How Overexpansion Has Ruined the NHL
In 1967, the National Hockey League took the bold step to double the size of the league, adding six new teams to the Original Six.
The cities included in the Original Six—Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Montreal, New York, Toronto—are considered "traditional" hockey markets. When the league added the six new teams, the NHL didn't limit that expansion to traditional markets; the California Seals (in Oakland) and Los Angeles Kings were among the second wave of franchises granted (with St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Minnesota and Philadelphia).
Those Seals served as the first red flag to the league's idea of expanding into non-traditional markets. They lasted only nine years in northern California before moving to Cleveland as the Barons in 1976, and folded two years later (merging with the Minnesota North Stars).
Over the following decades, the NHL has continued adding teams in markets all over North America. As the league stands today, there are 30 teams stretching from Vancouver to Florida and LA to New Jersey.
And the unfortunate reality is that overexpansion has watered down a great game.
Under the current CBA (which expires in September), there is a structure in place that forces teams to spend between a salary floor and a ceiling (i.e. a hard cap). And in the last decade, all 30 teams have qualified for the playoffs at least once. On the surface, that would lead some fans to think the number of teams is working, as is the CBA.
That isn't the case, though.
There are some factors that play into where teams are in the NHL. Commissioner Gary Bettman was very specific in his criteria for a market to have a hockey team in his State of the League Address before the 2010 Stanley Cup Finals, when he said the following:
"I always talk about three things for franchises: market, owner and building."
There are teams in the current NHL that are lacking at least one of those, and there is a fourth issue the league needs to deal with as well.
First, there are markets that are failing.
Bettman went on to point out that teams left Minneapolis, Quebec and Winnipeg because some of those criteria "went away." The league isn't actively looking to expand, and recent news that Dallas and St. Louis have found new ownership and there's at least a front-runner to buy the Coyotes indicates the league isn't looking to move another team (until the Islanders' lease is up at least).
Consider the attendance numbers for the 2011-12 regular season. Phoenix, who won the Pacific Division, couldn't even draw 73 percent of capacity in their home building. That's right, folks, a division champion was last in the league in home attendance this year.
The Dallas Stars also averaged under 77 percent of capacity at home this year. The once-proud Minnesota North Stars franchise is finally emerging from an ugly bankruptcy, hoping new ownership and Jamie Benn can get them back on the map.
Another playoff team that doesn't have the public ownership issues the Coyotes do, the New Jersey Devils, averaged under 88 percent of capacity at home this year. So the attendance problem isn't exclusively reserved for bankrupt, owner-less, superstar-lacking teams in non-traditional markets.
Certainly one of the three Coyotes fans will remind me that some traditional markets like Chicago have had their bad years in attendance. And I won't deny that. But when you look at the historical attendance numbers for teams in Phoenix/Glendale, Florida and some other non-traditional markets, empty seats is a regular problem.
The market is failing if teams don't have fans who care enough to buy tickets.
Ownership is also a problem around the NHL. The facts are there: Not every team is filling their building every night, and a large percentage of teams in the league are actively losing money.
The reports from the NHL regarding television viewership indicate that perception is no longer an issue for the game. And money is certainly out there for the making.
The NHL cannot control how owners do, or don't, spend their money. If a team spends poorly and gets stuck with a broken down, injury-prone goalie on the books for a decade who never plays, they're stuck with Rick DiPietro until either he retires or a new CBA allows for the team to amnesty him (i.e. rip up the contract).
And if owners cannot find people to sell the team to the community in a fashion that makes empty seats disappear, and brings in additional revenue for the club, the NHL cannot take responsibility for that either.
But the league can do a better job of selecting owners.
The owner of the New York Islanders, who are currently paying Rick DiPietro to watch almost every game almost every year, hasn't been able to sell the product, add quality free agents or get a stadium deal done with the legislature.
Furthermore, the fiasco in Arizona continues to be a laughable display as the league finds more "potential" owners for the Coyotes, but have to continue to remind everyone that just because they have identified a potential owner does not mean the deal is done.
If ownership is failing, there are legitimate questions.
Bettman's third criteria continues to be an uphill battle all over the continent. Quality stadiums for teams to play in and fans to experience the game have become harder to secure as watchdog groups and college professors continue to "study" the financial impact of professional sport venues on the average tax payer's bottom line.
If there isn't an appropriate venue for a team to compete in, the league has another issue.
On a number of levels, there are teams failing to meet the criteria established by the league's commissioner. If that is true, there has to be a conversation that centers on removing, not relocating, teams.
But there is one final reality that the NHL needs to deal with, and it is obviously impacting the game every night.
The quality of play is at one of the highest levels in the history of the game...but only at the high end. There are players getting pay checks all over the NHL today that do not, in any way, deserve to be in the NHL.
If fans honestly sat down and did an assessment of their favorite team's roster, there is probably at least one player who shouldn't be playing at the game's highest level. Some cities might have two or three players who shouldn't be in the league—Columbus might have 15 or 16.
Simple math indicates that subtracting one player, on average, from every NHL team who isn't good enough to compete at the highest level would remove 30 players from the league. If teams carry 20-22 players each for a regular season, that's more than one full team that could be eliminated.
And the bar for competition in the game would effectively be raised.
Let's take that idea one step further, though.
If there are 600 players out there who are good enough to be in the NHL, and you remove a couple teams from the equation, let's hypothetically say there are 550 positions available for 600 players.
If you're a quality general manager or owner, and you could have an effective fourth line center like Chris Kelly or a guy like John Scott who is good for nothing but one fight and three minutes of ice time per night, who are you writing a check to twice per month?
The watering down of the talent needed to make the NHL allows for "goons," "hired fighters," "boxers on skates" and "fists" to continue finding employment. But cutting back the number of available roster spots would afford front offices the opportunity to choose between a hockey player and someone who has little impact on the game other than questionable hitting/fighting.
Simply put, the NHL has too many roster spots on too many teams in too many markets. There is greatness in the game today, but it could be better if there weren't as many players, teams, and owners dealing with the league.
The NHL has a wonderful product. But it could be better.
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