Subtraction by Addition: Why a 32nd NHL Franchise is Bad News

(Photo courtesy of Oak View Group)

On February 13th, 2018, it became official: Seattle mayor, Jenny Durkan, announced on Twitter that Oak View Group completed an application for Seattle to become the 32nd franchise in the NHL. Once Key Arena is fully renovated, the earliest the team could begin playing is the 2020-21 season. Herein lies my biggest concern: Is another expansion team what is best for the NHL? Simple answer: No, not even close. The immediate and long-term implications are too great to be ignored and threaten everything that has made the NHL great in this salary cap era. Here is why:

The NHL Expansion Draft Process is Riddled with Flaws

Commissioner Gary Bettman confirmed that the NHL has no plans to change the Expansion Draft for a potential Seattle team. Not to deter from the unprecedented success of the Vegas Golden Knights (VGK), who were crowned Pacific Division champions in their inaugural season, but it is hard to believe they would be where they are now without the advantage of this ridiculous Expansion Draft process. Simply put, current NHL teams are left too exposed to be plundered of their talent, yet again.

Teams who fell victim to the Expansion Draft:

1) The Florida Panthers, who were forced to trade VGK Reilly Smith in exchange for VGK selecting Jonathan Marchessault. The result? Two first-line wingers with a total of 135 points.

2) The Minnesota Wild also fell victim to the Expansion Draft as they needed to move Alex Tuch in exchange for VGK selecting Erik Haula, both of whom accumulated a total of 92 points this season.

3) The 26th overall selection from the 2013 NHL Entry Draft and Canadian World Junior gold medalist, Shea Theodore, was dealt to VGK from Anaheim to ensure VGK would not select two of their young gifted defenders in Josh Manson and Brandon Montour.

4) To protect the key members of their roster, the Columbus Blue Jackets traded their 2017 1st pick, 2019 2nd round pick, and David Clarkson in exchange for VGK selecting William Karlsson, who was far and away VGK’s best player, amassing 43 goals this season.

While I can further illustrate examples of the detriment of the Expansion Draft to current NHL rosters, it is worth mentioning that the Buffalo Sabres, Carolina Hurricanes, Winnipeg Jets, Tampa Bay Lightning, New York Islanders, and Pittsburgh Penguins also made deals with VGK to retain players that they could not originally protect.

The Verdict

Case in point? The Expansion Draft favors creating a new competitive roster at the expense of current NHL teams who have worked tirelessly over the years to create their own, whether it be for contending now or pooling prospects for the future. It is a heinous crime that VGK was gifted an incredibly deep line-up while every other team scrambled to keep hold of players. The pinnacle role of a GM is to build a core group of players that will consistently compete for hockey’s most illustrious accolade. Is this not the ultimate goal of any sport, to win championships? Why must GM’s be so accommodating to ensure the success of another team?

While every team can protect their best players, they are not enough to guarantee success, as recently illustrated by the Pittsburgh Penguins, who can attribute their consecutive Stanley Cups to their supporting cast. With the speed of the game ever increasing, coaches and GM’s strive for depth and a “roll all 4 lines” approach to ease the burden of star players and compensate for the changing style of how the game is played. Hence, being only able to protect 10 players poses the risk of sacrificing depth to accommodate the success of a new franchise. Likewise, certain contracts oblige teams to automatically protect players and further assets must be unfairly dealt to retain players who provide much needed depth, as depicted by the examples listed above.

Increasing Salary Cap and the Risk of Losing Parity

The Expansion Draft poses many consequences to current NHL rosters themselves; however, the ramifications of a 32nd franchise entering the league extend far beyond the scope of day-to-day line combinations. The NHL salary cap is increasing from $75 million next season, likely falling between $78 – $82 million. With $500 million in the bank after VGK paid the expansion fee, it is no wonder why the NHL may be due for its largest season-to-season salary cap increase. It is reasonable to assume that a similar occurrence is in-bound once Seattle pays their fee of $650 million.

The problem?

The new money generated from expansion fees jeopardizes the defining feature of the NHL; parity.

The Rich Get Richer

This seems all well and good as teams will have more breathing room to re-sign players or sign free agents. Unfortunately, this is not a reality for many smaller market teams. The Arizona Coyotes do not have enough money to spend to the cap while teams like the Florida Panthers, Ottawa Senators, and Anaheim Ducks are restricted due to ownership-mandated internal caps. By extension, there are a significant number of teams, on a regular basis, that cannot, or will not, spend to the cap limit, potentially eroding the hard-won parity of the NHL.

Significant increases in the salary cap equates to inflated player contracts. It would not be surprising for big market teams to flash the cash and stock-up on top tier talent. John Tavares is a pending unrestricted free agent this summer and Drew Doughty, Erik Karlsson, and Oliver Ekman-Larsson are all due for a big payday at the end of the 2018-19 season. This is just the tip of the iceberg of impending world-class talent coming available soon. Small market teams in a penny-pinching state of mind will not be able to offer competing salary. Even if they keep hold of their superstar talent, the expenditure will impede the rest of their roster.

The Verdict

Parity has been the cornerstone of the NHL; it allows smaller market teams the same shot of talented players as any other team. Star players tend to produce winning teams and with that, more money. At the end of the day, the NHL is a business so more money is good for everyone. Thus, ensuring there are as many competitive teams as possible benefits the NHL. The best part about this is that any team can win on any given night. Every team should at least have the chance to compete for hockey’s Holy Grail. It’s why we love this game; it gives us reason not to dream about our favourite teams hoisting the Cup, but to believe it is a reality. While losing parity creates intriguing David vs. Goliath matchups, it is harmful for the long-term viability of small market teams that cannot afford the players needed to survive in the NHL.