If as reported last year, Hartford either suitably renovates the XL Center or replaces it with a new NHL-ready one, it will seal the commitment of the NHL to becoming a 40 team league. There will be no turning back. Unlike the NFL which prefers to strip cities of their franchises instead of expanding beyond the current symmetrical 32-team league (see St. Louis-Los Angeles), the NHL is determined to reach the next symmetrical number of 40 teams. That will mean realignment into the same structure as the NFL, 2 conferences with 4 divisions, only there will be 5 teams to a division, not 4.
Of course the NHL could also shift weak franchises, but considering how it fought tooth and nail to keep the Arizona Coyotes out of Hamilton, moving teams is probably the last option to be considered. Besides if it is able to get away with its $500 million entry fee, there’s at least $4.5 billion to be made in expansion fees from 9 new teams.
The current situation for NHL expansion is like the situation that existed in Europe when World War 1 broke out: Once one country went to war, that triggered the others to come in. In the NHL’s case, there are commitments that will trigger expansion to the next symmetrical number of 40 teams in a revised NFL-like structure. Symbolically, a new Hartford arena and a suitable owner will have the same effect on NHL expansion that the murder of the Archduke Francis Ferdinand and his wife at Sarajevo had on European politics in 1914. To see what will happen, it is necessary to examine the things the NHL is currently committed to. Note that shifting franchises can blunt expansion, but as stated above, that is not a preferred option of the NHL.
1. Commitment #1: Restore Winnipeg, Quebec, and Hartford
In 2010, Gary Bettman made a tour of the three cities that lost their franchises in the 1990s and offered them terms for readmission: great fan-base (which all three cities have); suitable owner; and a proper NHL arena (No mention of a $500 million entry fee). This was the first open sign that the NHL was interested in expansion since the last expansion in 2000 and if all three cities came back that would increase the number of teams to 33, one more than the symmetrical 32 limit. Instead Winnipeg came back by the franchise shift of Atlanta. Quebec is trying to come back but is stuck at the ownership level (The owner of the Quebecor bidder is unsuitable to the NHL).
But the admission of Quebec or Hartford by expansion instead of by franchise shift is awkward because they are eastern cities and that infringes with the NHL’s next two commitments:
2. Commitment #2: The NHL wants balanced conferences
3. Commitment #3: The NHL does not want to shift an eastern team back to the west
The NHL wants a balanced league with an equal number of happy franchise owners in each conference. But Detroit and Columbus were not happy being in the Western Conference because of travel expenses and time infringements and were shifted east. Now Quebec and Hartford whom the NHL is unofficially committed to want back into the league tilting the imbalance between the conferences even further. Adding Quebec and Hartford by expansion makes an 18 team Eastern Conference meaning that 3 more western cities have to be added to balance things. And neither Detroit, Columbus, nor any other eastern team wants to be shifted west for the reasons listed above unless it was a temporary measure that would be resolved within a year or two.
By adding Quebec and/or Hartford to the league by expansion, the NHL is now either a 32-33 team league and the resolution of the balance problem means that league is automatically committed to expanding to either 34 or 36 teams to restore conference balance. This automatically triggers commitment #4:
4. Commitment #4: Once the league reaches 32 teams or better, realign into a NFL-like structure
Although this has never been stated and is therefore unofficial, realigning the league into the NFL structure listed above makes the most sense. It is an easier structure for fans (and everyone) to understand and follow; divisions with 4 or 5 teams in them instead of large unwieldy conferences. The playoff structure will become more understandable and easier to follow as well. And realigning the NHL into this pattern allows the league to easily expand to 40 teams (5 teams to a division) and even 48 teams (6 teams to a division).
Now that the NHL is either 34 or 36 teams, it makes sense to continue expanding to fulfill commitment #5:
5. Commitment #5: Balance up the new divisions
It makes no sense to have some of the new divisions with 5 teams and other divisions with 4. Assuming that the NHL now has 36 teams, four more teams, two eastern, and two western will be added making the league a symmetrical 40 teams. Don’t worry about lack of markets. There are approximately 60 major metropolitan areas in the United States and Canada so all four major professional sports leagues are only a fraction of what they could be. And some extremely large metropolitan areas might end up with more than one team, like New York and Los Angeles currently are in the NHL.
Just for fun, here are some of the possible contenders for an NHL franchise. (This is my opinion. There are lots more potential bidders. This is who I think will make the most sense as new NHL members.)
East: Quebec, Hartford, Hamilton, second Toronto, second Montreal, Providence, Baltimore, Birmingham, Louisville, third southern Ontario, shifted Nashville, and Memphis
West: Seattle, Saskatoon, Spokane, Victoria, Portland, San Francisco, Houston, Kansas City, Oklahoma City, Milwaukee, Salt Lake City and second Chicago
There are plenty of contenders but the NHL scared most of them away with that $500 million entry fee. But with NHL’s unofficial commitment to becoming a 40 team league, the door is wide open for 9 new teams.