It’s an exciting time in the NHL offseason. The NHL Entry Draft wrapped last weekend and we’re now in the midst of free agency frenzy. Ah, Christmas in July. The kids of the NHL draft class of 2014 have played a collective zero big league games yet the Internet is flooded with draft grades and predictions. For all the speculation regarding draftees and “who won free agency,” (whatever that means) discussions regarding the future of the NHL itself are few and far between.
How will the league look when Aaron Ekblad and Sam Reinhart hit their prime? Will struggling franchises relocate? Can Gary Bettman convince the Board of Governors to approve expansion? Hop in your DeLorean and fire up that flux capacitor for a look at the state of the National Hockey League in 2020-21.
The NHL reformatted to unbalanced conferences last season. In doing so, they did away with the 15-team conferences we’ve become accustomed to in favor of a set up begging for expansion. The commissioner himself has acknowledged the league’s flirtation with Seattle, Quebec, and Las Vegas among others as possible homes for NHL clubs. The writing is on the wall; the NHL will be 32-team league within the next five years.
There are plenty of candidates for new NHL cities. In fact, most of the locales the league will consider for expansion have hosted professional hockey in the past. Fans in Kansas City (Scouts 1974-76), Quebec City (Nordiques 1979-95), Hamilton (Tigers 1920-25), and Hartford (Whalers 1979-97) are hoping the NHL gives them another chance a la Winnipeg. Former PCHA (Pacific Coast Hockey Association) mainstays Seattle (Metropolitans 1915-24) and Portland (Rosebuds 1914-18) would love a chance at the cup for the first time in nearly a century.
There’s a plethora of candidates and a dearth of available slots. As evidenced by the seven-club divisions in the Western Conference, the league has its sights set on Western expansion. Long has the league been keen on the potential of the Pacific Northwest. Oregon & Washington have a stronger hockey history than people give them credit for (Portland and Seattle were the first two American teams to play for Lord Stanley’s Cup) and impressive support for the five WHL franchises that call the American side of Pacific Northwest home.
Most people assume Seattle is being primed for an NHL franchise. However it will be Portland who ultimately ends up with a team first. Like Seattle, Portland has proven to be one of the elite fan bases in the MLS. When Seattle rightfully gets their Sonics back, a necessary precursor to a new building that is a necessity if they hope to lure a hockey club, the pro sports scene will be crowded. Between the revived Sonics, Super Bowl Champion Seahawks, Mariners, and Sounders the league may not want to risk spreading the devotion of Seattleites too thin. Instead they’ll opt for Portland, where an NHL club would be a welcome addition to the Blazers and Timbers.
The second expansion club is a bit of a gamble, but fits Bettman’s MO. Brace yourself, hockey fans, the warm weather hockey experiment is coming to Sin City. For the record, I’m not sold on the idea, but professional hockey in Las Vegas has been a long time coming.
Though hockey in the desert has been less than fruitful for the NHL thus far, (see Coyotes, Arizona) let’s not forget the first outdoor game in the modern era held outside Caesars Palace in 1991 was a splendid success. Every preseason since 1997 (minus the lockout seasons) the Frozen Fury series featuring Colorado, Los Angeles, Phoenix, and/or the Rangers has sold out the 16,800 capacity MGM Grand Garden Arena. To put it simply: the only similarity between Las Vegas and Glendale is the weather.
With support from Hollywood, Jerry Bruckheimer has long been interested in putting a team on the strip, and potential casino money the franchise would have a solid financial base. Las Vegas would immediately become one of the most desirable and accessible travel destinations for away fans the league over. Construction on the state-of-the-art 17,500 capacity MGM – AEG Arena on the strip will be completed in time for the 2016-17 NHL season. The financial backing, unbalance in the Western Conference, brand new $350 million dollar arena, and potential to be the first major professional sport to call Las Vegas home will be all too enticing for the NHL to resist. Slots during the intermission, anyone?
Fans in Quebec City were ready to blast this article the second they noticed the Nordiques were not one of the two expansion teams set to join the NHL by 2020. Fear not Quebec, you’re getting your Nordiques back the same way Winnipeg recouped the Jets. As was the case with Winnipeg in 2011, Nordiques fans have focused on an ever-worsening situation in Arizona, but it’s another warm weather experiment that will fail first. Brush up on your French Aaron Ekblad because the Panthers are headed for Quebec City.
The Panthers, like Thrashers before them, are a mess that’s been able to fly somewhat under the radar thanks to the nightmare in Glendale. Recently though, their plight has become more public. Florida finished ahead of only Arizona in attendance in 2013-14 averaging just north of 14,000 fans per game. They’re asking for more financial support from the community and arena, but to no avail. The future of hockey in Sunrise is cloudy to say the least.
Honestly, the only surprise here is that the NHL lasted as long as it did in South Florida. The Panthers have long been irrelevant on the ice while the Nordiques continue to sell apparel nearly 20 years after the franchise bolted for Denver. The return of the Nordiques and Jets represents an NHL renaissance in Canada that, frankly, is long overdue.
Last year a controversial Glendale City Council decision bought the Coyotes five more seasons. A year and a name change later, things aren’t looking up in the desert. The Coyotes faithful should take comfort in the fact that the league and city of Glendale exhausted every possible effort to keep the team in town. This is a war Gary Bettman clearly does not want to lose, but devastating attendance and financial woes will eventually prove insurmountable. The question then becomes where will the new Coyotes owners, Renaissance Sports & Entertainment, move the Desert Dogs in 2018?
Let’s assume the aforementioned expansion and relocation has taken place when the Coyotes franchise is finally mercifully allowed to escape their desert purgatory. The now 32-team NHL has new representation in Portland, Las Vegas, and Quebec City. The league will not move east in order to avoid further conference shuffling. That rules out Hamilton, Hartford, and the GTA. The race for the Coyotes will then come down to three cities: Houston, Saskatoon, and Seattle.
Houston is the dark horse. The only two non-Canadian members of Renaissance Sports & Entertainment hail from Houston, the fourth most populous city in the United States. Houston, however, struggled to support the AHL Aeros prior to the team’s relocation to Iowa. A second franchise in Texas isn’t happening.
Saskatoon is an intriguing possibility for the Canada-based RSE group to consider. They’re hockey crazy and more than a six-hour drive from the nearest NHL club. The downside, however, is their small population. It would be difficult to aggregate the necessary sponsorship money to run a pro team in the heart of Saskatchewan. Futher, Saskatoon would not be a particularly attractive location for players who didn’t grow up in the area. A Saskatoon franchise might have the support of the fans, but they’d struggle to compete.
In the end Bettman will follow Major League Soccer’s lead and develop a cluster of rivals in the Pacific Northwest. The Coyotes will settle in Seattle, who would’ve had a team before Portland if they had a decent arena ready in time. All the Coyotes-to-Seattle speculation will finally come to fruition five years after the fervor started in the summer of 2013. Some may fear that franchises in Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver will be too much, but each market boasts proven dedication from fans and high populations. Of the three, only Vancouver has less than 600,000 citizens.
The NHL of 2020-21
Believe me, it pained me not to revive the Whalers. Who doesn’t want to see the best crest in sports at center ice again? To Hamilton, Saskatoon, Kansas City, and the others who missed the cut, please accept my condolences. Panthers and Coyotes fans please know I have nothing against you, but your loss will make for a much better league overall. Without further adieu, I give you the NHL of 2020-21:
Detroit Red Wings
Quebec Nordiques (Relocated Florida Panthers)
Tampa Bay Lightning
Toronto Maple Leafs
Columbus Blue Jackets
New Jersey Devils
New York Islanders (now playing in Brooklyn)
New York Rangers
Las Vegas (Expansion)
St. Louis Blues
Los Angeles Kings
San Jose Sharks
Seattle (Relocated Arizona Coyotes)