In life you need balance. Not only the type of balance needed to stand up and walk, but balance in the sense of a little bit of everything. Professional sports’ leagues are no different. It’s a fine line between keeping the same talent level and the number of teams you are allowing into your league and diluting your product. The National Football League seems to have reached a nice balance. With the amalgamation of two leagues, Major League Baseball has definitely over-expanded, the talent being spread too thin. But what about the National Hockey League?
As a fan in my fifth or sixth decade of the NHL and the Montreal Canadiens, I have seen the expansion work its way through the game that I adore. I’ve also seen the arrival of Europeans into the league and I have certain seen the different styles of play practiced in the league over the years. I’ve seen the days of intimidation. I’ve seen the Flying Frenchmen. I have also witnessed the dead puck era. I have noticed the changes in coaching styles, going from hardline to today’s communicating bench bosses.
History of expansion
While the NHL started its activities in 1917, the commonly original six teams started being mentioned more in 1942: the Boston Bruins, New York Rangers, Detroit Red Wings, Chicago Blackhawks, Toronto Maple Leafs and, of course, the Montreal Canadiens.
- The league remained that way for 25 years, until 1967 when the expansion began. The California Golden Seals, Los Angeles Kings, Minnesota North Stars, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins and St. Louis Blues doubled the number of franchises to 12 teams.
- In 1970, the NHL added two teams, the Vancouver Canucks and the Buffalo Sabres, bringing its total to 14 teams.
- In 1972, the New York Islanders and the Atlanta Flames joined the NHL, making it a 16 teams league.
- Two years later, the NHL added the Washington Capitals and the Kansas City Scouts, bringing its total to 18 teams by 1974.
- In 1978, two years after the California Golden Seals move to Cleveland and are renamed the Barons, they merged with the North Stars. That merger reduced the number of teams in the NHL from 18 to 17.
- 1979 saw four teams from the defunct World Hockey Association (WHA) join the NHL. The addition of the Edmonton Oilers, Hartford Whalers, Quebec Nordiques and Winnipeg Jets brought the NHL to 21 teams.
- After 12 years of stability, the NHL expanded by one more team to make it a 22 teams league, when adding the San Jose Sharks to its mix, in 1991.
- In 1992, the NHL went to 24 teams by adding the Ottawa Senators and Tampa Bay Lightning. This was, in my humble opinion, the perfect ratio of talent and number of teams including players who were coming over from overseas.
- In 1993, what I refer to the “over-expansion” began. The league added its 25th and 26th teams, the Florida Panthers and Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. That’s when the talent started being diluted.
- In 1998, the Nashville Predators joined the NHL to bring the teams’ total to 27.
- 19 years after the departure of the Flames, the NHL returns to Atlanta in 1999 with the addition of the Atlanta Thrashers, the league’s 28th team.
- The dilution of talent continued a year later when, in 2000, the NHL added two teams. The Columbus Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild brought the number of teams to 30 teams.
- After a 16 years hiatus, the NHL expanded to Las Vegas in time for the 2017-18 season. The NHL wanted to be the first pro franchise in Sin City and beat the NFL to the punch when the Golden Knights brought the total of teams to 31.
- Next season, the Seattle Krakens will be joining the league by bringing the league to 32 teams on time for the 2021-22 season.
Over dilution of talent
Some people will argue my claim that the league has gone too far with expansion, and that’s fine. After all, it’s a matter of opinion. Having seen the evolution of the quality of play since the 1970’s, it is my opinion that the league should have stayed at 24 teams. Money being the driving factor, they simply couldn’t resist expanding over and over again.
As one of the undeniable proofs of what I’m advancing, look at the number of young players not only jumping straight from Junior hockey to the NHL, but having an impact at such a young age. Back when there were 24 teams (and even a bit later), only exceptional players could have an impact as an 18 year-old. Today, in spite of players being in tip-top shape, there are several teenagers each year not only making the NHL, but having impacts.
No, there aren’t more “exceptional” young players coming up. If you think that, rest assure that you’re in the wrong on that point. This is a clear indication that the league’s talent is diluted to the point where those young men can compete with the bottom feeders on each team’s roster. They’re not all Mario Lemieux or Wayne Gretzky‘s, folks.
Of course, the implementation of a hard salary cap and revenue sharing between richer and poorer teams has gone a long ways in making the market more competitive. But even at that, with over-expansion and diluted talent, coaches have to be more creative in finding ways to make their team more competitive. This is particularly true when your team is in a smaller market and unable to draw top talents through free agency. By doing so, they found ways for their team to be somewhat competitive against teams that seem to be getting those top free agents.
Add to this the technology factor. Coaches have videos of games, players, systems. It’s gone to the point where players watch replays on the bench in realtime. Those factors have contributed to a more boring NHL, even if some will argue otherwise, particularly those who only lived through the dead puck era and today’s game. Of course, it’s all relative and a matter of opinions, but the game, while having evolved in some aspect, has taken huge steps back in many key areas… talent being one.
It will never go back
People who feel the way I do have to accept the fact that the game will never go back to the quality it once was. Money is the name of the game and when expansion teams are paying $500-600 million to get into the league, it’s a huge bonus in the NHL’s coffers. Further, the league uses the number of teams in their pitch to broadcasting networks to get more dollars, again to pad their revenues. Broadcast marketing is all based on viewership and listenership. A league with 32 teams – or markets – is a bigger sales’ pitch to sponsors and broadcasters than a league with 24 teams.
So we have to make the best of it and accept the unfortunate fact that the league will never return to fewer teams and do what’s best for the quality of the game on ice. This quality has been replaced by the need for greed. Now if they only could get rid of the blackouts, preventing fans from watching their favourite team… Go Greed Go!