As much as the NHL tries to deny it, another round of expansion seems to be inevitable. A story out of Canada on Tuesday night created quite a stir when Tony Gallagher of the Province reported that Las Vegas is pretty much a "done deal" when it comes time for the league to increase from its current 30-team alignment.
That report was quickly followed up by a tweet from Howard Bloom of the Sports Business Journal, claiming that the NHL was not only going to Vegas, but would add three additional teams by 2017 in Seattle, Quebec and Toronto. The series of moves would result in $1.4 billion in expansion fees and increase the size of the league from 30 to 34 teams.
Those four markets are the most talked about when it comes to expanding the league's reach.
The NHL, as it usually is in these rumors, was quick to refute the reports on Wednesday morning when deputy commissioner Bill Daly reiterated the NHL's stance on expansion by telling TVA Sports that it is not in the league's plans, nor is the league looking to move a team like the Florida Panthers.
However, there is an awful lot of smoke here for there not to be any fire behind it, and the most intriguing -- and controversial -- city of the bunch just might be Las Vegas, which would be another chapter in the NHL's quest to venture into previously uncharted territory.
Would it work in Las Vegas?
The NHL's conference and division alignment is currently unbalanced with only 14 teams in the Western Conference compared to 16 in the Eastern Conference. The easiest way to fix the alignment without throwing the realignment plan out the window would be to add a couple of teams in the West. Interestingly enough, ground has already been broken on a new building in Vegas with the hopes of landing an NBA or NHL team. The city is also considering a move for an MLS team.
The NHL has always been intrigued by Vegas and would no doubt love to get there before the NBA or MLS does. The only thing standing between Las Vegas and the NHL is an owner, according to Gallagher, which seems like a pretty big hole.
Unlike a lot of hockey folks over the years, I've never been against the NHL's desire to expand into "non-traditional markets" in an effort to grow the game. I think a team can work in pretty much any area as long as there is a good product on the ice that gives people a reason to become interested in the team. I still believe the biggest reason the experiment in Atlanta failed, and teams like Florida and Phoenix have had so many struggles, is that the teams have been (and in the case of Atlanta, were) so inept and so poorly run for so long that it's been impossible to build a stable fan base.
But there are some concerns with Vegas, specifically: Who is going to buy tickets, and why?
Being the only professional sports game in town would be an advantage for the NHL, but would there be enough demand?
There are countless other options in Las Vegas for people to spend their money that do not involve professional sports. Even if the unlimited supply of tourists decides to take in some games between stops at casinos and shows, that is not going to do anything to help develop the foundation of a season ticket base.
Expansion is inevitable
Either way, even if the NHL continues to deny it, it seems that the league is on the verge of its first overhaul since its expansion boom in the late '90s. It's no longer a matter of if the league is going to increase in size, but a matter of when. The possibility of adding four teams seems like it would be overkill and, without another major realignment, would create the same balance problem that exists in the league today.
From an entertainment and hockey standpoint, there is also the risk of diluting the talent across the league. Looking at the bottom of most NHL rosters, there are already many players who seem out of place in the league.
Adding four teams would bring 92 additional roster spots to the league -- two teams would bring 46. While there may be some guys stuck in the minor leagues or Europe because NHL executives sometimes value the wrong things at the bottom of the roster, it's hard to imagine there being enough talent to adequately fill out that many spots without having a lot of guys who just do not belong.