Realignment Necessitates and Complicates Potential NHL Expansion to 32 Teams
With a new CBA in place and its biggest fires out in Glendale and Newark, the time is starting to seem right for the league to grow again.
Expansion, always, in all ways. This could not only be the motto of petulant but sometimes funny real estate agent Ryan Serhant on that reality show my wife makes me watch, but also that of the National Hockey League, which has grown from a tidy six-team operation to a thirty-team behemoth since doubling in size in 1966.
The NHL, which last added new teams in 2000, is currently in the midst of its longest no-growth period since the start of the expansion era. With the Phoenix/Arizona Coyotes slated to stay in Glendale for at least five more years and the recent sale of the New Jersey Devils, not to mention labor peace for the next decade, the time is finally starting to feel right for the league to add two more teams and put a relatively quick end to the imbalance between the Eastern and Western Conferences created by the league's recent realignment.
There is a lot to like about the league's new set up but the fact that the path to the playoffs is easier for the clubs in the Western Conference is a little galling. Increasing league membership to thirty-two and giving us an even four divisions of eight teams seems like the tonic, an extremely lucrative tonic at that.
Ok, so if expansion is coming, where is it coming to? Currently, the media darling of any potential expansion is Seattle. The city was the heavily-rumored landing pad for the Coyotes had Glendale not stepped up and the league has been flirting with the Emerald City since the 1970s, even granting it a conditional franchise back then which never came to fruition. But not so fast, expansion to Seattle is not a slam dunk, yet. Let's look at the serious contenders for slots thirty-one and thirty-two and examine some of the details surrounding them and how they would fit into the current league map which currently has an opening in both the Pacific and Central Division.
Seattle: As mentioned above, a one-vote swing and Seattle could already be preparing to host the Coyotes. There seems to be strong interest from both investors and the league about bringing the NHL to town. A few weeks ago, a rumor circulated that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was pushing the league to grant a $275 million franchise to Seattle to begin play next season. It would not surprise me if there is some truth to that, I am a big believer in where there is smoke there is fire, especially when it comes to expansion dollars, however, with no guarantee of a new arena ever getting built (currently the NBA must commit to Seattle for construction to start) I'd say hold your horses on that scenario happening, for now.
Why: Seattle seems like the best fit for the NHL left in the United States. The city has the right demographics and ownership candidates have already emerged. Ray Bartoszek and Anthony Lanza were ready to purchase the Coyotes for $220 million and are rumored to be willing to ante up further for an expansion team. Don Levin, owner of the AHL's Chicago Wolves, has also expressed interest in owning a Seattle-based NHL franchise. A Seattle team is a perfect fit for the Pacific Division and could be an instant rival (at least geographically) for the Vancouver Canucks.
Why Not: This is easy, no suitable arena as of yet. The Memorandum of Understanding between local government and developer Chris Hansen calls for the NBA to commit to a return before construction can begin on the new SODO arena. The idea that a team could survive long term in the Seattle Center (fka Key Arena) is a bad one. Seating capacity is on the low side with lots of obstructed view seats to boot. The arena was remodeled in the 90s to be basketball specific so the sight-lines are not good for hockey. I have also read here and there from longtime Seattle hockey fans that the ice quality in the building is poor, particularly on the side of the rink that scoreboard hangs over (that's right, the scoreboard does not hang over center ice). Other than having an arena still on the drawing board, there isn't much negative in regards to Seattle expansion. The sports scene would be a bit crowded with the addition of the NHL and the return of the NBA but the population base and dollars are there to support all the teams. Although, I can't help but wonder what would happen if the NHL club was bad for an extended period of time? That's always a bit of a concern when talking NHL in a new American market.
When: I would feel good about the NHL expanding to Seattle as soon as the announcement is made that the new arena is a go but not before then. I think, if the NHL is indeed going to go to Seattle, that it would be a really good idea for the team to begin playing as soon as possible, before its NBA counterpart starts up. Despite its warts, Seattle Center would work for a couple of seasons while the new arena is under construction. The NHL has played in some sketchy temporary facilities in the past. I saw the Lightning play at Expo Hall, which seated something like 10,000 people, back in its early days, so...
What would they call it: The historical name being bandied about is Metropolitans, which is a nod to the name of the first U.S.-based Stanley Cup winner. The Seattle Metropolitans of the PCHA defeated the Montreal Canadiens back in 1917 to capture Lord Stanley's chalice. Another solid choice would be Totems, which was the name of the city's long-running minor-league team in the old Western Hockey League. Totems would likely have been the name of the 70s NHL expansion club had it ever seen the light of day. Or, they could shrug off the past and go in a new direction.
If the NHL is dead set on Seattle being one of its new members, which seems likely according to all the scuttlebutt out there, than there is no need to rush. Wait until the paperwork on the MOU is changed to allow arena construction to begin for an NHL team first, or if that doesn't happen, wait for the NBA to announce its return to the city. The potential of the arena deal falling through or being greatly delayed seems to be the only thing that would keep Seattle out of the NHL if the league chooses to undergo another round of expansion in the near future. The NHL would like to increase its presence in the U.S. Pacific Northwest and the area should get at least one of the potential two new teams with Seattle being the front-runner.
Quebec City: The former home of the Nordiques has all the right elements on paper as far as an expansion site goes. A deep-pocketed ownership candidate ready to write a check, a new building going up, a suitable place to play in the meantime, and a rabid fan base eagerly waiting for the NHL to return.
Why: Did you see how Winnipeg embraced the resurrection of the Jets? The return of the NHL to Quebec City would likely be just as successful. A new 18,482 seat arena will be ready in time for the 2015-16 season. Media mogul Pierre Karl Péladeau seems ready, willing and able to write the big check to cover the expansion fees, and attendance was never really an issue in the past and is unlikely to be in the future. Canada learned the hard way in the late 90s, fill your buildings, no matter what the on ice product is like, or risk losing your team.
Why Not: The Eastern Conference is already stacked and expansion to the QC would mean the Red Wings or Blue Jackets (or some other poor sap - Carolina?) would have to move back to the Western Conference to provide balance to the force. In the past, Quebec City was not exactly a prime target for free agents (or Eric Lindros) and this matter of some players not wanting to play in the largely francophone city could be a potential detriment. Going back to Quebec City would add yet another small market to the NHL. Is that really best for the league or would Quebec be better left as a relocation destination for a future troubled franchise?
When: 2015, when the new building is ready, at the earliest. The NHL doesn't seem in a great hurry to get back to Quebec City so I wouldn't expect to see Colisée Pepsi temporarily housing a team before then.
What would they call it: It's hard to imagine it would be anything other than Nordiques, even if they have to get the rights to the name back from the Avalanche, which doesn't seem to be the case. As far I as can tell, the NHL holds the trademark to the name despite it being written otherwise in some places on the interweb. A team called the Bulldogs played in the NHL back in its formative years so that could also be a candidate if Nordiques is not available.
If the NHL is going to add two more teams its only fair that a ready and willing Canadian market should get one of them. Quebec City is taking all the proper steps, as Winnipeg did, to make sure it finally gets a team back. Quebec City fans will pack the new arena and ensure the club is successful off the ice even through the lean times any expansion team is almost certain to face. The Jets are spending near the salary cap ceiling after just two seasons, and despite the limitations of the market, there is no reason to think it would be any different in Quebec City. Adding another Canadian team is about as sure a thing to a guaranteed success as you are going to get.
Portland: After the Coyotes situation was finally put to bed, a report made the rounds stating that the Portland Trailblazers organization was also ready to put in an offer for the troubled club had it not stayed in Glendale. Portland has a lot of the same positive attributes that Seattle has in a slightly smaller package.
Why: Unlike Seattle, Portland already has permanent home in place with the Moda Center (Rose Garden). Heading up the ownership group would be billionaire Paul Allen. Portland has a long history of supporting minor-league hockey and has a strong, passionate base of sports fans. The city would also be a natural fit for the Pacific Division. Competition for the sports dollar would be less fierce in Portland than it would be in Seattle, as the Oregon city is not home to the NFL or MLB.
Why Not: If Seattle is the current favorite to land a new team, would the NHL add another to the Pacific Northwest? Doing so would force one of the existing Pacific Division teams, most likely Phoenix, to have to move to the Central Division, which could be just as problematic as moving the Red Wings or Blue Jackets back there if the other expansion team was awarded to an eastern market like Quebec City. The Coyotes have just been given a new lease on life, is moving them away from the rivalries they have built up over the years really a good idea? Paul Allen seems interested in purchasing an existing team and moving it to The City of Roses, but does he want to pay the higher price to acquire an expansion franchise which will struggle in its early years, best case?
When: With the Moda Center, Portland is ready to go as long as they are ready to ante up for a franchise but would probably have to wait until 2015 if they came into the league at the same time as Quebec City.
What would they call it: A couple of historical options would be Rosebuds, which was a major-league team that went under in the 1920's and whose players ended up forming the nucleus of the expansion Chicago Blackhawks, or the Buckaroos, which was the name of the city's long-running minor-league team that lasted from 1960 to 1974. Neither choice seems quite right in this day and age, so something new might be a better option.
As Seattle was Plan B for the Coyotes, Portland, in my opinion, will be Plan B for NHL expansion to the Pacific Northwest. I think Portland only moves into one of the coveted two spots if something goes drastically wrong in Seattle. Portland is a good place to have waiting in the wings if things don't improve for the Coyotes in Glendale over the next five years but if plans for the SODO arena go south for some reason (like the NBA deciding not to expand anytime soon) then Portland would be a solid choice as an expansion site and would nicely fill that empty spot on the league map.
Sure, there are other cities out that there that one could make a case for, but the only way I see the NHL expanding to the likes of Kansas City or Houston is if they decide to choose the sites based strictly on geography, filling the empty spot in the Pacific and the empty spot in the Central. Kansas City may have the Sprint Center, but who's going to own a team there? Would Kansas City support NHL hockey in strong enough numbers or would the league end up with another Phoenix or Atlanta type situation on its hands after the novelty wore off. Houston is the largest metro area in the United States without an NHL team, but the city is a bit hamstrung, because as it stands now, Rockets owner Les Alexander would have to be the owner of an NHL playing out of the city's Toyota Center. Alexander has shown some interest in bringing a relocated team to town in the past, but didn't seem the least bit interested in the Coyotes and is likely not willing to foot the big bill for an expansion franchise. As for both expansion slots going to Canadian markets, It seems like Toronto is not going to get that second team anytime soon. It looks like the planned arena in suburban Markham, which had plenty of skeptics to begin with, is seriously under the gun now.
In my mind, expansion is coming and coming soon. Expect to see two new teams, most likely playing out of Seattle and Quebec City, within the next three years and maybe even sooner, with Seattle possibly starting up next season. I know there are plenty of people around the game who feel like 30 teams is enough, or too many, but the players are out there to stock two more teams. Momentum in Seattle is gathering quickly and Quebec City is more than ready right now. Combine that with the current imbalance between conferences and 30 NHL owners wanting to line their pockets with a revenue stream they don't have to share with the players and you've got all the ingredients for a 32-team NHL.
Should the NHL expand to 32 teams in the near future?