Expansion plans: Is the NHL ready to go to Vegas, baby?

Expansion is nothing new for the NHL. As the league approaches its 100th birthday in a few seasons, there are plenty of examples of growth in its history. From the four teams that started the inaugural 1917-1918 season (with only three finishing the year) to the current 30-team format, there have been many additions along the way. Prior to the “Original Six” era of 1942-1967, the league actually had as many as 10 teams before contracting to six: Montreal, Toronto, Boston, Chicago, Detroit and the New York Rangers. There were several waves of expansion after the 1966-67 season, pushing hockey in traditionally non-hockey areas like California and Florida, but the NHL has actually been stuck on 30 teams for the last 16 seasons (although there have been a few relocations).

Now, however, it appears the league is ready to expand once again in the 2017-18 season. Over the last few years, there has been of putting franchises in locales as varied as Las Vegas, Quebec City, Seattle, Hamilton (Ontario) and Kansas City, but only Vegas and Quebec City actually submitted bids, and now it appears the front-runner to land a new team is none other than Sin City itself. Currently, the league has an imbalance with 16 teams in the East and 14 in the West, so it would seem that two more Western teams would make sense. The league has downplayed all reports to this point, but commish Gary Bettman said recently that if the NHL decides to expand, an announcement would be made before the entry draft in June. This would allow teams to prepare for an expansion draft the following summer, which could mean a lot of player movement beforehand.

Expansion drafts are a big deal because the NHL doesn’t want a new team, flush with the excitement it brings in a new market, to struggle its first few years like so many previous expansion teams have done (just ask fans of Washington or Ottawa how brutal the first few years of those clubs were; the Caps didn’t make the playoffs until their ninth season). To avoid such futility, GMs recently discussed expansion draft proposals in which teams will be given two options: Protect one goalie, seven forwards and three defensemen or one goalie and eight total skaters before the draft. First- and second-year pros (including the AHL) will be exempt from the draft. No decision has been made on what happens to players with no-trade clauses.

Should Vegas land a team, there’s still the possibility that some of the other candidates could get a team via relocation of a struggling franchise. The Arizona Coyotes have almost moved numerous times over the last several years, and Florida, Columbus and the Islanders have had their own issues (although the Panthers and Islanders are having good seasons this year) as well. There’s also the question of whether Las Vegas can successfully support a major professional team; putting aside the issues of sports gambling that naturally arise in that location, will the Vegas NHL franchise be able to generate enough interest from locals on a regular basis? There will be a lot of competition for the entertainment dollar.

Other general arguments against league expansion involve dilution of talent and the challenges of growing fan bases in non-cold weather areas, but it’ll be difficult for the other league owners to ignore the sizable franchise fees that will come their way if a new team is added. After all, it’s tough to see clearly when you’ve got dollar signs in your eyes.

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