Another round of NHL expansion is almost inevitable, and the Canucks should prepare accordingly
Photo credit:© Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
2 months ago
They say third time’s the charm.
Late last week, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly when he spoke fairly openly and very optimistically about the league returning to Atlanta in the near future.
The Atlanta Flames burned out and moved to Calgary.
The Atlanta Thrashers failed to take flight and then migrated up to Winnipeg.
So why would the NHL be willing to give the market another chance?
Daly points to shifting demographics in the area, noting of teams like the Atlanta Braves that “They struggled, as I understand it, attendance-wise for years, even though they had a very successful team on the field. Their latest stadium is in a perfect location and sells out regularly.”
Now, with plans already underway on a brand-new 18,000-seat downtown arena, the table is set for a similar rebirth of the Atlanta hockey franchise.
But the real answer to the question of ‘why’ probably has something to do with something Daly said later in the interview, when he noted simply that “There are more people who want to own professional hockey teams.” That, combined with the fact that NHL expansion teams will probably never be more valuable, is what really explains expansion being on the table again so soon after Seattle and Vegas were let into the league.
It’s all about supply and demand. And demand has reached an all-time high.
Darren Dreger reported shortly before Daly’s comments that, were the NHL to expand within the next five years, the expansion fee would be set at a whopping $2 billion.
It sounds like a lot, but we believe it. Right now, the NHL has the ability to sell prospective franchisees something that no professional sport has ever been able to offer an expansion team, and that’s a realistic shot at a championship within the first few years of existence.
That’s all thanks to the Vegas Golden Knights and, to a lesser extent, the Seattle Kraken.
Having the Golden Knights come into the league and make it to the Stanley Cup Final in their first season could have been written off as an anomaly. Vegas staying in contention for pretty much every season thereafter, right up until winning the 2023 Stanley Cup, is the kind of sustainable success that is much harder to ignore.
As soon as that happened, a prospective NHL expansion team nearly doubled in value, if Dreger can be believed, and it makes plenty of sense for that to be the case. Pro sports owners are a unique sort of people, often attracted as much by the prestige of ownership than the financial opportunity.
Seattle’s own early success pretty much seals the deal. Buy a team now, hire the right GM, and watch playoff revenue roll in within the first couple of seasons. Sounds like a perfect investment for someone who wants glory as much as they want dividends.
Put it all together and it’s hard to ignore. There are folks out there in markets that can theoretically support hockey teams that are willing to buy into the league. The NHL believes, and is probably right, that it can charge those folks an exorbitant expansion fee, and there’ll never be a better time to do so. A cool $2 billion is tough to turn down at the best of times, and especially so for a league still semi-recovering from the pandemic.
NHL expansion, assumedly from 32 teams to 34, isn’t just likely within the next half-decade or so, it’s practically inevitable. Every year that passes beyond Vegas’ championship cools off the market a little bit. The league won’t want to miss this opportunity, which is probably exactly why the league’s top executives are already openly floating the idea.
So, what does that mean for a pre-existing team like the Vancouver Canucks?
Little good, really. The Canucks were able to skate by quite cleanly in the last two rounds of expansion, losing just Luca Sbisa and Kole Lind in two successive expansion drafts. It’s hard to believe they’ll be so likely a third time around.
The next round of expansion will probably come smack-dab in the middle of the contending window that the Canucks are currently trying to open. And if it does, it will almost certainly come with the same set of expansion rules and protocols that the last two expansionees received. After all, you can’t sell a new owner on the prospect of Vegas-like success without giving them the same lenient expansion draft rules.
That means that the Canucks will likely have to, at least once and maybe twice before 2030 arrives, choose either seven forwards, three defenders, and one goaltender or eight skaters and one goaltender from their roster to protect, and leave the rest unprotected and available for selection.
Right now, it’s pretty easy to list a bunch of players that the Canucks are still going to want to protect in the near-future. You’ve got Elias Pettersson, Quinn Hughes, Thatcher Demko, JT Miller, Andrei Kuzmenko, Filip Hronek, and more already making an impact at the NHL level, plus folks like Nils Höglander, Vasily Podkolzin, Akito Hirose, and Aatu Raty that should be doing so soon.
The next expansion draft is going to be a lot more difficult for the Canucks to manoeuvre. But given the ways in which the wind are currently blowing, they’d be foolish not to at least be preparing for the possibility already. Strategically staggering contracts, delaying the arrival of key prospects to full NHL time, pre-emptively trading off excess pieces. There are many ways in which a team can mitigate the impact of the expansion that is almost definitely coming eventually.
If the Canucks truly intend on being competitive in the near-future, the onus is also on them to ensure that expansion doesn’t get in the way of that competitiveness.
Expansion can be a lot of fun, and more teams in the league always seems to make for a merrier time. But it’s also something worth doing a lot of pre-planning around, and with Atlanta already getting the verbal go-ahead, it would seem the time for that pre-planning is now, not later.
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