The Great Debate of NHL Expansion

Credit: Bruce Fedyck-USA TODAY Sports

This is a little story about cause and effect in the NHL, and how it leads to unnecessary problems with even less necessary solutions.

Let’s go back in time, all the way to the year 2011. The Atlanta Thrashers were mercifully removed from a twice-dead hockey market, and placed in a once-dead hockey market: Winnipeg. The hockey gods smiled and the nation of Canada rejoiced. All was right in the world… except that Winnipeg (north and to the left of Minnesota, for you Americans) was now in the Southeast Division, with teams like Carolina, Florida and Tampa Bay (3,325 miles away).

So, what is a commissioner to do? The simplest solution would be to place Nashville, a southern town in the central time zone, in the Southeast, and place Winnipeg in Nashville’s old spot. But no, too many other pieces were in play, and now, we end up with a Western Conference that has 14 teams, and Eastern Conference with 16. If sports fans are united behind one cause, its parity, and this new realignment won’t cut the mustard.

Naturally, all the pundits are now on the blogs proposing how to fix this. The first, and most logical plan, is to move a team (let’s say Florida) to a Western city (let’s call it “Seattle”). This makes a lot of sense, as Florida hasn’t been relevant in years, and has a hard time filling seats.  A one-team move would work well, and parity would be preserved. It’s not gonna happen though, because owners have too much money tied into their locations, and until they start losing that money, they have no incentive to move. Frankly, a team’s wins or losses have no effect on how well owners do, it’s all about branding. The Toronto Maple Leafs have been basement dwellers for nearly a decade, yet sell out every single game.

The most popular bandwagon in the blogosphere now is “Expansion.” Seattle is DESTINED to have a team, but we can’t have just one, because we need an even number of teams (parity) and that other team would have to be in the west (parity). So, while deserving and probably profitable markets like Hamilton and Quebec City are overlooked, the NHL scrambles to find a decent, hopefully Canadian (parity, 8 teams) city that isn’t in the Eastern Time Zone.

One city that has never been mentioned is Indianapolis. “Indiana?” you ask, “How could the NHL expand in a city that isn’t a traditional hockey market?” Oh, I don’t know, the same way they expanded to Anaheim, San Jose, Columbus, Nashville, Carolina, Tampa Bay, Florida, Atlanta, Phoenix, Los Angeles and Washington DC. Granted, not ALL of these have been shining stars, but you get my drift.

Let’s go over the surprisingly good reasons to locate to Indianapolis:

First of all, they already have a stadium. The Pacers play at Bankers Life Fieldhouse (catchy name…) which seats 18,165 for basketball. That’s the number one killer for most cities, and Indy already has it going on. Second, Indianapolis is a sports crazy town. From college sports to the NFL, Indy residents don’t need a lot of prodding to get revved up about sports. “But how many people are there in Indianapolis anyway?” Glad you asked. Indianapolis is the 10th largest city in America. Yeah. I’m surprised about that too. 844,220 people live in the city, and I’d bet at least 18,000 of them would like to see a hockey game downtown.

Speaking of fans, look on a map of the US and you’ll see that Indianapolis is the hub for five other NHL cities. Chicago, St. Louis, Nashville, Columbus and Detroit are all under 4 hours drive-time from the heart of downtown. Think any of them would make a little trek to go see their team play? Ask Nashville if Chicago fans travel. Last year, Bears fans drank several bars dry after a game against the Titans.

Indianapolis is technically in the “West” if you go by NHL logic, and would add one team to the Central, to balance the almost surefire possibility that Seattle gets a team.

But you know what? All of this is moot, because expansion is frankly not good for hockey. Look at the NHL today, is it really so stocked with talent that we need two more teams? Go ahead, name a third liner on the Calgary Flames. Who’s the Backup goalie in Minnesota?

A perfect bellweather of how strong the talent pool is in the NHL is the goalie market. Currently, the market is weak. Many teams don’t even have what some would consider a bonafide NHL-caliber starter (looking at you, Edmonton). Even Chicago has dug up the fossil of Nikolai Khabibulin because there was literally no one else to fill the spot. Other than Craig Anderson, Heinrich Lundqvist, Jonathan Quick and Ryan Miller, there are few “star” goalies in this league.

You’d be hard-pressed to fill two more rosters with NHL talent right now without dipping hard into the AHL talent pool. Do we really want that? No. We’d rather see star-laden teams putting up crazy numbers in flashy, stat-filled games instead of watching 3rd and 4th liners doodle around till the superstars (if your team has any) can get back on the ice and crank out a highlight reel goal. No, expansion isn’t worth it right now. Maybe, as the game grows in the United States, the talent pool will widen, more European stars will come over, and it’ll get to the point that guys like Andrew Shaw and Brooks Laich are fighting for roster spots. THEN we can talk expansion. Until then, give it up.

Scott Huntington is a writer, reporter, blogger, and long-time hockey fan. When he’s not watching hockey he’s doing research for Maxwell Systems or spending time outside with his family.  He’s also co-creator and admin of the hockey group Soft Dump. Scott will posting his thoughts on the NHL throughout the season and you can also find him on Twitter @smhuntington 


Topics: Expansion, NHL

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  • Douglas

    Interesting read. Good article!

  • Patrick Helper

    I think you are correct. There is not enough talent in the NHL to justify adding two teams. Sadly with the NHL it may just come down to dollars, and not the game.

  • Raheem Farhan Bashir

    To be honest, Seattle should not get a NHL team. They do not even have an ice hockey rink. Quebec City and Hamilton or Markham would be the best options in terms of money made for the NHL. If there were talking about teams that fit the realignment, I think a second team in Vancouver and a team in Saskatoon would would also be a good option for the NHL.

  • mogulboy

    Well written article but disagree with your findings. Had blogs existed, people would have written the same thing before expansion in he 90s. The skill, speed and quality of the play has never been better. Goalies wise, you may have a point but I don’t know how many potential starting goalies are playing in Europe. I am in Seattle so am obviously bias but I grew up in San Jose before the Sharks came there and know the potential of a market when I see it. Seattle is a much bigger hockey market than SJ was when they moved there.

  • Glen Birt

    I am one for expansion, but not next year. I would say if Seattle and wherever else, either Saskatoon or Indy or any number of places in the midwest, gets the resources together to place a proper arena and ownership together, by then the NHL will be ready for proper expansion. It took Winnipeg 7 years from when MTS Center was built to get their team. That’s the other extreme of the pendulum. So if it takes 3-4 years to have an arena built (Seattle) or an ownership group put together (like it did in Arizona) then those at the top should just come out (sometime next spring) saying the plan is to have 2 teams added in the 2016-2017 (give or take a year) season and let those who want teams start the process to get their ducks in a row. Have the cities announced after a few months/year and then they have the rest of the time to prepare the locations and then have everyone know there will be an expansion draft at a certain point a year or two before it actually happens. No big surprises get sprung (hopefully) and it provides the parity the league needs and by then half of the league will not be pushing themselves against the salary cap.

  • Lenny Levin

    The currently “Atlantic” teams Florida & TB really belong in the “Metropolitan” while Columbus & Detroit geographically should go to the “Atlantic”.

    On the expansion: crazy (as in fan interest & profitability) hockey markets like Quebec & Hamilton would absolutely make sense from the pure interest of hockey perspective; but both being in the East time zone that will necessitate to move 2 teams to the West; again, these being the newly-minted “Eastern” teams (Columbus & Detroit) who are geographically positioned most Westerly of all the Eastern teams, and they need to go.

    So, the newly proposed re-alignment would look like this:

    Atlantic Division (better called NorthEast):


    Metropolitan Division (better called Atlantic):


    Central Division (called appropriately):

    Saint Louis

    Pacific Division (called appropriately):

    Los Angeles
    San Jose