In the previous article I looked at why the NHL could afford, financially and strategically, to expand to 32 teams. I also defended the idea of expansion as it relates to their existing business plan and recent history of fiscal growth.
This brings me to my second point regarding expansion: talent dilution in the NHL.
There have been a lot of complaints for years that there simply isn’t enough high-end talent in the NHL to support another two teams. The argument usually revolves around the principle, and somewhat deservedly so, that in a 24 team league a player like (insert 4th line plugger here) wouldn’t have a job.
This argument is framed by comparing the past and the present. When the league had 24 teams there were 4th line pluggers who looked lost on the ice because the league had not yet reached into untapped potential athletic markets to find more players. There will always be those players who cling to the so-called bottom rung of the league, getting by on sweat and effort more than skill. Contraction isn’t the answer.
So then, we have to ask the question: is there enough hockey talent available for the NHL to effectively outfit two more franchises?
Yes and no.
With regards to the product on the ice, I think that there is enough potential talent available to afford the NHL two more complete rosters. In the most recent World Junior Championships there were seven countries represented as being potential medallists – Russia, Canada, Sweden, Finland, USA, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic. The gradual emergence of Switzerland and Latvia as developing hockey markets only adds to this talent pool.
Now admittedly, the KHL and some of the other European leagues bleed off some of that talent, but not to any significant detriment of the NHL. The most significant defectors to the NHL from overseas this season have been Vladimir Tarasenko, who came over after spending a few years post-draft to continue to develop, and Roman Cervenka, a free-agent signing with the Calgary Flames. Tarasenko is a talent, but Cervenka remains unproven.
The best talent already comes to the NHL, and that talent pool is gradually growing and expanding. The growth of the CHL as a development league, while the emergence of the USHL and NCAA as viable development paths only adds to both the quality and quantity of the players available to NHL teams each year.
Designed to Fail
Here is a little secret about NHL expansion: those teams are designed to be bad. Really bad. It is sort of a hazing ritual on the new owners and managers by the Old Boys’ Club that is the NHL. For most of their history, the NHL’s existing teams have manipulated the rules of joining the league to favour themselves over the new arrivals. So when expansion teams struggle, it is designed that way.
The real question is, do these teams ever make it out of the grave their NHL brethren have dug for them?
Here are the teams that entered the league as new franchises between 1991 and 2000: San Jose, Ottawa, Tampa Bay, Anaheim, Florida, Nashville, Atlanta, Minnesota, and Columbus.
San Jose became a perennial challenger almost exactly ten years after entering the league. They have won the Pacific division six times in the last eleven seasons, and finished 2nd in four others.
Ottawa spent its first six seasons in the basement intentionally tanking in order to draft high and build a team. They were the ones who sparked the initiation of the draft lottery. They turned it around in 1998-1999, then spent nine consecutive seasons finishing in the top three of a difficult division, the Northeast, playing against much bigger markets like Toronto and Boston.
Florida had that crazy Scott Mellanby-inspired rat-run to the Cup in 1996, but have been more or less an afterthought ever since.
Tampa Bay was the first of the expansion clubs to win a Stanley Cup in 2004.
Anaheim has made it to the Stanley Cup finals twice in their history, becoming the first team in California to win one in 2007, and have more or less been in the playoff mix since their first Stanley Cup run in 2002-2003.
Nashville took some time to get off the ground, spending six seasons struggling in the Central division, but generally became a playoff team around 2003-2004 and appeared to hit their stride following the 2004-2005 lockout.
Minnesota and Columbus have struggled for much of their NHL history, the former only moderately more successful and the latter being, well, Columbus. The Atlanta Thrashers were moved to Winnipeg following years of competitive, and financial, struggle.
That three teams of the expansion era have had difficulties is not surprising, nor particularly damning, given the average success ratio for even established professional sports teams.
So where do I agree that the talent pool is diminishing? In the management ranks.
Who’s Driving the Bus?
Not that there aren’t good potential general managers out there. There are. I suspect that the CHL or AHL could graduate three or four GMs to NHL teams today and show improvement over the work being done right now.
Portland Winter Hawks GM Mike Johnston, recruiting scandal aside, has been mentioned as a possible future NHL GM. Oil Kings GM Bob Green strikes me as someone for whom a job offer is simply a matter of time, and NHL teams have been trying to pry Don Hay out of the Vancouver Giants organization for quite some time now. Those are three names from just the WHL, never mind the QMJHL, OHL, NCAA, AHL, USHL, and the many other hockey development bodies around North America.
There exists behind-the-scenes talent available for the NHL, but the bar for known quantities is often so low, and the perceived risks of “taking a chance on the wrong guy” so deeply ingrained that those doing the hiring usually defer to names they know. This has long been an NHL tradition, where new GMs are usually castoffs or right-hand men from other organizations.
Looking over the list of current NHL GMs, a few stand out as being hired from outside the traditional NHL circles. Lou Lamoriello is perhaps the most notable, having come from a collegiate background before being hired to run the Devils in the late 80s. Most are former NHL scouts, coaches or assistant GMs, with a few exceptions. Garth Snow was a (very) recently retired player when he was given the job with the Islanders, Kevin Cheveldayoff had spent time managing teams in the IHL and AHL before becoming the Jets’ GM, and Mike Gillis was a player agent up until the moment he joined the Canucks.
What occurs most often in the NHL is that a GM will get a job, lose it to a subordinate, find an assistant position or scouting gig in another organization, wait until his boss gets fired, and then move up and take over. The cycle repeats over and over again, with only an occasional introduction of somebody from outside the NHL management ranks. New blood very rarely finds its way into the NHL inner circle.
The Case for Cicero
Marcus Tullius Cicero is likely one of the most famous Roman names commonly known today. He was a great orator and advocate – basically a lawyer, but the good kind. He was also what was then known as a Novus Homo, a New Man. His family wasn’t anything special by way of heritage or wealth, and he rose through the ranks of Roman political society by virtue of his own skills. His lack of familial ties made him simultaneously admired and distrusted. There were many who had a vested interest in the status quo, while others took inspiration from his success. Cicero’s unique position also gave him a very valuable, and eventually fatal, perspective. He was more likely to challenge the way things were done because of his position, and would also stand up for laws and ideals that many in the traditional hierarchy found inconvenient. Such was his impact on Roman politics, law and society that his arguments, letters, and speeches are still around today and have been continuously studied by lawyers, philosophers and political junkies alike for the last two-thousand years.
As a counterpoint to help emphasize my argument, think of the tremendous interest and buzz that circulated around Jon Cooper, Troy Ward, and Dallas Eakins this past summer. Each one was touted as being a potential NHL head coach in waiting for several open jobs around the league. Yet not one was hired. In most cases it was more familiar names who were selected; an associate coach here, an older veteran coach who had been out of the league for a few years there. These were the safe picks, and not necessarily incorrect I should add, for the GMs to make. If these men fail it is their own fault, and less the fault of the GM. Likewise is it so with Presidents and owners who hire GMs. Taking a known quantity is a safer, and more plausibly deniable, choice than going out and finding someone entirely off the beaten path.
Be that as it may, there can be value in bringing in someone who has climbed the ladder by a different means – meritocracy devoid of familiarity and tradition.
My Point, And I Do Have One…
My point in all this is that it is very likely that a drop off in overall league performance could be expected for the initial few seasons after expansion, principally as a result of player redistribution and a brief reduction in the talent pool. Two teams is not a massive infusion of new roster spots, though. And scouting has advanced tremendously since the last expansion era, so I expect that any initial downturn will be short lived.
However, over the course of several years, and with proper management and strong backing by ownership, the product on the ice could quickly rebound and do justice to the tremendous parity we see today around the league. The last expansion period saw the league go from 21 teams in 1990 to 30 by 2000, a phenomenal rate of expansion. The records of many of those teams, though, has since been superior to a number of their predecessors.
Today, the game is, in some ways, healthier than it has been in decades. The entertainment is phenomenal, at least if you aren’t cheering for the Leafs, and the skill, speed, and playmaking creativity is on display almost every game.
Since 2000, when the league finally reached 30 franchises, teams from that expansion period have made the Stanley Cup finals four times, winning it twice (Tampa Bay in 2004 and the Ducks in 2007). The other ten have been a mixture of Original Six and later expansion franchises.
I don’t think expansion is a bad idea. I like it. I especially like the fact that it appears almost certain that there will be two more Canadian teams. This is good for the sport, good for business (depending on the financial structure – I think they screwed up the salary floor mechanism and I suspect it will cost some owners their franchises), and good for Canada.
I’m not concerned about the amount of on-ice talent available to go around. Now, management talent may be another thing, but often expansion franchises offer an opportunity for a little creative destruction. That is to say, they have to look at things differently, and often try new ideas and employ new people to solve problems in order to innovate and hang in with the big boys. Not every team is entitled to a superstar, so teams will have to fight that much harder to get an edge, but if we continually ask more and more from our athletes when it comes to their performance, why not expect more from ownership and management in theirs?