The Pros and Cons of the NHL Expanding to 32 Teams
In an interview with The Hockey News this past week, former NHLPA leader Paul Kelly laid out expansion as a way of helping to resolve the ongoing lockout and repair lockout-induced financial damage.
“If the NHLPA hasn’t raised it as a potential part of the solution, then it ought to,” Kelly told columnist Ken Campbell.
He later elaborated, “The lockout is going to get resolved at some point, and in my view, a $3.3 billion business could easily approach being a $5 billion business within a year or two if they add two certain revenue-generating teams."
In turn, they might remember thinking there was no way the league could realistically get any more populous than that. When it did, ultimately reaching 30 franchises in the year 2000, they either began to harbor the belief that 30 was simply too many or revised their line of thinking to, “OK, 30 is reasonable, but there is definitely no way it can get any bigger than that.”
Since Kelly is no longer in power, there is no need for knee-jerk reactions to his proposition. However, upon reading deep enough into his argument and then taking the time to consider the notion of a 32-team NHL, it can make for a healthy dogfight of a debate.
Besides Kelly’s core case concerning league-wide revenue, here are some other aspects of hypothetical expansion to bear in mind, for better or worse.
Pro: More Fulfilled Fanbases
Campbell’s column and interview with Kelly indicate that the ex-NHLPA director has his eye on Quebec City and the Toronto suburb of Markham as sites for the two new additives.
The former might not be such a bad move, especially in light of the return of the Winnipeg Jets, whose predecessors bolted for Phoenix one year after Quebec lost its Nordiques to Colorado in the mid-'90s.
Trade the Toronto market for one that is currently deprived of major-league hockey altogether, and Kelly’s proposal would suddenly look all but impeccable (pending additional components of the debate, of course).
The best move may be to spawn one new team in Canada and another in the United States. Candidates to consider include Quebec City, Saskatoon, Seattle and Portland, Ore.
One of the reasons there are so many historic championship droughts in every major sports league is because those leagues have steadily grown in membership over time. One of the most telling testaments to that notion is the Toronto Maple Leafs, whose last Stanley Cup title was in the final year of a six-team NHL in 1967.
Whether it is winning the whole thing or simply reaching the tournament, multiple fanbases are weary of waiting. Do they really want another spike in the quantity of competitors?
Pro: Balanced Realignment
Last December, the NHL introduced a realignment proposition inspired by the relocation of the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg and a resultant desire to find more geographic efficiency.
Assuming that is still in the league’s future plans, there is one major complication in that it will mean going to four mini-conferences, two of which house eight teams while the others include seven.
Under that configuration, an unbalanced schedule would be inevitable and the teams in the more populous conferences would have a more arduous path to the playoffs. Contrast that with the status quo, where every team plays 64 games against its 14 conference cohabitants and 18 against teams in the opposite conference.
But if the NHL adds two new franchises, then the proposed realignment would not merely be more suitable for approval; it would be the only way to keep an equal distribution of teams per conference/division.
Con: Radical Realignment
There is a set of pros and cons within this set of pros and cons.
To date, this is the longest the NHL has gone without any expansion since the Original Six were joined by the first wave of new teams in 1967. In the past 12 years, there has been a smooth arrangement of six divisions consisting of five teams apiece, and no franchises have switched positions at any point.
Granted, that will need to happen soon when the new Jets exit the Southeast Division and someone else moves to fill that void.
Otherwise, why mess with the current system that has fostered countless divisional and conference rivalries that are renewed at least four or six times a year? Why limit each team to only seven prospective rivals (i.e., teams that they visit and are visited by at least twice apiece) when they can have as many as 14?
In addition, it may be tougher to retain the 82-game schedule the league has followed in every full-length season since 1995.
One thing is for sure, though: Contraction should be nowhere near the table, and the next slide will explain why.
Pro: More Jobs
To revisit a point made earlier, the NHL could help to expand the job market in each of its countries by ensuring that one new franchise apiece is added to the United States and Canada. Once that team is in place and has a healthy following, there will be business for more individuals in every conceivable capacity.
In terms of business controlled directly by the franchise, this means more opportunities for players, coaches, front office staffers and game-day workers. Just to name a few influenced indirectly by the presence of the team, this includes more business for the travel industry, merchandise retailers, sports bars and (ahem) beat writers.
Simply put, the big bucks go to the big leagues, so why not spread the wealth a little more?
Con: A More 'Watered-Down' Product
Naturally, more teams will mean a mass boom in participating players in the inaugural season of those two teams. But furthermore, in every year thereafter, it will presumably mean 14 more draft picks than there have been each year in the last decade-plus.
The more ideal solution to create more careers in hockey, and maybe also make the NHL more competitive, could be establishing more junior or low-level minor pro circuits throughout the continent. In any given geographic region, there are plenty of puck-less cities and arenas to accommodate that.
Heck, whereas the NHL’s lone Triple-A league, the AHL, has finally matched its parent league with 30 teams, the top Double-A league, the ECHL, has only 23 at this time with two pending expansion teams.
Could adding five more and pairing everyone up with an AHL-NHL tandem be a start to this? It might not be as lucrative or glamorous for everyone as it would be in the NHL, but it may be more practical and certainly better than working outside of hockey.