The Risks of the Looming NHL Expansion

According to Tony Gallagher of The Province, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has changed his stance on expansion. Gallagher wrote that expansion is coming soon and Las Vegas is a “done deal.”

Bettman previously bristled at the idea of expansion. Now, it appears that Bettman is fully prepared to take the plunge. It’s entirely possible that two new franchises will join the league by 2017. Those two teams would in all likelihood be Las Vegas and Seattle. This May, MGM Resorts and AEG broke ground on a 20,000-seat multi-sport arena, which could be completed by spring 2016.

It would make sense for the league to balance out the Eastern and Western Conferences. Currently, there are 16 teams in the East and 14 in the West. Las Vegas appears to be a lock to be the 15th franchise to enter the NHL. Seattle appears to be a strong contender to become the 16th NHL franchise given the billions of prospective Vancouver-based owner Vince Coleman.

Currently, there aren’t any plans for Seattle to build a new arena. Should Coleman get hold of a team, a new Seattle arena would be sprung up quickly. It’s possible that a Seattle franchise could use the Key Arena in its early years should a new arena not be ready in time for Seattle’s inaugural season. Key Arena holds a capacity of 15,177 for hockey games.

Seattle has become a hotbed for diehard sports fans. The city immediately embraced Major League Soccer’s Sounders. Seattle’s soccer-loving citizens have broken the MLS attendance record for five consecutive seasons and average a league-best attendance of 44,038.

Back in March, Bettman told the Minnesota Star-Tribune that there was plenty of interest from potential ownership groups eying up expansion possibilities in Seattle, Las Vegas, Quebec City and Kansas City.

“There’s a lot of interest,” Bettman told the Star-Tribune. “We’re hearing from multiple groups in Seattle —  and in Vegas, in Kansas City and Quebec City. We haven’t decided to engage in formal expansion process, but as we always do, we listen to expressions of interest. There may be good reasons to expand, there may not be. It’s not something we’ve seriously considered yet.”

In addition to aforementioned markets of Las Vegas, Seattle, Quebec City, Kansas City – Portland, Hamilton and a second Toronto team are possible destinations should the league eventually expand to 36. Quebec’s Quebecor Arena will be ready to open as early as October 2015 with a hockey capacity of 18,482.

Bettman better be sure that league and potential new NHL markets are ready for expansion. Could a Las Vegas team maintain consistently high attendance? Sitting in a cold hockey arena probably wouldn’t be a top priority on the minds of Vegas tourists. Two Southwest hockey teams, the Arizona Coyotes and Dallas Stars ranked in the bottom five when it came to filling arena capacity last season.

Prior to the 2012-13 lockout, a number of Southern teams failed to turn profits and were struggling to cope financially. This was very much due to Bettman’s insistence that the league should expand to Southern and Western markets that weren’t very familiar with hockey.

The NHL has been through far too many lockouts, and has finally found an era of stability following the 2012-13 lockout.

The current NHL enjoys a strong level of competitive balance. There were only five teams under .500 last season. Even the league’s poorest performing franchises like the Buffalo Sabres and Edmonton Oilers aren’t that far from being competitive. The New York Islanders only finished below .500 because superstar captain John Tavares missed 23 games.

Over-expansion would cause a dilution of talent. Between 1998 and 2000, the league saw four new franchises pop up in Nashville, Atlanta, Columbus and Minnesota. Remember how terrible the early Thrashers were? Do we really want to see multiple 14-to-20 win teams getting pounded on a nightly basis?

The possibility of four new teams joining the league would damage the rosters of the current 30 NHL clubs through frequent expansions drafting.

Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews also brought up a strong point in June about the possible negative effects of a Las Vegas team entering the league.

In June, Toews told Chris Kuc of the Chicago Tribune: “I’d have a tough time believing any team would have a good road record coming into Las Vegas.”

Toews is absolutely right. A Las Vegas team would have quite a home-ice advantage given the likelihood that visiting teams might enjoy a little too much of what Vegas has to offer before taking the ice.

No matter what Toews thinks, the NHL is coming to Las Vegas. It’s going to be a brave new world.

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