This year, the Las Vegas Golden Knights will take the ice for the first time. However, while those in Sin City are rejoicing as they begin their quest for Lord Stanley’s greatest prize, there remains one issue with the league following this past summer’s expansion; a
the number of teams in the league.
Since the NHL re-alignment back in 2013 where they moved to their four division format that remains to the present day, there has been a constant tick in the psyche of Gary Bettman, the league, and its fans; the Eastern conference has 16 teams, and the Western conference only had 14. With the Golden Knights, however, that has been brought up to 15 in the West.
However, the desire for that elusive 16th team in the NHL remains. Fans love to speculate and wonder, what cities could be in line for a team. Some people may think that one day, there will be a second team in the Greater Toronto Area. Or maybe the London Knights, after over a decade and a half of being one of the best junior hockey programs in the world will make the jump to the big league. Or perhaps the province of Saskatchewan may be given the 32nd franchise. However, two cities always surpassed all speculation; Seattle and Quebec City. Two cities seemingly on the cusp of getting their own team, however, with two opposite problems standing in their way.
For both cities, the league is not worried about interest. Both cities, Quebec City especially, have shown a desire to own their own team. However, for the former home of the NHL’s Nordiques, the problem remains that they are an Eastern market. The Videotron Centre, current home of the QMJHL’s Quebec Remparts, would be one of the best arenas in the NHL if it housed an NHL club, but as the league is looking to even out the conferences, the likelihood of expansion coming to Quebec City seems small.
At first glance, it looks like Seattle is just what the league is looking for; a Western conference city with an arena and fan interest. However, two problems exist for this franchise. Firstly, there is no one seemingly on the horizon who is going to pay the hefty price tag required to buy, own and operate an NHL club. With no owner at the helm, it obviously is tough to move forward with an expansion. However, that is the problem that most people talk about. The second issue is one that isn’t talked about as much, and that is the geographical alignment issues. If Seattle were to join the league, they would unquestionably be placed in the Pacific division in the West, given that they are situated directly in between Vancouver and Los Angeles. Do you know who also is in that division? The Golden Knights. This means that if Seattle did get a team via expansion, there would be nine teams in the Pacific, whereas both Eastern divisions have eight, and the Central division in the West only has seven. Some of you may think about just moving a different team out of the Pacific and into the Central to balance things out, however, the only team you could even forcibly have switch divisions is the Arizona Coyotes, and even they are only in even relative proximity to two teams in that division (Colorado & Dallas). Given that the Coyotes already are barely and, if some reports are to be believed, not even scraping by when it comes to revenue, creating an even heavier travel schedule and, by extension, more expenses are not exactly going to help the most cash-strapped organization.
However, for everything I have talked about when it comes to issues regarding expansion into either of these two cities, I believe they should and inevitably will play host to an NHL team. However, they will get it through the use of a different means; relocation.
Quebec City gets an expansion team
I will admit, this is taking everything I just finished saying and throwing it out the window. However, that is the sense that an expansion to Quebec City is a single business transaction by the league, that isn’t balanced out by other moves that I will explain further below. The two cities I will talk about below are likely much more tailored to a relocation team, whereas Quebec City has already placed a $500 million bid for a team, so they are the most likely to be able to pay that expansion fee. Basically, one move I propose will result in the Atlantic division, the division currently containing the likes of Toronto and Montreal, falling to seven teams. This means there is a prime space for the Nordiques to make their long-awaited return to the league. The NHL will likely have the same format for an expansion draft as they had with Vegas this year regarding the rules for the expansion draft. While I wish I could sit here and predict the roster for this team, even if it happened, it is too far away to think about that. What I can do, however, is tell you who I think would be hired as General Manager and Head Coach. This team would have the challenge that the Montreal Canadiens face as they need to have someone in both roles who speak French. However, that doesn’t mean they don’t have any candidates. Taking the GM role is a former player for the Nordiques, and someone who has worked within NHL organizations for over a decade; Claude Loiselle. Loiselle was an assistant GM in Tampa Bay in the mid-late 2000’s before leaving to join the Toronto Maple Leafs as Brian Burke’s associate GM. He currently serves as a hockey operations consultant with the Coyotes. Taking the job as the bench boss of the Nordiques is Bob Hartley. After being fired from the Calgary Flames one year after winning the Jack Adams trophy, Hartley was signed as the coach of the Latvian national team on December 20, 2016. He signed a one-year deal with an option for a second. This would give him the ability to leave the Latvian team and join the revived team in Quebec City, and he provides, like Loiselle, the basic French-speaking ability that is essential for a team in the province of Quebec. He has a long history in the NHL, winning a Stanley Cup in 2001 with the Colorado Avalanche, coincidentally the team that was relocated out of Quebec City to Denver, as well as the coach as mentioned earlier of the year award with the Flames in 2015.
The Arizona Coyotes Move To Seattle
Now with one sole owner at the helm of the Coyotes in Andrew Barroway, the Coyotes, no matter what their decision, will not be made by bickering suit-wearing rich guys. Barroway inexplicable seems to, like the NHL, want to keep the team in Arizona, however, are in a state of limbo currently without a place to play as they’re deal with Gila River Arena expired, a building that Barroway isn’t exactly in love with. It seems like his dream scenario is to get a new downtown arena for the Suns and the NBA’s Phoenix Suns, however, unless a genuinely shocking amount of investors can be corralled, that would require some contributions from taxpayer money. The city approving the use of millions of dollars for a brand new building may be problematic, especially if the Suns don’t decide to partner with the Coyotes to get a new facility, as the city should rightfully ask questions about the interest level among fans. By this point, you’ve realized how complicated it is to keep a team in Arizona, and you probably already can see the lack of logic in having an ice hockey team in the one place you’ll never otherwise see ice except for a freezer. With all that as a backdrop, I believe it only makes sense for Barroway to pack it up and take the team to Seattle. There will be much more interest, there is a perfectly usable arena, and it will bring in revenue, especially with a team with as bright a future as the Coyotes do with the likes of high-level young players like Max Domi, Dylan Strome, Clayton Keller, Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Jakob Chychrun.
The Ottawa Senators move to Milwaukee
On the face, this seems like a notion I just randomly pulled out of some bodily orifice. However, Milwaukee is a city that quietly seems like a great fit for the NHL. The Senators have the same issue that the Coyotes will have in moving their team, and that is a very stubborn owner who wants the team to stay in the nation’s capital. If there were a way that I could confidently advocate for, I would, because something feels inherently wrong about not having an NHL team in Ottawa, however, at this point, it just doesn’t look like it will work. The reasons for that came to light in this past year’s Stanley Cup playoffs when, even on their “Sen-derella” run to the Eastern finals, Canadian Tire Center was not selling out. To give some context as to why that is, sports franchises rely on local businesses when it comes to ticket sales. They obviously aren’t 100% dependent on companies who buy tickets and redistribute them to their clients, but every team needs to have those partnerships. However, when it comes to Ottawa, the Senators are handcuffed as the largest employer in the city is the government, who are not permitted to buy tickets. This is also part of the reason that there were 1000-1500 empty seats at Sens’ home games even as they were flirting with a berth in the Stanley Cup final. However, it’s not the only reason. The other reason is where the building is located. Not actually in Ottawa, Canadian Tire Center is situated in Kanata. For those who don’t know what it’s like to get down to the arena on a game day at rush hour at, say 6:00 pm local time, it’s not exactly a pleasurable ride down to the game, and clearly for lots of people, not worth the burden of going to the game. Owner Eugene Melnyk has, understandably, been very unhappy about the lack of sellout games, especially in the playoffs, and has been pushing the city for a new arena located, at the very least, somewhere closer to the city and much more accessible to residents of Ottawa and its neighboring areas. However, it is a big question mark if they will be able to get that new building, and with this team not being a truly elite club, especially after the departure of Marc Methot and the speculated desire to move out Dion Phaneuf, it is a big question as to if the team can make the kind of push they did this year. While I respect Melnyk and am sympathetic to the desire to keep the team in Ottawa, and will say right now that over the next two or three decades, the time may come when the city can build a new facility and host the team, and at that point, the topic of sending a team back to Ottawa will come up again and hopefully, will happen. However, as we sit here right now, the time, in my opinion, just isn’t right to have a team in Ottawa, but may just be right to move the club to Milwaukee. Firstly, the city has an NHL-caliber arena in the Bradley Center, the current home of the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks, seating just shy of 18,000 people for hockey games. Secondly, and more importantly, moving the Senators to Milwaukee would mean that the Central division would finally have that eighth team to even out each of the divisions and, thus, bring the ever-craved 16th team to the West. And finally, Milwaukee and the state of Wisconsin are a sports-crazy state. The Badgers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison play in the Big 10 and are a nationally renowned program coached by Tony Granato. Whether or not you bring Granato in for this theoretical NHL club, I will leave for you to ponder, but I do believe that this is a city that would have serious interest in an NHL club. This is enhanced considering that it could bring, among some other rivalries, the legendary Wisconsin-Minnesota feud from college sports into another major sports league.
The chances of this expansion and relocation plans happening remain unlikely at best right now, mainly down to the stubbornness of two owners. However, I firmly maintain that not only would this solve the team imbalance in the Western conference, but would also resurrect a long-deceased franchise with a rabid fan base aching for their beloved Nordiques to one day return. Additionally, it would also open the door for two franchises struggling, one of which potentially on the brink of collapsing entirely, to get the shot in the arm they need, and find two new homes where they will be able to not only survive but thrive.