NHL expansion process faces some geographical challenges

Gary Bettman opened up on the role geography could play on the expansion process. (USATSI)
Gary Bettman opened up on the role geography could play on the expansion process. (USATSI)

The NHL has only two options when it comes to expansion. After only Las Vegas and Quebec City submitted suitable applications for expansion last week, the league has a lot to consider when it comes to actually pulling the trigger on expanding. Considering there is one candidate within the Western Conference’s footprint and another in the boundaries of the Eastern Conference, there are going to be challenges.

It has been repeated ad nauseam throughout this process that the NHL already plays with unbalanced conferences with 16 teams in the East and 14 in the West after undergoing realignment ahead of the 2013-14 season. The imbalance in the conferences is far from ideal, especially considering the impact it has on teams fighting for playoff positioning in the crowded East. The possibility of expansion presents challenges to the current alignment considering Quebec City would be the 17th Eastern-based team in the league.

After already having gone through one major realignment, you’d have to think the league would be reluctant to do so again after four or five seasons, depending on expansion’s status. Though the commissioner has previously downplayed "symmetry" as a factor in expansion decisions, the current geography of the league very well could have a sizable impact on the expansion process as it heads into its second phase with just two options.

In an expansive interview covering expansion with Amalie Benjamin of the Boston Globe, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman addressed the alignment question.

“The geography is one of the factors that you have to consider.”

That will be part of the next phase of the expansion process, exploring the potential ramifications of locating franchises in these two cities, neither of which comes without issues. The next deadline for document submission comes in August, with another phase beyond that one, with the expectation that expansion teams could be playing as soon as the 2017-18 season. One option — which, again, is not optimal, would have Quebec City playing in the West to even out the conferences.

“The answer is that’s something we would obviously have to consider,” Bettman said of putting Quebec City in the Western Conference. “The experience with Winnipeg in the Southeast was less than ideal. The experience over time with Detroit and Columbus in the West — and they’re farther west geographically — they couldn’t wait to get into the East.

“So geography is an issue. But the fact that we identify it as an issue doesn’t mean we’ve reached a conclusion. It means it’s one of the things that has to be considered.”

How strongly it will be considered remains to be seen, but it has to be a fairly significant point of debate for the NHL's Board of Governors.

Quebec City playing in the Western Conference can’t possibly be a long-term solution. Once that becomes untenable, the league would eventually have to realign again, which can’t be appetizing to anyone after just going through it. (Side note: Could you imagine an NHL where the new Nordiques and Montreal Canadiens play only twice a year?)

There’s no way the Detroit Red Wings or the Columbus Blue Jackets would or should accept a return to the Western Conference after successfully fighting their way into the East. In terms of travel logistics and TV ratings for away games, it’d be undesirable for either to move back. Just look at the Red Wings’ travel situation this year to see how beneficial it is to them to play in the East. They’ll travel fewer total miles than any team in the league this season, per the annual super schedule compiled by Dirk Hoag of On The Forecheck. Columbus is also in the lower-third of the league when it comes to total miles traveled next season.

On top of that, the league’s new division-based playoff format was put in place to stoke the fires of old rivalries, while creating new ones in the process. Are they really going to wash out that work for the sake of collecting large expansion fees? It’s certainly possible, but it’s hard to see the league making sweeping changes to what it’s been doing just to add another team.

As Bettman has noted on multiple occasions, the league doesn’t have to expand at all. If current owners see that new teams bring changes that negatively impact their own clubs over the longer term, they could walk away from the potential $1 billion windfall in expansion fees. On top of that, just because two teams applied doesn’t mean that the league has to accept both.

In his interview with the Globe, Bettman did not rule out the possibility of accepting only one of the two applications and proceeding with a 31-team league. In that case, Las Vegas probably has the leg up because it better fits into the divisional landscape, while it also creates an entirely new and unique market for the league. At 31 teams, the league is still unbalanced, but it wouldn't have to realign anything.

Of course, if the NHL were to add Las Vegas while shunning an honest bid from Quebec City, league officials may not be able to set foot in the province of Quebec without a heavy security detail. Even with that in mind, they’ll have to honestly consider if the headaches of admitting a 17th Eastern team into the fold is worth the $500 million in projected expansion fees. For a lot of owners, it probably will be.

As the expansion process rolls on, there are a lot of other things to consider currently as well.

For one, the Arizona Coyotes and city of Glendale recently settled on a new lease agreement that will expire after two seasons, unless another deal is renegotiated before then. Should that agreement expire and the two sides decide to part ways, the Coyotes suddenly become a strong relocation candidate the same season the league expects to be able to expand by, 2017-18. Should the league need to relocate the Coyotes, things get even more interesting, while conference balance remains at the forefront. Coyotes ownership has repeatedly said it will do everything it can to stay in Arizona even with this new development, but anything can happen.

Considering the large fees the NHL feels it can charge to prospective expansion franchises and the apparent willingness from the Las Vegas and Quebec City ownership groups to pay those fees, maybe the money speaks louder than the geographical challenges. There's very little doubt that the Quebec City team would be a successful market as well.

That said, expansion only works if it works for everyone, or at least mostly works for everyone. The Board of Governors won’t approve it if it doesn’t. The hills that the prospective ownership groups in both Las Vegas and Quebec City have to climb remain many and challenging, even though both have buildings in place and the money to buy their way into the league.

Bettman’s latest comments provide another reminder that the league and its Board of Governors hold all the cards, and that nothing is assured in this process.

CBS Sports Writer

Chris Peters has been a hockey writer for CBS Sports since 2012. Prior to that, he wrote for numerous outlets and edited the United States of Hockey blog, covering the sport at all levels. Peters also... Full Bio

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