The NHL Board of Governors is set to meet in early December in Boca Raton, Florida to discuss the possibility of expansion, and potentially placing a team in Quebec City and/or Las Vegas. I’ve noticed that a lot of the press coverage of the expansion debate has been centred around the significant expansion fees, which will cost potential expansion teams hundreds of millions of dollars, and very little has been reported about how expansion will affect the game itself, or the players. Many pundits, once they hear that owners could receive up to $50 million per expansion team, focus on the financial benefits to teams and owners and cover little else. Personally I’ve found the coverage of expansion to be a little one-sided, and decided to do a little research on my own on how expanding the NHL might alter the league on and off the ice. While owners are likely salivating at the potential influx of revenue, which does not need to be shared with the NHLPA, players and fans also have many reasons to be in support of expansion, and I believe that one could argue they stand to benefit as much as owners.
Firstly, I think people have been overlooking the financial benefits that the players stand to gain through the expansion of the NHL. While most people focus on the initial expansion fee, which is paid to the owners and is not shared with the players, the players also stand to make significant financial gain through league expansion. For the 2015-2016 season the minimum salary for an NHL team is $52.6 million dollars, thus an expansion of the league by two teams would increase mandatory spending on players, at the NHL level, by approximately $105.2 million dollars, and if both teams spend to the cap that number could be as high as $142.8 million. These benefits would also trickle down, as these new expansion teams have to employ players at the developmental levels, such as the AHL and ECHL. This forced increase in spending on players would allow for more players to be employed, and coupled with the salary caps continuous growth, expansion would benefit players for decades to come.
Secondly, since the last expansion, in 2000 which brought the league up to thirty teams, there has existed a mere 690 roster spots for players at the NHL level. The NHL limits the number of players a team can have team to 23 at a time, and since no additional teams have been added to the NHL the number has remained the same since 2000. While 690 NHL players at any given time may seem like a lot, when you consider that 210 players are selected per year at the NHL entry draft, it becomes apparent that there is a particularly tight squeeze on players who attempt to make a career in the NHL. The salary cap has further compounded the issue, as teams have been forced to allocate significant resources to retain talent, and subsequently have filled out the remainder of their roster with young players on entry-level contracts, so as not to be in violation of the cap. This trend was very evident this off-season as players such as Curtis Glencross, David Booth, Derek Roy, and many others were unable to secure NHL-level contracts this fall, and many other veteran players were only offered professional tryout contracts. While these players are not franchise corner stones by any means, they are NHL-calibre players who each put up double-digit points last season and played at least 70 games for their respective teams. General managers likely shirked away from these players for a variety of reasons; age, declining production, or contractual demands being likely factors, however, these players can clearly still compete at the NHL level and yet find themselves on the outside looking in. I believe that future expansion of the NHL will disperse players with expensive contracts among more teams, allowing these teams to sign veteran players, or, at the very leas,t expansion will open up the opportunity for veteran players to prolong their career, while simultaneously providing young players more opportunities to crack an NHL roster.
Outside of increased job opportunity, there is another argument that appeals to both the fan and the player when one discusses expansion. The 2014-2015 season was the 6th season since the 1970’s where a player did not break the 100-point barrier in the NHL, and some see this an indicator we are still in entrenched in the ‘dead puck era’. When Daniel Sedin was asked about the decline in production in the NHL, he stated that teams over the past ten years have become “tighter” and there aren’t as many games where you are able to generate multiple odd-man rushes. Daniel Sedin’s sentiment confirms the opinion of many that during the salary cap era the league has indeed achieved a high-level of parity among its teams, however, according to Daniel this may not be a good thing as he believes that it has hindered scoring. An expansion of the NHL would have the effect of ‘diluting’ the talent pool, to a degree, and could potentially create the space players like Daniel Sedin need to create offence. It is interesting to note that at the end of the Six Team Era in 1967, the NHL expansion was followed by one of the most prolific scoring periods in the NHL’s history. If the NHL does decide to expand, the dispersion of talent among these new teams has the potential to increase scoring, something the league so dearly craves.
All in all, as a spectator, I support expansion and I believe the players would support a league expansion also. Not only would an expansion of the NHL provide more roster spots at the NHL-level, but also in the AHL, and ECHL. These new roster spots would provide players young and old with increased opportunity. Furthermore, the initial diffusion of talent could generate an increase in scoring in the immediate aftermath of an expansion. While expansion is by now means a sure thing, it seems that it presents benefits to the owners, players, and fan alike and as such I hope that the Board of Governors approves expansion in December.