Under the tenure of NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, the league has been focused on growing itself by expanding into new markets.
Some of the decisions made have been … questionable at best. The latest is the decision to start a team in Las Vegas, the Vegas Golden Knights, who although they barely exist already look like more of a gamble (pun intended) than most decisions regarding team location over the recent decades.
With the expansion draft having taken place this past week, I’m going to begin with Vegas and then go from there discussing how this is just the latest in a long line of exercises in (mostly) failure by the NHL in the expansion era.
The Vegas Golden Knights
Last year it was officially announced that there would be an expansion team (an entirely new team rather than moving an existing team from somewhere else) formed in Las Vegas. This announcement was the culmination of speculation surrounding rumors of both potential expansion sites or franchises being moved. It was assumed that any moves made would try to fix the fact that the two conferences in the NHL (Western and Eastern) don’t have the same amount of teams (the East has 16, the West 14; more on how we got there later). As a result, Las Vegas and Seattle were both discussed as potential destinations for NHL teams. Additionally, Quebec City in Canada had expressed interest in having a team again (we will also get into how they ended up without one later). With the Eastern Conference having more teams than the West already, if Quebec were to get a team it would have to be by a team from within the Eastern Conference moving there.
Somehow, the NHL decided that the right thing to do was for nobody to move and to only add one team, in Las Vegas. As a result, the League, Western Conference, and Pacific Division all have an odd number of teams. Furthermore, the Western Conference’s two divisions now have an unequal number of teams.
It has been an open question in American pro sports for a long time as to when Las Vegas would get a professional team and what sport it would be from. This primary reason given has always been that putting a team in Vegas when the major leagues all have rules against players gambling, particularly on their sport, is just not a good situation.
Nevertheless, Vegas is a real team now and the first order of business is to get players. For expansion teams, this is done via an expansion draft in which the new team gets to select one player from every team in the NHL. However, each team gets to select a certain number of players they can protect. For all the rules on how protecting players and the expansion draft works, check out the NHL’s info on it: https://www.nhl.com/news/nhl-expansion-draft-rules/c-281010592
As for how the Knights did in the expansion draft, two players stood out: 3-time Stanley Cup champion goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury from Pittsburgh and forward James Neal from Nashville. Now, you would assume these guys would be excited for the opportunity to be the face of a new franchise. If so, you would be wrong. At the expansion draft, Fleury said “I’m not really looking to be the face of anything.” To be fair to him, as a goalie you rarely see his face anyway and he’s always been a quiet guy. James Neal meanwhile is just really pissed off. Why? He was traded from Pittsburgh to Nashville a couple years ago. This month, the Predators lost to the Penguins in the Stanley Cup, Neal was angered not to be on Nashville’s protected list and was promptly shipped off to Vegas. The Knights also purposely drafted too many defenseman intending to trade them for draft picks, including now former Blackhawks d-man Trevor van Riemsdyk.
Vegas also made several trades ahead of the expansion draft. The reason was that other teams were offering players and draft picks to avoid having to give up their best unprotected players. In such a situation, Vegas has all the leverage because in theory they could say no to all offers and take whomever they want. The consensus is that Vegas did a horrible job at using this leverage, a position well summed-up in this piece from Vice Sports: https://sports.vice.com/en_us/article/ev43m7/the-golden-knights-werent-the-only-losers-in-the-expansion-draft
I’ll be blunt, the Golden Knights are going to be awful this season, and maybe for several seasons. Looking at their division the only teams they have a prayer of competing with are Vancouver, who are currently suffocating under the weight of the Sedin twins’ contracts and poor management, and Arizona, who are a dumpster fire unto themselves.
So we now have a bad hockey team in Vegas, but how did we get here?
Conference Realignment: the NHL’s most inexplicable decision
So here’s how the NHL was laid out before realignment in 2013:
Pacific Division Northwest Division Central Division
Anaheim Ducks Calgary Flames Chicago Blackhawks
Arizona Coyotes Colorado Avalanche Columbus Blue Jackets
Dallas Stars Edmonton Oilers Detroit Red Wings
Los Angeles Kings Minnesota Wild Nashville Predators
San Jose Sharks Vancouver Canucks St. Louis Blues
Northeast Division Southeast Division Atlantic Division
Boston Bruins Carolina Hurricanes New Jersey Devils
Buffalo Sabres Florida Panthers New York Islanders
Montreal Canadiens Tampa Bay Lightning New York Rangers
Ottawa Senators Washington Capitals Philadelphia Flyers
Toronto Maple Leafs Winnipeg Jets* Pittsburgh Penguins
Under this format, the divisions were really only relevant to determining a team’s schedule, as qualifying for the playoffs simply required being one of the top 8 teams in the conference regardless of division. What forced this setup to change was the Atlanta Thrashers moving to Winnipeg, which was literally just the NHL admitting they screwed up an expansion team and moved them somewhere that made more sense. Obviously, the Jets being in the Southeast division wasn’t going to work so something had to give. Rather than simply flip one team from the Western Conference into the East to take Winnipeg’s place, the NHL did this:
Pacific Division Central Division
Anaheim Ducks Chicago Blackhawks
Arizona Coyotes Colorado Avalanche
Calgary Flames Dallas Stars
Edmonton Oilers Minnesota Wild
Los Angeles Kings Nashville Predators
San Jose Sharks St. Louis Blues
Vancouver Canucks Winnipeg Jets
Atlantic Division Metropolitan Division
Boston Bruins Carolina Hurricanes
Buffalo Sabres Columbus Blue Jackets
Detroit Red Wings New Jersey Devils
Florida Panthers New York Islanders
Montreal Canadiens New York Rangers
Ottawa Senators Philadelphia Flyers
Tampa Bay Lightning Pittsburgh Penguins
Toronto Maple Leafs Washington Capitals
These changes had several consequences. First, the two conferences now don’t have the same number of teams. Second, the Eastern Conference divisions don’t make any geographical sense. While the area between roughly DC and New York has all been lumped together in the Metropolitan Division (along with Columbus for some reason), you’re left with the Florida Panthers, Detroit Red Wings, and Montreal Canadiens all being in the same division. Another change was to the playoff structure. Instead of simply the top 8 teams making it, it’s the top 3 teams from each division plus two wild card teams, each of which is paired up with a division depending on their records and those of the two division-winning teams (if this is getting confusing: https://www.nhl.com/news/stanley-cup-playoffs-format-qualification-system/c-711015 )
The first two playoff rounds are played within divisions. This has resulted in the Blackhawks playing the Blues and Wild in the playoffs almost every year, which is great for building rivalries but also gets boring after a while. Similar repetitiveness is occurring in all the divisions.
However, perhaps the largest casualty of the realignment was the loss of one of the best rivalries in hockey: the Blackhawks and Red Wings. The teams which make up the original 6 are paired into 3 rivalries: Toronto and Montreal, New York and Boston, Detroit and Chicago. The NHL clearly did not take history into account when they made this decision. Whereas the two teams previously played several times each season and had the opportunity to match up in the playoffs, they now only play each other twice a year and could only meet in a postseason series in the Stanley Cup Final (which yes would be incredible if it were to happen). The NHL could have just as easily taken Nashville instead. Or, they could have changed very little and just moved Columbus or Nashville to the Eastern Conference and adjusted the 3 divisions in the East from there. But they didn’t, which makes about as much sense as a hockey team in Las Vegas.
The NHL’s Other Strange Team Moves
The Vegas Golden Knights aren’t the first time a decision by the NHL to expand or move a team didn’t make any sense. Here’s a brief look at the current NHL teams who took bizarre paths to existence:
Back in 1996, the Winnipeg Jets were running into financial trouble and were purchased by a Phoenix-based ownership group, moving the team from Winnipeg, Mannitoba (a place that just sounds like it should have a hockey team) to Phoenix, where nothing could be more out of place than a hockey rink. There’s really only two good things to come out of this team: 1. These awesome jerseys they used to wear
and 2. The fact that 2016 #1 overall draft pick Auston Matthews credits his interest in hockey originally to the Coyotes, as he’s from Arizona. Currently the team is terrible, just fired their coach, has struggled to maintain an owner, and does not have a long-term lease in place on their current stadium. Hockey in the desert has never really worked, and the lack of success in Phoenix only makes the Vegas decision stranger.
Hockey fans will remember that the Carolina Hurricanes actually won the first Stanley Cup after the 2005 lockout season, but it took a while for the success to come. The Hartford Whalers ran into similar problems as Winnipeg in the ‘90s: a small market team struggling financially. The Whalers also struggled for fans given their location between New York and Boston. They did have some phenomenal uniforms, which remain a collectors item for hockey fans:
The move to Raleigh wasn’t a smooth one, as they had to play home games in Greensboro for the first couple of years. While they had some success last decade, the Hurricanes are a team that both struggle for success and for fans.
So a hockey team in Colorado makes a lot of sense. Moving a team from Canada to make that happen, however, does not. The Quebec Nordiques had a similar story to Hartford and Winnipeg, struggling to financially support growing salaries. In recent years Quebec City has expressed interesting in again having a team, but the NHL has decided teams in Florida and the dessert make more sense. There’s no doubt, however, that this move has largely been a successful one. While the Avs are currently a pretty terrible team, they won the Stanley Cup in their first season in Denver and again in 2002.
Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning
Much like the deserts of Vegas and Phoenix, Florida doesn’t feel like it’s the right place for a hockey team let alone two of them. The Lightning have done reasonably well, including a Stanley Cup in 2005, which has kept them relevant and helped build a fanbase (although they couldn’t sell out games in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final against the Blackhawks, so take that for what it’s worth). The Panthers, meanwhile, have more or less constantly sucked since their creation in 1993. Certainly having a team in Quebec City, Seattle, Hartford, Milwaukee, Cleveland, or pretty much anywhere else would be better than having one near, not even actually in, Miami.
Bonus: Atlanta Thrashers
The only time the NHL has fully admitted an expansion team was a mistake. The Thrashers had some extremely talented players over the years including Danny Heatley, Marian Hossa, and Ilya Kovalchuk, but nobody gave a shit about hockey in Atlanta. Moving to Winnipeg was good for everybody. Winnipeg got the Jets back, Canada got another team = money for the NHL, and we never had to see those God-awful powder blue Thrashers uniforms ever again. Although the new Vegas uniforms might give them a run for their money. Time will tell if Vegas has anything else in common with Atlanta’s failed hockey experiment.
I’m glad I finally got around to writing a blog about hockey, if you made it this far thanks for reading. The blog has been split in two pieces this week, with “This Week In…” being its own thing, because of everything that happened with the Bulls trading Jimmy Butler and the Blackhawks making all sorts of moves, so check that out if you’re interested.