Expansion drafts are fun, 34 team leagues decidedly less so

Photo credit:Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
1 year ago
There are a lot of fun things that go along with expansion. You get to wait for the team name, the logo, the jersey, there’s all the speculation that goes into the expansion draft and some fun roster fallout (or decidedly less fun if you briefly have Jared McCann on your roster and then lose him in favour of keeping Justin Holl.) Yeah, expansion has a lot of fun elements to it and expanding to 32 teams wasn’t the worst thing for the NHL. It gave the league a nice even divisional/conference balance and now half the league makes the playoffs and the other half doesn’t. Expanding to 32 teams was the next best thing to shrinking the league back down to 21 teams, 24 if you want a bit more of that conference/division symmetry.
Of course, the NHL apparently can’t leave well enough alone and looks be considering expansion again.
At least we’ll assume that’s what the eyeballs from Kevin Weekes means. It’s great that he was able to take enough time to tag his favourite sportsbook but was too busy to add any context to the retweet.
Fortunately, plenty of others have been trying to add context to it and the NHL’s taken the first step towards expansion by denying that it is happening and that’s why it’s time to weigh in on this nonsense because in addition to the alluded to Houston and Atlanta locations above, people are taking the opportunity to talk about Quebec City and the most relevant of locations to a Leafs site, a second team being placed in Toronto.
We’ll save the Toronto thing for last and start with the painful suggestion of the NHL trying Atlanta for the third time. Much like how the NHL has a hard time letting go of the Phoenix market given its size and the success of sports leagues there, the NHL wants to be in Atlanta. To be honest, I don’t blame them in either situation but the NHL’s ability to fall flat in Phoenix, Miami and Atlanta speaks to why population can’t be the only market indicator they rely on, and with minimum attendance and interest in teams in Chicago and Pittsburgh prior to draft lotteries speeding up their rebuilds speaks to no place being safe and there are a finite number of capable owners and markets in sports. Alas, expansion fees seem addictive, so they’ll cash in for as long as they can.
Houston is an option that seems like it will happen sooner or later. Dallas has been an NHL success story and whether they like hockey or not I’m pretty sure Texas will support any local sports team beyond what should be reasonably expected. I guess this is also a city that lost a football team, so there aren’t any guarantees here either, but credit for the NHL at least preparing to cross off a new city on their map rather than recycling past failures.
Speaking of past failures it’s inevitable that Quebec City will be brought into the conversation. It really shouldn’t be. A small market team in a Northern climate that will have additional language barriers for most of its players, features an unfavourable tax rate that will create an additional barrier to attracting players, and allowing the team to ever become competitive is not something the league needs to take on. Please just go buy a throwback Nordiques jersey and appreciate it for the fine garment it is. Do not attempt to put it back into the league as somehow the Nordiques would be a bigger disaster now than they were in the 80s.
That brings us to Toronto 2, or Hamilton, or Markham, or whatever, but realistically Toronto 2 is what would work best. As long as MLSE has a say in whether or not another team can be put in Toronto there won’t be one. That said if the Leafs had only a 200km claim to territory rights, you could put a team in a farmer’s field two hours away from the Scotiabank Arena and it would likely sell out every game (London, hello). Still, it’s not just the Leafs that would be fighting against another Ontario team, but Detroit, Buffalo, and potentially Ottawa as well. There is no danger of a team coming to Toronto and pushing the Leafs to be better.
The thing is no matter where it happens, it’s probably a bad idea and there are better ones available. By further adding to the league the talent pool gets diluted and we already have a team that is using Travis Boyd as a second line center. What comes next should terrify us all. Expansion seems like it grows the game, but with each crappy team brought in, you’ve now added 82 underwhelming games to the television schedule, you’ve created a feeding frenzy for mid level talent in free agency and further hoarding of any players with actual high end talent. Sure, with each new team it means goaltending around the league gets a little worse, but you’ve also added 21 AHL level skaters to the mix. You’re welcome to tell me I’m wrong on this but part of the appeal of events like the Olympics is that you have a small number of absolutely loaded high skill teams playing against each other, I’m sure the nationalism matters to some, but with each round of expansion, you take a step back from the best on best.
Each round of expansion also gets you further away from being able to see your rivals play. 32 teams in the league already mean 62 games of the schedule are gone just to play everyone at home and on the road. This league seems to go out of its way to limit interesting matchups during the regular season and then is confused why no one cares about divisions in the playoffs.
I know we will never see the like cutback on the number of teams, but it seems like the solution if the league wants to expand is to move towards relegation as the option. For North American sports it is the opportunity for hockey to stand out from other sports leagues and would be easy enough to implement through a combination of expansion and drawing from the American Hockey League. Twenty tier I and twenty tier 2 teams with the bottom four tier I and top four tier II teams playing off in a relegation tournament would bring something different to the sport, but as I type this I am reminded that the NHL isn’t worried about being interesting or relevant, it’s here for the expansion team fees.
The reason why we’re likely hearing about expansion at this time is that having feelers out there for expansion teams at the time when Tempe is voting on a new arena for the Coyotes means a contingency plan is being put in place. As unfortunate as relocation can be the NHL isn’t going to stay in a college arena indefinitely waiting for another option. And like Atlanta proves, there is nothing to say that the league won’t circle back around to a city later on.
Finally, expansion is a topic because the league needs a big thing to talk about. The trade deadline has passed and there aren’t many compelling playoff stories kicking around the NHL to keep us entertained until meaningful hockey starts back up again.

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