As the end of August approaches, here’s my take on some of this month’s notable NHL news, or what little there was of notable NHL news.
Earlier this week reports emerged claiming the NHL could expand by up to four teams by 2017. League officials swiftly denied this, but talk of expanding to Seattle, Las Vegas, Quebec City and Toronto by 2017 raised some eyebrows and gave bored NHL fans something to talk about during August’s final days.
I don’t expect the NHL to expand this season or even next, but I do believe there will be expansion within the next ten years. Heck, we could see it by the end of this decade. There’s already Conference imbalance, with 16 of the NHL’s 30 teams in the Eastern Conference. That’s just begging for two new Western markets.
Seattle, Quebec City, Toronto, Las Vegas and Kansas City seem the likely expansion candidates. Of these, I believe the league favors Seattle and Las Vegas. League officials have frequently visited Seattle over the past year, and the league isn’t holding its annual awards show in Vegas solely because it’s a great party town.
Much depends upon those cities building venues and finding prospective owners. Quebec City is already building a new arena and it’s believed one could be built in Markham, Ontario someday. One of those cities could get a franchise, though it will create mean another conference realignment which nobody really wants. If a currently struggling franchise, like the Florida Panthers, should end up relocating, you can bet the league will try to move it to Quebec City or Markham.
All of this, of course, is mere spitballing on my part. The league undoubtedly has it’s own plans. But I do believe, as I’m sure many of you do, that NHL expansion is an inevitability. Rather than move too fast as it did during the rapid expansion of the 1990s, the league is simply taking its time and carefully weighing its options.
My prediction? Seattle, Vegas and Quebec City will get franchises, one of which will be a relocated team. In the end, there will be 32 franchises, 16 in each conference.
The NHL announced this month it will phase in new rules regarding its annual draft lottery over the next two years. The changes will make it more difficult for clubs with the worst records to win the top pick in the draft.
Some folks in the media and blogosphere believe this will discourage “tanking”, the process by which a team deliberately throws a season in order to finish dead last in the overall standings and thus improve its chances of winning the draft lottery and securing the first-overall pick.
Tanking is easy to claim but almost impossible to prove in the NHL. I don’t buy into this theory because it’s simply too complex to successfully pull off. The team’s owner must order his management to throw the season, or at least be aware of such a scheme. The general manager must shed as much talent as possible over the course of that season, while the head coach must ensure his worst players are on the ice during critical game situations.
Most importantly, the players must buy into the scheme, which is where the plan goes off the rails. Like all professional athletes, NHL players are conditioned to win no matter what. A talent-poor roster still plays to win every night. And while the prospect of constant losing can weaken morale, all it take is one little winning streak to provide a spark of hope. Sometimes having the odds stacked against them can tighten roster cohesion, giving them an “us against the world” attitude. If for nothing else, they’ll play for pride.
Most NHL general managers are former players who never lost their competitive edge. NHL coaches are as fiercely competitive, perhaps more so as their employment depends upon it more than that of a player or GM. It’s difficult to believe any of them would willingly tank a season.
I’m fully aware of the rumors the 1983-84 Pittsburgh Penguins tanked in the final weeks of the season to worsen their record, thus assuring they would garner the first-overall pick and the rights to Mario Lemieux. While whispers persist, no one can provide definitive prove the ’83-’84 Penguins tanked the season.
It was also a different time, when there was no draft lottery, fewer teams and no such thing as social media. Any team which tried to tank a season today would almost surely be found out and the perpetrators swiftly punished by the league.
We live in an era where credence is given to nearly every crank who can dream up a conspiracy theory. “Things aren’t what they seem” is their mantra. Well, hate to disappoint the tin-foil hat brigade, but in life things often are as they seem. In the NHL, a bad team is often just that, the result of nothing more sinister than incompetent management and piss-poor coaching, not some diabolical plot to ensure future NHL domination.
The San Jose Sharks’ stripping Joe Thornton of the captaincy is seen by some as yet another measure by management to force him into accepting a trade. Those folks overlook the fact the Sharks also stripped Patrick Marleau of the captaincy five years but he’s still with the club.
It’s rumored Sharks GM Doug Wilson tried to move Thornton and Marleau earlier this summer but couldn’t convince the pair to waive their no-trade clauses in their new contracts. That’s as may be, but if fielding offers for the pair wasn’t enough to convince them they’re no longer wanted (if that’s what indeed took place), stripping the pair of established leadership roles won’t do it.
Convincing Thornton and/or Marleau to accept a trade will depend upon how well they’re willing to accept reduced roles on the roster. If they have no problem with younger Sharks like Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski and Marc-Edouard Vlasic taking over as team leaders, and no issues with dropping into second-line roles, then there won’t be any need to move the duo.
Much could also depend upon the team’s performance this coming season. While Thornton and Marleau love living and playing in San Jose, they’re also nearing the end of their respective careers and have yet to play in a Stanley Cup Final. If the Sharks should significantly decline this season or next, it could convince Thornton and/Marleau to move on to a team where they’ll have a better shot at winning the Cup.
Of course, if the Sharks improve over the next three years, that’ll only give Thornton and Marleau even more reason to stick around. It will also remove any reason for management to move the pair.