Column: The puck has dropped, now expand
The NHL needs to grow to 32 teams
Published: Wednesday, October 2, 2013
Updated: Thursday, October 3, 2013 17:10
I have always thought it to be a simple concept that divisions in sports should be divided up equally. In the simplest statistical terms, each team should have the same percentage chance of winning their division and making the playoffs.
Enter the NHL, which began its season Tuesday night with newly aligned conferences and divisions, leaving the Eastern Conference with 16 teams and the Western Conference with 14 after years of working with two conferences of 15. Instead of having three divisions of five teams in each conference, there are now two divisions in each conference (two divisions of eight teams in the Eastern Conference and two divisions of seven teams in the Western Conference).
Realignment does offer some benefits. The realignment guarantees that at least three teams from each of the four divisions make the playoffs (as opposed to just the Top 8 teams in each conference) allowing for a team that may not have had much of a shot in the old format to have more incentive to fight for a weaker third seed in a weaker conference and, in a sense, making for more interesting playoff qualifications.
The realignment also eases travel woes as the Winnipeg Jets are now rightfully in the Western Conference and the Detroit Red Wings and the Columbus Blue Jackets are in the Eastern Conference which makes travel woes much easier for all three teams involved, but it does make things more difficult for the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lighting, whose divisional foes are now in Michigan, New York, Massachusetts and Canada.
But these benefits do not outweigh the issues of fairness the league faces with its new alignment. There are a few routes the NHL could take to fix what I’m sure is a flawed system from the start, but the best answer is now to somehow add two more teams to the NHL to put the league’s total up to 32.
In an address last week, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman commented on possible expansion among other topics. The gist of the address: There is no organized pursuance of NHL expansion at the moment according to Bettman. So let me be the first to accept that expansion at this point in time is a somewhat farfetched idea, but a guy can dream right?
Certainly there are enough current teams in the NHL that are struggling to find any consistent success in the record books let alone filling their stadiums with fans, but that doesn’t make it naïve to think that there are still cities and markets out there that would thrive with a hockey team.
Let’s talk Seattle and Quebec City, as the two have been the two most vehement options for either relocation or expansion in recent years.
I am a big fan of putting a hockey team to Seattle. Seattle has an interesting hockey history, as the Seattle Metropolitans were the first American team to ever win the Stanley Cup in 1917.
There have been opportunities to get a team to the area, as Seattle had been courting the NBA’s Sacramento Kings to move to Seattle with the prospect of building a hockey- and basketball-friendly stadium for its market (the 12th largest in the U.S.). Unfortunately, the Kings were unable to be wooed away from their current home, but with a wealthy potential ownership group, the possibility is still in the works.
Quebec City, on the other hand, held an NHL team from 1972-1995, the Nordiques, before the franchise moved to Colorado. The team ultimately left Quebec City due to financial issues, but a better ownership group could help a team survive in a city that has been calling on other failing franchises to move back to the area for years. The Quebec market is bigger than Winnipeg, which just got its Jets back, and it’s proximity to Montreal offers an immediate potential for a rivalry if both teams end up being competitive at the same time.
This isn’t to say of course though that Seattle and Quebec City are the only possible options for expansion.
Houston, for example, is easily the biggest market in North America without a hockey team. The city has a history of hockey through the World Hockey Association, minor league hockey, and the American Hockey League. But the recent departure of the AHL’s Houston Aeros may be a sign that they may not be that desperate for a hockey team at the moment.
Portland, the No. 22 market in the country, may also be a viable option, giving a possible Seattle team an automatic rival in proximity.
Maybe somebody could even try putting a team in Hartford. They could play their home games in the XL Center and bank on the history of the Whalers to give fans in between Boston and New York somebody else to root for (a guy can dream right?).
Expansion for the sake of expansion is never a good idea. It can lead to flimsy teams playing for markets that couldn’t care less about their existence, which the NHL definitely doesn’t need with some current teams struggling themselves.
But when some teams have a literal statistical advantage at making the playoffs, something needs to be done about it. It’s that simple.
In reality, expansion is almost definitely not the most practical option. But for a league aiming to thrive in excitement, fan participation and competition amongst its teams, it is easily the most stirring option it has.