small handful of talent that has departed to play in Europe just this off-season, it may be time for the NHL to take a hard look at the possibility of maximizing their opportunity to grow the sport just a little more and not be worse for the wear.

Look at the guys that have departed for Europe this off-season: Evgeni Nabokov, Denis Grebeshkov, Maxim Afinogenov, Brian Pothier, and potentially Vesa Toskala. All five guys are guys that ideally would have jobs in the NHL and all four guys that found the job market dry up for them.

How about the unrestricted free agents? Just to list off a few of the notable guys: Antti Niemi, Jose Theodore, Brendan Morrison, Paul Kariya, Marek Svatos, Slava Kozlov, Owen Nolan, Paul Mara, Fredrik Modin, Willie Mitchell, Bill Guerin. The list is loaded with guys still very capable of playing at an NHL level and many of these guys might not have NHL jobs this year. While many could be headed to Europe, others might end up either retiring early or signing AHL deals.

If there were two more NHL teams offering up 23 roster sports out there,  the competition for free agents might actually be out there and while it’s likely that the AHL talent pool would be a bit thinner than normal, there’s certainly a few guys languishing about in the ECHL that could be better served in the AHL.

When the NHL expanded in the 1990s it’s very possible it was a mistake to do so in that it was a cash grab for NHL owners who wanted the money. At the time, the NHL wasn’t pulling elite talent from Europe as much as it is now, Americans weren’t producing as much elite talent as they are now and the NHL relied heavily upon guys that may not have had a job in the NHL right now with their skill sets. Going back to the early 90s, however, those guys were just good enough to make it. Nowadays, that’s not the case at all.

Elite talent is continuing to come over from Europe (Mats Zuccarello-Aasen of Norway with the New York Rangers for example), Americans are producing elite talent at a dizzying pace, and while the KHL as well as the Swedish, German and Finnish elite leagues make for excellent options for Europeans and North Americans alike, the NHL is still the king of the mountain in professional hockey. The NHL is where the big money and the big notoriety comes in.

The owners would welcome expansion because it means all the current owners add two more governors and two more exorbitant expansion fees to collect money from. It also means adding two new (or renewed) television markets in which to spread the word about the game. The players love expansion because it means more jobs in the NHL and more members to have join the NHLPA. In a time when both sides find it very hard to agree on anything at all, expansion is the one thing both sides could agree on in a big way.

Whether it happens sooner than later or at all is up for debate (and believe me, this is already debated) remains to be seen if ever at all. If we’re ever to see movement on this possibility, it’s likely we could hear about it during the labor talks coming in 2012. There are people with interest in owning an NHL franchise, they’d just rather have a brand new one. Jerry Bruckheimer and the True North group in Winnipeg come to mind immediately. The possibilities are there to do it, whether the league and the players want to go that way is the ultimate question.

  1. Tim - Aug 11, 2010 at 10:11 AM

    No thanks. While yes there are still some decent players available it’s not that teams don’t want them it’s that they can’t afford them, or at least at a price the player wants. The cap is holding up these guys signing. Teams are prioritizing. Niemi and Theodore want to be starting goalies and no one really needs one or wants the spend the money on one.
    If the NHL expanded before making sure CBJ, PHX, ATL, FLA ans NSH were more stable they would be as dumb as I already think they are.

  2. NYRFTW - Aug 11, 2010 at 11:08 AM

    Are you crazy? The league need to retract. There are already to many bum teams holding down the NHL from growing and they are the main reason for a salary cap, which I hate where it is now. 60 mil can not pay for 20 regular and 5 extra players on most teams that want to contend. That’s why I favor teams trying to circumvent the cap. 60 mil doesn’t work when you have 2nd and 3rd line guys looking for 5 mil/per. The cap should be no less than 80 million and the only reason why it’s not is because the current bum teams below not being able to hang.The only way a new city should get a team if one of the current teams moves there ATL, FLA, NASH, PHO, NYI, CBJ. These teams hold back the NHL from becoming a better league by keeping the cap down way to low. Look what Chicago had to do!!!! KEEP NEW MARKETS OUT UNLESS THEY GET A CURRENT TEAM LIKE THE ONES I LISTED. I would love to see hockey back in Quebec, Hartford, Winnipeg.

  3. Abramsdoug - Aug 11, 2010 at 11:10 AM

    Expanding to 32 teams is a total no-brainer. The supply of talented NHL quality players vastly exceeds the roster spots; and that is unfair to players who have spent their careers developing hockey skills. It is also unfair to fans who deserve to see those players on the ice for NHL teams. It also unnecessarily risks the financial stability of the NHL over the long-term by having top quality players in other venues.
    With the advent of internet streaming, international teams may well gain more of a following in the United States and Canada.

  4. Anonymous - Aug 11, 2010 at 11:35 AM

    Another thing. Most of the players you mentioned in the article are not much younger than my dad. That’s why they don’t have a team to play for. No one is going to give a contract to a has been dad when the cap is so low. The league is a young mans game now 18-25. Most of that demographic is affordable and will put up as many, or more points than those has been players you listed. Brendan Morrison, Paul Kariya, Marek Svatos, Slava Kozlov, Owen Nolan, Paul Mara, Fredrik Modin, Willie Mitchell, Bill Guerin those guys are garbage now and can be replaced by younger players who are . It’s not 1999 anymore.

  5. NYRFTW - Aug 11, 2010 at 12:28 PM

    One more thing. The players that you listed (Jose Theodore, Brendan Morrison, Paul Kariya, Marek Svatos, Slava Kozlov, Owen Nolan, Paul Mara, Fredrik Modin, Willie Mitchell, Bill Guerin) are a little old. Some of them are not much younger than my dad. No one cares what Kariya did 10 years ago when a team can sign someone for the same production between league min-1.5 million. Kariya still wants to get paid way more than that. The league demographic is now 18-25 excluding some players obviously. No one wants anyone close to 30 on their team. You’re listing Bill Guerin and HE’S 40. All of the above players take up valuable cap space and they are no longer worth the cap hit. They are all has beens and considered a nightmare signing by most fan bases in the league. It’s no longer 1999. To make it simple. To much risk to little reward in the cap era. Most of those players simply don’t fit in the league any more.

  6. Todd E. - Aug 11, 2010 at 1:17 PM

    How about just expanding rosters. I hate only having, what is it, like 3 scratches per game. The game is already very taxing on the body, and they play 4 times a week. Give the coach more options of resting more players on back-back games, or to bench more players for poor performances. Just expand the rosters by a few and I think that would be fine.

  7. bob barker - Aug 11, 2010 at 1:39 PM

    Bring Back The Whalers!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  8. J. McCann - Aug 11, 2010 at 1:40 PM

    Yes, there clearly is enough talent to stock 2 more teams.
    But the only reason expansion happens is due to economics. Usually it is because each team really needs the ten or twenty million cut of the expansion fee. Expansion is easier in some ways for the NHL because most of the teams money comes from ticket sales and local TV deals, so there is no giant national (or international) TV money where they notice the cut.
    I figure they do it as long as they make it through the next collective bargaining period OK. (This can even be a carrot for the players. No work stoppage and we add 2 teams.)

  9. Alex - Aug 11, 2010 at 2:11 PM

    Expansion would kill the NHL’s recent growth. Talent is there. the players you ,etioned still have a role to play on a team (Especially a good team as veteran leaders) but more than any other sport hockey is driven by the gate and while I can think of maybe three locations w/o a team rigt now that could support one there are sixish teams in areas that cannot support the teams they have (I’m looking at you Sunbelt teams) move a couple of them up to Winnipeg and Hartford and get some people who can build teams in the others (Thank you Steve Yzerman) maybe one day we can expand overseas or even farther south … but not today. (and FYI overseas will happen first)

  10. Hoog - Aug 11, 2010 at 6:08 PM

    Expansion, hell no! They need to contract some of the lesser performing/drawing franchises, in the South and Southwest, and perhaps move a team or two, but definitely not all teams, especially in the U.S.
    #1. Coyotes..this one is all too obvious
    #2. Thrashers..sure they haven’t been good, but Atlanta doesn’t draw well except for football.
    #3. Predators…good team, but didn’t draw like one
    #4. How about the Avalanche? In spite of a good team, they drew less than Florida did.
    I’d contract teams to start

  11. Anonymous - Aug 12, 2010 at 12:39 AM

    Return of the Winnipeg Jets?

  12. The Real Shuxion - Aug 12, 2010 at 7:29 AM

    Begins playing Brass Bonanza.

  13. Southern Hockey - Aug 12, 2010 at 9:46 AM

    Yes to expansion – All I hear is move existing sunbelt teams – WHY? Being a northern US transplant to the south, I love having hockey in the sunbelt (Read Nashville), and I love seeing growing numbers of fans as well as youth hockey in the area. Hockey isn’t a Canadian only sport. Get over it. Look at the California teams – originally a non traditional market. LA was awarded an expansion team in 1966. San Jose in 1990. And I definately don’t think that the NHL is going to give up on Sunbelt Hockey so quickly. They want to grow the sport. Let’s get real – it all comes down to economics. But in regard to the author’s comments, I believe there is plenty of talent coming out of Canada, US, Europe and Russia, as well as the AHL, (not to mention the growing number of free agents) to staff 2 more teams.

  14. Pred Bill - Aug 13, 2010 at 1:12 AM

    Why the hell do so many think Nashville is not pulling it’s weight? No, we are not like Edmonton,Toronto, or any other god forsaken Canadian team. We have had 12 years to grow a fan base that has never had hockey other than minor league teams here and there. As the fan base becomes more educated and the next generation of fans grow up with the sport, it will be a very tough ticket. Youth hockey is exploding in the Nashville area, even my 4 year old wants to start playing all because of the Preds! So when you put teams in a list for contraction how about excluding Nashville. It is a small market but stable, unlike a few other teams.
    Expansion? Maybe in two years, the league needs a new TV contract with ESPN to make more money.
    Salary Cap at 80 million. How, did you arrive at that number. You may have 3rd and 4th liners making 5 million but the team paid the player that much. Teams need to learn to manage the cap. It is set by the players percentage of total revenues. Plus there is a cap floor as well as a ceiling.
    All you Canadians need to realize the game is no longer just Canada’s game. It belongs to the world. We owe you guys a big thank you for a wonderful game… now bring on October. GO PREDS!!!

  15. HeightsBill - Aug 13, 2010 at 9:51 AM

    Please, no more teams. I’ve been a fan of the Rangers since 1965. I have seen this league expand from the original six teams to God knows how many. While I am glad that it did expand and that some of the teams are doing well. As a fan of an eastern based team, I could care less if I ever see L.A. or San Jose during the season. This sport, more than any other, is a passion; a passionate love for your team and an equally passionate hate for that teams rivals. For me the Islanders, Flyers and Devils make the game that more exciting, not only for the fans of those teams but the players as well. If the NHL has to expand, then it needs to create rivals. Remember Montreal and Quebec? If I never see the Sharks, Blue Jackets, or Flames again, I’d be a happy man.

  16. Mike - Aug 14, 2010 at 3:28 PM

    Joe, were you bored when you decided this topic?? Expansion?? I agree with a previous post. Retraction, or at least franchise relocation to areas that back hockey (like Winnipeg or Hartford).
    Yes there may be more talent but the economy won’t support it at this time, and without a major TV contract in the US it doesn’t make sense.
    What’s your next topic…wooden sticks vs graphite?? Exciting stuff

  17. Rene - Aug 22, 2010 at 7:14 PM

    Expansion should go ahead so that the is an even 16 teams on each Conference. Both of the new teams could be Canadian where teams get supported. One team could go to Winnipeg and the other could go to either Saskatoon or Hamilton. If a team in the United States can’t make it, then that team can move to the vacant spot between Saskatoon and Hamilton. At least in Canada there is major support for all the teams and television deals. Canada would have no trouble supporting 3 more teams so let’s get the puck rolling now.

  18. Paul H. - Aug 24, 2010 at 12:22 PM

    Hawksfanhere….NO NO NO NO!!!!! Enough already! This dumb suggestion is all about the owners pocketing the fees from new franchises – nothing more or less. Quebec, Winnipeg and throw in Hamilton (too bad if the Leafs don’t like it). Take the weak sisters who lack a dedicated fan base and move them. Two hardworking and fun to watch teams, Nashville and Phoenix deserve better and would be better appreciated in a ‘hockey city’. Atlanta blew it’s first chance (the Flames) and is doing it again. Florida and Columbus haven’t shown that they deserve a team either. Sorry for the hockey fans in those cities mentioned – but, it is what it is.

  19. puckheadshockeyworld - Aug 24, 2010 at 1:53 PM

    No way, no how on expansion. Yes, I agree there is talent available, but the league is already too watered down to begin with. The NHL really needs to chop 4-6 teams (PHX,ATL,FLA,TB,NASH,CBJ) for starters. The salary cap has watered down every club in the league and created a system of parity that borders on boredom. The NHL would be smart to contract and loosen or eliminate the cap to favor roster continuity and the saving of jobs for veteran players over the youngsters who should still be in juniors or the minors.

  20. Fecteau - Aug 26, 2010 at 9:31 AM

    The price is not wrong, Bobbo!!!!
    GO WHALERS!!!!

  21. Fecteau - Aug 26, 2010 at 9:41 AM

    They might not have as much of a fan base because of losing Peter Forsberg, Joe Sakic, Claude Lemieux, Jose Theodore, Chris Drury, Ray Bourque, Patrick Roy, to name a few, I’m pretty sure for a while if not currently the Avalanche have the record for consecutive sellouts streak… May want to reconsider them.
    But I agree with Nashville and Phoenix. Nashville consistently has a great team despite the fire sale a few years back (Timmonen, Upshall, Vokoun, etc) yet I don’t hear about sellouts out there…

  22. Fecteau - Aug 26, 2010 at 9:44 AM

    Oh in that last post I meant Hartnell not Upshall…

  23. blackswampblues - Sep 6, 2010 at 4:25 PM

    no more expansion!
    the only reason that calgary, edmonton, and ottawa survive is the Canadian Assistance Plan, which forces big-market teams to prop up small-market canadian teams.
    adding canadian teams would only require more propping.

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