NHL’s expansion plans should be made clear later in June

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman recently spoke with the media concerning re-alignment and expansion within the league. The league currently sits at 30 franchises with 16 of them being the Eastern Conference with eight teams per division and 14 teams in the Western Conference with seven clubs per division. Bettman said if the league does expand, which would be the first time since 2000, he wouldn’t really want to move any of the existing clubs from the East to the West or vice versa. Both the Columbus Blue Jackets and Detroit Red Wings relocated to the Eastern Conference from the West before the 2013/14 campaign and he believes they should now stay there.

Bettman stated there isn’t anything new concerning expansion right now, but that could change later in June when the league’s board of governors meet in Las Vegas, Nevada for the annual NHL Awards show. The board is set to discuss expansion bids from both Quebec City and Las Vegas. The commissioner said the executive committee may recommend no expansion; one team, two teams, or deferred expansion and they’ll make this recommendation before the board of governors gets together. He mentioned that Kansas City isn’t in the running for an expansion franchise and nobody from Seattle, Washington has ever filed an application as the city is still trying to work out details on a new arena.

This basically leaves Quebec City and Las Vegas as serious locations for new franchises and both cities have brand new arenas to ice an NHL team. Of course, Quebec City had a franchise in the past when the Quebec Nordiques played in the league started out in the old World Hockey Association (WHA) from 1972 to 1979. The franchise then joined the NHL when several WHA clubs merged into the league and the Nordiques played in the NHL from 1979 to 1995. The franchise still exists technically though as it moved to Denver due to financial difficulties and became the Colorado Avalanche. Along with Winnipeg, Quebec would be one of the smallest markets in the NHL and the city itself believes it will be awarded a franchise sooner or later.

Placing a team in Las Vegas may be a bit of a risk since the city has never had a professional franchise in any of the major North American sports. However, the new arena has already opened and is hoping to use it for an expansion team. The city is typically filled with visitors from all over North America each week and there seems to be enough interest to host a franchise. Las Vegas advertises itself as the world’s entertainment capital and it held a season-ticket campaign back in 2014 to gauge interest in a franchise. It seemed to be successful enough as 13,000 season tickets were snapped up.
Many Canadian fans would likely head to the Las Vegas heat on weekend getaways during the cold northern winters and it’s believed they’d be interested in buying hockey packages. A franchise in Sin City may also do brisk walk-up sales on game days as well. Other possible expansion cities in the future could include Seattle as well as Houston, Texas; Portland, Oregon; Saskatoon, Saskatchewan and Hamilton Ontario. However, it’s not likely that Toronto would be given one as the simple fact is the city might not have the fan support.

The Maple Leafs currently rely on corporate ticket sales to survive and have had problems selling out the Air Canada during the club’s last two woeful seasons. The owners, Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment (MLSE) have taken to emailing members of Leaf Nation on game days to try and sell off unsold tickets. If Leafs can’t sell out their home games then things wouldn’t bode too well for a new franchise. In addition, many fans in the Greater Toronto Area now decide to make a 90-minute trip to Buffalo, New York to see the Sabres and pay more reasonable prices for tickets. At the moment though, it seems Quebec City and Las Vegas are the only serious bidders for expansion. If the NHL does decide to add two more teams to make it 32 franchises then it would be common sense to have 16 teams in the East and 16 in the West. This means two clubs would need to be added to the Western Conference.

That wouldn’t be a problem for Las Vegas, but Quebec City doesn’t make sense in the West. This means a current Eastern Conference team may need to be persuaded to join the West. As Bettman said, he isn’t a fan of asking clubs to move and he definitely wouldn’t ask Columbus or Detroit to head back to the Western Conference. The commissioner may need to offer some sort of financial compensation or other types of perks to find a volunteer form the Eastern Conference to switch divisions.