The NHL is on the rebound from the lockout. I will give it that. However, the NHL is not out of the forest just yet.
While other sports are pulling out of markets where their teams are struggling (NFL in Los Angeles, NBA in Seattle and Vancouver to name a few), the NHL continues to let their teams play in fledgling markets in hopes that the game will eventually catch on.
It's not working, and it will never work.
The NHL continues to hang on to franchises in markets where hockey is not catching on. And while there is no reasonable argument to not contract any teams, here are some things to think about with a few specific teams.
Toronto Maple Leafs
No, the Leafs should not be removed from the NHL, but they are a key player to the only solution that would avoid a complete contraction of a single team. The rumors that the NHL is talking about moving a team to Toronto may not be very substantial, but they are real.
Toronto as a city could support another team because it features a strong economy and a large population. However, the Leafs are an original six team, and there are too many die hard fans in Toronto and in Canada to ever accept another child into the family.
The only time something like this would ever be a possibility is now, because of the Maple Leafs recent futility when it comes to their actual play. A new team could steal some fans from their base, but I warn you that these fans would be like a girl that breaks up with one guy to date another. You can't ever trust that they won't do the same thing to you.
Sorry Atlanta but you have proved that you are a terrible sports market. Your teams are usually bad, and when they manage to somehow play well, you still won't come out to support them.
The Thrashers peaked about two years ago. And with the imminent departure of Ilya Kovalchuk, when the opportunity presents itself, the Thrashers are going to continue their downward spiral.
Even if Kovalchuk does stay, the Thrashers can't attract enough talent to field a good team around him. If the Thrashers were hoping to stay out of this talk, they needed to build off of some solid seasons from a few years ago.
Instead, they headed in the opposite direction last year, and started off poorly this year. In my opinion, this franchise may not be the first on the chopping block, but the Thrashers are on life support.
New York Islanders
The team itself has not been bad in recent years. Disappointing yes, but not terrible by any means. This has more to do with the fact that ownership cannot secure a new facility, nor attract any high profile players to Long Island.
Alexei Yashin blew up in everyone's face and owner Charles Wang won't be likely to open the wallet like that again anytime soon.
The main problem here is the Nassau Coliseum. I went into this building a few years ago and I felt like I was thrown back into the '70's. That's not a good thing. This stadium is a dump.
This is an issue because if the Islanders cannot get a new stadium anytime soon, they risk relocation. The NHL will not allow a team to play in a third-rate arena for an extended period of time. (The Penguins being the only exception, but I feel this is because the NHL cares more about Sidney Crosby then the Penguins).
If the Islanders do get a new stadium in the near future, they will be fine. It just doesn't look like they will.
The Panthers are in trouble. They have not been worth anyone's attention since the mid-late '90's. What's more alarming for the Panthers is that in 15 years, they have not built any sort of tradition.
The Thrashers at least have a face to their franchise in Kovalchuk, and the Islanders have a bunch of Stanley Cups. The Panthers have nothing. They have low attendance figures, no recognizable players to the casual hockey fan, and a lack of a stable front office to help bring this team into contention in a traditionally weak Southeast division.
There are too many reasons to put the Panthers on top of the list of teams to be contracted. Realistically, I have to believe the only way this team saves itself is by winning a Stanley Cup now. Which, even more realistically, is not going to happen. South Florida didn't deserve a team in the first place and 15 years of futility is not a coincidence, it's a trend.