NHL ripe for expansion to 60 teams

Inspired by the recent Satire Friday feature here at S7S, I decided I’d do my own satire feature every occasional day that ends in Y. Especially days on which I have less than a lot to do at work.

This article is, um, inspired by an article written for The Hockey News by Ken Campbell. As you can see, work has been pretty slow these last couple days. But now I'm out of ideas, so it'll probably be a while until I put up the next one.

The NHL is currently rife with talent. One need look no further than a team like the Tampa Bay Lightning. This is a team that won the Stanley Cup in 2004 on the backs of emerging superstars Vincent Lecavalier, Brad Richards, Martin St. Louis, Dan Boyle, and Nikolai Khabibulin. Since that win, one bye one those stars have walked away until only Marty was left. This is how things should work – a team with too many stars should pick its number one star, and everyone else leaves for somewhere that they can be number one. But, since then, Tampa has drafted Steven Stamkos, who is an undisputed superstar in this league. He was a first-overall pick, and has not disappointed. Two Rocket Richard trophies to his name have cemented his place as one of the young stars of the game. The problem is that this past year, Marty St. Louis won the Art Ross trophy. Tampa Bay has two players who can legitimately be called stars. Additionally, Victor Hedman was a second-overall pick. Just this past draft, they picked up Jonathan Drouin third overall. How can a bottom-feeder team like the Lightning have so many superstars in its line-up?

Another example to look at is Columbus. They started the season as the butt of the league’s jokes, having traded face-of-the-franchise Rick Nash for a handful of possibly decent players. The future looked dim to say the least. They had two goalies that each had a hot rookie season and nothing since under their belts. By the end of the season? Sergei Bobrovsky went on to win the Vezina trophy as the league’s best goalie, and #Lumbus further cemented its role as the Rangers-slightly-less-East by trading for Marian Gaborik. Though past his prime, Gaborik is still a star in this league. Columbus surprised all pundits, pushing for a playoff spot until the final two days of the season. They were underdogs, to say the least.

Everyone loves an underdog story. Conversely, everyone loves to heap hate on the "stacked team," the team that bought the sell-out best players, the perceived Miami Heat or Real Madrid of any league. The Pittsburgh Penguins are the prime example of this. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are both, without a doubt, superstars in this league. They have each won the Art Ross and Hart trophies. James Neal would be a superstar on any other team in the league, but in Pittsburgh he is relegated to the second line (with Malkin) because Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis are, inexplicably, better linemates for Crosby. Kris Letang should be a superstar, but all we hear is, "but his defense…" because Pittsburgh doesn’t need his points. A team like Carolina would sacrifice a few newborns for a defenseman who could set up scoring opportunities like Letang. Then at the 2013 trade deadline, Pittsburgh went and loaded up. They brought in an aging Brenden Morrow to be a veteran presence on the third line. They brought in Douglas Murray who was, rather confusingly, one of the most sought-after defensemen of the season. Everyone assumed that this meant Jarome Iginla was on his way to Boston, but no, Iggy also showed up in Pittsburgh, and suddenly there were more superstars than roster spots. Fans complained. Everyone was angry. Isn’t this what the lockout was supposed to get rid of? We hated those false, trade deadline-made teams like the Avalanche of 2001. Teams should be based around the draft, and maybe one notable trade and one notable free agent. Everyone in the hockey world (except for fans of the Penguins, Canadiens, and Canucks) rejoiced when Boston handed Pittsburgh their summer on an inglorious platter. We loved to see the fake team get run over by a legitimate team like the Bruins, because after all, the Bruins were made up of players they’d drafted like Seguin, Lucic, Bergeron, Krejci, and Marchand. Only really that Chara guy and some guy named Torey Krug came via free agency, and then only Seidenberg, Horton, Jagr, Peverley, Rask, Paille, and Kelly, to name a few, came from trades. Practically homegrown!

There is a simple solution – dilute the talent. The NHL is flush with talent, and people love to cheer for underdogs. People love to cheer for the Winnipeg Jets, a team whose most famous player is known for his eating habits and weight fluctuations as much as his scoring ability. A team whose captain is Andrew Ladd, who wouldn’t crack the top-six anywhere else but Florida. A team whose goalie is subpar, and yet manages to win enough games to get his team near contention. A team poorly coached by Claude Noël (French for Christmas) and generally mis-managed by Kevin Cheveldayoff (French for horse vacation) into what should be complete obscurity, yet they manage to just miss the playoffs each year. How great would it be to have a league in which every team resembled the Jets? Fans would love each one. I’d wager that Bettman even wouldn’t be booed when handing out the Stanley Cup.

How would this work financially? For the upcoming season, the salary cap is a little over $60 million per team. In a 60-team league, this number could be dropped to $35 million per team, so the league would still be making more money. Teams currently in financial trouble would see their situation immediately improve. One player per team could be paid up to $20 million, while the rest of the team would have to fit in around this. This would nearly ensure that each team had exactly one superstar. There would be no more debates about whose jersey to buy for your team. The ‘match-up game’ coaches play would be very easy to follow, always pitting their stars against each other. These superstars would have to start scoring over 100 points per season again to ensure their team scored at all. Everyone would wait for the moment when the opposing team’s superstar got a penalty, opening up a glorious opportunity for yours to score. The improvements in excitement would almost certainly lead to growth in the bottom line.

NHL realignment has set up the opportunity for this 60-team scenario to truly work. The NHL should set up four conferences of 15 teams each. There could then be three 5-team divisions within each conference. There could be a Western Canada division – why not add Saskatoon and Regina to Calgary, Edmonton, and Vancouver? How about the all-Ontario division, with Mississauga, London, and Northern Ontario joining Ottawa and Toronto? Really, there could be three teams in the GTA, and the Thunder Bay team could go join Winnipeg. As long as half of Sudbury drives to Thunder Bay for the Tuesday games, and the other half drives for the Thursday games, the franchise would thrive. Add a couple maritime province teams to Québec and Montréal, and a second team to Montréal, maybe calling it the Laval Québécois, immediately claiming a more local feel than les Canadiens. To foster goodwill in Northern Canada, there could even be the Territory Polar Bears, with a home arena in each of Yellowknife, Whitehorse, and Iqaluit, and home games split evenly between them. In the US, New York is ready for at least one more team. Atlanta may find the third time is the charm. Kansas City was looking for an expansion team. So was Las Vegas. Texas could add teams in Austin and Houston. A team in New Orleans could open up a whole new realm of southern expansion. San Francisco could join the West Coast conglomeration. A team would be naturally positioned in Seattle, and a rival could be set up in Portland. Isn't Minnesota supposed to be The Hockey State? Why not add another team, and make the locals prove their mettle? I would suggest going after states lacking in pro sports franchises, such as Nebraska and Montana. If hockey can succeed in San Jose, why not Omaha?

The possibilities are endless. Expansion into Europe, and later Asia could fit in easily. It has been 13 years since the last time the NHL expanded, and profits have grown every year, especially between the two most recent lockouts. This clearly validates Bettman’s expansion strategy, and as such, further expansion should be aggressively pursued.

Expansion drafts were held previously to help the expansion franchises, and these could be some of the most anticipated events of the season. Fantasy hockey has exploded, and channels such as TSN will do a two-hour fantasy draft special in advance of the playoffs. Imagine what the mock expansion draft would look like if the league doubled in teams overnight. The TSN Mock Draft Special would take 12 hours, and would be extremely popular because the draft represents more than just fantasy hockey – these drafts would lead to actual hockey. The expansion draft could make for two full days of television. To make matters more exciting, I think an existing team should only be allowed to protect one forward, one defenseman, and one goalie, plus maybe three prospects currently on ELCs. Think about it – Pittsburgh would have to decide whether to keep Crosby or Malkin. Carolina would lose a Staal. Vancouver would lose a Sedin. The drama would be incredible. One lucky expansion team may even be able to get their hands on Tyler Myers and Steve Mason, and then advertise that they have two former Calder trophy winners. (This ad campaign may work best somewhere people haven’t watched hockey before.)

The signs are clear. The number of good NHL players has saturated the market, and the only proper course of action is to expand the NHL. People don’t want to watch an All-Star game more than once per year. Too much skill in one game gets old fast. People want to watch grit, truculence, and underdogs. People want to watch Gregory Campbell breaking his leg for his team, not Jarome Iginla whining to the refs on a star-studded team. The NHL needs more fourth-liners. A league in which every team is an underdog is a league that the average American and every single Canadian can get behind. For hockey to take over the world of pro sports, there is no time for action like the present.

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