Sweeney’s revamping Starting To Prove Dividends

Since Don Sweeney replaced former General Manager Peter Chiarelli three years ago, the Bruins find themselves as serious Stanley Cup Contenders. The 37-15-8 and Bruins are in second place of the NHL Eastern Conference. Only five points separate the team from the first place Tampa Bay Lightning. In this article, we’ll cover three areas that are paying dividends for this year’s Black and Gold.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        Roster Overhaul;                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         Since the teams successful Presidential Cup year in 2012 the Bruins have not gotten by the first round of the playoffs in three tries. With consecutive losses to Montreal and an early exit at the hands of Ottawa last season the Bruins now seem to have found an identity.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           The first order of business three years ago was to dismiss General Manager Peter Chiarelli. Since Chiarelli’s dismissal in 2015 Sweeney has completely turned the team around. Midway through last season, the club fired longtime coach Claude Julian.  Julian was replaced by longtime Providence coach Bruce Cassidy. Cassidy responded by guiding the team back into the playoffs for the first time in two years. Despite a first_ round loss to the Senators. Despite an early exit, Bruin fans found a reason for optimism.                                                                                                                                                                                            A  Mixture Of Youth And Veterans;                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     Since Sweeney’s arrival, three year’s ago Bruins fans have seen the likes of Milan Lucic, Dougie Hamilton, Jerome Iginla, Chad Johnson and Reily Smith all depart. Enter Charlie McAvoy, Danton Heinen, Jake De Brusk, Anders Bjork, and Sean Kuraly. All have bought into Bruce Cassidy’s style of play and it shows on the ice every night. Only Tampa Bay, Nashville, Washington and Las Vegas have more points.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  The new faces seem to click with veterans David Krejci Patrice Bergeron, Adam McQuaid, David Pastrnak, and Tuukka Rask. If the chemistry and good coaching continue the Bruins may have an excellent chance of getting to the finals.                                                                                                                                                                                                     Rotating Goalies;                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         One of the biggest differences in this year’s success is the rotating of goaltenders.  Veteran Tuukka Rask is having a great season 24-18 and a 2.21 GAA in 40 games while backup Anton Khudobin is 13-4- in 23 games with an impressive 2.41 GAA .Keeping both goaltenders fresh and sharp may play a big factor come playoff time.                                                                                                                                                                                                          No matter what the end result is hockey is fun again on Causeway Street. The Bruins have their old swagger back. The Bruins are playing like the Black and Gold team fans are used to seeing. After a flurry of activity the past week Sweeney has acquired Rick Nash, Nick Holden, and Black Hawks forward Tom Wingel. If the chemistry continues then the dividends hopefully will be another Stanley Cup.

Foley Sets The Bar For Future Expansion Owners

Whether the new expansion franchise Las Vegas Golden Knights win any more games this year or not, owner Bill Foley has set the bar for future owners of NHL expansion franchises to reach. Las Vegas would not be on my top ten list for NHL expansion franchises. Nor would it make my next group of cities that were not the best choices for an NHL franchise but were worth taking a chance on. In fact I would be inclined to rank Las Vegas as a poor choice for an NHL team, on the level with Phoenix.

But Foley has shown beyond doubt that good ownership can make up for a doubtful market. He was doing the right things long before Las Vegas was officially granted an NHL franchise. The NHL had long been eying Las Vegas as a potential franchise, the first professional league to try an untested market, but without Foley, it is doubtful that the league would have placed a team there during the last expansion. First he was taking surveys to see if there was enough interest to consider if an NHL team was feasible. When he was convinced that there was enough potential to take the matter further, he convinced the doubtful NHL to believe his sincerity by taking formal pledges for tickets from fans prepared to put their money where their mouths were to show the league that there was money already on the table. He along with Quebec were the only cities to accept the NHL’s $500 million expansion fee without a quibble.

But his competence did not stop there. He wanted to build a winning team and so far the Golden Knights have far exceeded anybody’s imagination. First he hired a competent general manager, George McPhee, who shared Foley’s vision that under the NHL expansion draft terms that had been set up, a winning team or at least a better than average starting expansion team could be built. The NHL had set better-than-usual expansion terms, but you have to have competent ownership and management to know what you are doing. Vegas not only has a winning record but there is a good chance that they could make the playoffs, something unprecedented in every expansion since 1970.

Foley and McPhee next hired a competent coach, Gerard Gallant, who was unaccountably fired by the Florida Panthers last season despite having a winning record at the time. Gallant immediately became a leading candidate for a coaching position this year and Las Vegas was happy to give him a chance. The success of the Golden Knights on the ice in no small way is due to Gallant’s coaching.

Success on the ice has led to success at the gate. The Golden Knights are enjoying sold-out standing room only crowds. Where once one doubted if the new arena would be filled, now one wonders whether it was built with enough seating capacity. Whether this is because the Knights are an entertainment novelty this season remains to be seen, but everybody loves a winner or at least a team that is playing to its total capabilities and it is hoped the Knights have made a deep and lasting impact among the Las Vegas sports fans. Bill Foley worked hard to make that happen and his pattern should be followed by future NHL expansion team owners (likely Houston next).

The expansion team that took the shortest time to become a true Stanley Cup contender was the New York Islanders, in only their third season, after setting a then record for a bad first season by an expansion team. Thanks to the more generous expansion terms and competent ownership and management, the Golden Knights are already closer to that status. If they make the playoffs and do well, it will be icing on the cake for Bill Foley.

 

Las Vegas Success Only Emphasizes Phoenix Coyotes Failure

There should be nothing unusual about this. One team is cruising along in the NHL standings with (as of this writing) only one loss while the other has yet to win a game. What is ridiculous is that the winning team is the expansion Las Vegas Golden Knights in the first ten games of their first NHL season while the losing team is supposedly their greatest rival, the Arizona Coyotes who have been around for more than two decades. By all logic it is supposed to be the other way round. In other words, Las Vegas is everything Arizona was supposed to be.

When NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman offered readmission terms to Hartford, Quebec, and Winnipeg in 2010, he listed three necessary factors; great fan base, proper arena, and suitable ownership. There has never been a better case for the importance of the last factor than by looking at what Las Vegas has done. Owner Bill Foley and his ownership team did their NHL homework well. First he hired the right general manager, George McPhee who in turn hired the right coach, Gerard Gallant.

True, the NHL’s expansion draft was more generous than it had been in the past, but you have to have competent ownership and management to make it work. There is no better way to build a following in a new expansion market than by icing a winning team as fast as possible. Whatever happens in later years and later in this season, Las Vegas has got off on the right foot at capturing the hearts and imaginations of the locals, especially in a city reeling from the recent shooting tragedy.

Las Vegas is an unlikely city for hockey. I certainly did not include it on my list of best NHL expansion sites or even in my list of second best cities. I ranked it with Phoenix and Atlanta which has been unsuccessful in the NHL twice. But it shows that competent ownership can make up for a lot of potential negatives. Unlikely Tampa Bay is now one of the better franchises in the NHL. Even Carolina gives hope. Part of the reason why they were last in NHL attendance last season is that they haven’t had a good team for several years. But there is no reason to believe that the fans won’t come back if the Hurricanes ice a contending team again.

coyotes

In contrast, horrible Phoenix has iced only one contending team in their entire history. Due to competent ownership, there is hope for survival and the building of a flourishing franchise in Las Vegas. There is virtually none in Phoenix where the location of the current arena is bad, the current team horrible again, and neither the municipal or state authorities want to spend public taxpayer money on consistent bad ownership and management and finance a new downtown arena. Even the NBA Suns have declared that they want nothing to do with the Coyotes and don’t want share their existing arena with them or build another one in partnership with them again. Except for the few sad fans that are watching their franchise die (again), the Coyotes could probably pack their bags for another city and nobody would notice.

It didn’t have to be that way. Las Vegas is also a desert city, not very familiar with hockey. Perhaps it is unfair to compare but they are showing that if you have competent people in the right positions, an unlikely site can develop into a great sports market. Nashville has long been a suspect hockey market, but icing consistently competitive teams, and last year’s breakthrough to the Stanley Cup Final may finally have turned the corner. It could have been that way for Phoenix.

Instead there may only be one “desert team” in the NHL again, but in Las Vegas, not Phoenix. The potential “desert rivalry” may be dead before it ever had a chance to start. The Golden Knights may have to adopt Anaheim, Los Angeles, or San Jose as their best rival. If no new arena is built, the Coyotes will probably be packing their bags for a new city with a new name in the not too distant future.

 

Las Vegas Admission Did Not Solve The NHL’s Expansion Problems

While everyone should be extending a warm welcome to the NHL’s newest franchise, the Las Vegas Golden Knights and wishing them well, let’s not forget that the admission of just Las Vegas represents a serious failure for the NHL. This is not the expansion that the NHL wanted. It is only the expansion the NHL could get.

Before the announcement of expansion last year, there was wild speculation about what would happen. There were newspaper stories and websites all over the Internet that even before expansion was formally announced, Las Vegas, Quebec City, second Toronto, and Seattle were “done deals”. Clearly the NHL expected to move beyond the symmetrical 32 team barrier to which the NFL is committed to and begin expanding to the next symmetrical number of 40 teams.

This implies that not only was expansion on the table, but probably realignment into an NFL structure of 2 conferences with 4 divisions with 4 then 5 teams in each division. Realignment into an NFL structure not only makes things easier for the fans to understand, it also makes it easy to expand the league to 40 teams (5 to a division) and then to 48 teams (6 to a division).

Before the official announcement of the terms of the expansion, there were all kinds of rumors and expectations. Cities were said to be awaiting NHL expansion for years since the last one in 2000 when Nashville, Atlanta, Minnesota, and Columbus were added. During that expansion there were 11 bids submitted including 3 from Houston (who somehow failed to land a team). It was expected to be the same this time.

In 2010, Commissioner Gary Bettman made a tour of the three cities who lost their franchises in the 1990s, Quebec, Winnipeg, and Hartford and offered them terms for readmission, the first sign that the NHL wanted to expand and was probably committed to realignment and becoming a 40 team league. Winnipeg came back by the franchise shift from Atlanta but Bettman was confident that both Quebec and Hartford would seriously consider getting readmitted to the NHL. There was also frustrated Hamilton, fresh from its Phoenix Coyotes misadventure or the second Toronto “done deal”. There was Las Vegas and the other “done deal” Seattle whom the NHL had serious discussions with. There were the failed bidders of 2000, Houston and Oklahoma City. Kansas City had built the Sprint Center in hopes of getting a team. Portland, another hockey hotbed and perhaps the equally good Milwaukee might be induced to submit a bid. And there was the possibility of any surprise bids from other cities. So the NHL announced expansion in rosy expectation.

But the excessive terms, particularly the $500 million expansion fee ruined the NHL’s plans. The terms attracted more public denunciations from investors than bidders. 16 potential applicants were said to be interested, but only fanatical Las Vegas and Quebec stayed to the end. Probably the NHL had wanted an expansion of 4 teams; Quebec and three western cities to made realignment possible, consummate their unofficial commitment to Quebec, and balance up the conferences.

To make matters worse, the Quebec bid was submitted by Pierre Karl Peladeau, who had made many enemies on the NHL Board. The NHL loved the Quebec fan base and the new arena, the Videotron, but could not abide Peladeau, who made public racist statements about one of the NHL Board members, supports a Quebec separatist political party, and is just too untrustworthy to be admitted as an NHL partner. The Quebec bid has been “suspended” indefinitely until Gary Bettman can find a suitable franchise owner.

So the NHL only got Las Vegas in the end, probably the worst expansion in “big 4″ North American sports league history. This may be the only expansion where there was no competition by rival cities for a sports franchise. The NHL is still unbalanced, nor can it realign into an NFL structure. In the end, the Las Vegas expansion is only a baby step.

Still worse is that the Arizona Coyotes are now potentially without a home in the immediate future. A sensible solution would be to shift the team to Quebec but that will only unbalance the league further. And now Hartford, so long dormant has announced plans to upgrade the XL Center and made an open attempt to lure the New York Islanders who have arena problems of their own. The NHL wants Hartford back but does it want to lose the Islanders and their glorious history? And if Hartford is granted an expansion franchise instead, that only makes the conferences more unbalanced.

But the biggest problem is that the business and investor world has said that an NHL franchise currently is not worth a $500 million expansion fee. So what do Gary Bettman and the NHL Board do now? Refund some of the expansion fee money back to Bill Foley and Las Vegas and then announce a new expansion with a smaller admission fee, more in tune with the market value of an NHL franchise, or do they keep their $500 million fee, announce more expansion and wait in vain for bids that may never come?

 

At the awards banquet, Bettman claimed that the NHL is no longer interested in expansion. Obviously they have to revise their strategy. Both options could result in an embarrassing loss of face for the NHL. Refund money back to Bill Foley and set a cheaper expansion fee means a climb down. And holding to a $500 million expansion fee resulted in only two bids by fanatics with no competition between rival cities. That’s humiliating enough. What if expansion were announced and NOBODY bid?

But a 31 team NHL is no more suitable than a 30 team league and this holds true for both the NBA and MLB as well. All three leagues have to get to at least 32 teams and realign into an NFL structure for future development. And in the NHL’s case there is pressure on them to bring back both Quebec and Hartford and balance the conferences. For added spice, there is also the ugly Arizona Coyote situation that could mean a franchise shift.

The admission of Las Vegas is not the end of the NHL expansion but only a transitory phase, further complicated by the situations in Quebec, New York, and Phoenix. The dust has definitely not settled. The admission of Las Vegas is only the end of a bad expansion episode. The real drama has yet to occur.

 

Bill Foley Is Taking A BIG Gamble

Well it’s Bill Foley’s dream or potential nightmare. The owner of the new Las Vegas Golden Knights made his dream come true when the NHL made Las Vegas its 31st franchise. Whether you are a Canadian who feels Canada has been slighted again by the NHL by not also accepting Quebec (Actually the NHL’s rejection of Quebec has nothing to do with Las Vegas though many websites seem to think so. Quebec was rejected because the NHL deems the potential owner unsuitable.), or a fan from an American city that has traditionally enjoyed hockey but still does not have an NHL franchise (Portland, Seattle, Milwaukee), one can only wish him and the Golden Knights well. They are taking a BIG, BIG chance.

To start with, the franchise entry fee is atrocious. When the franchise entry fee was announced at an obscene $500 million, the NHL had 16 potential bids but the entry fee whittled the numbers down to only fanatical Las Vegas/Foley and Quebec. The North American business world might well question the sanity of the two bidders. This “big 4″ expansion may be the only one in history where no rival cities were bidding against each other and the league involved had to accept whatever it could get. The $500 million fee is over 6 times the amount of the last NHL expansion in 2000 which was $80 million. Obviously the North American business world does not believe that an NHL franchise is currently worth anywhere near $500 million.

But Foley does and he let his money do the talking. He has a few things in his favor. If the season ticket drive is to be believed and is credible, he is off to a good start as far as building a fan base. Las Vegas is virgin territory as far as the major professional sports leagues go so he has no competition from the NFL, MLB, or NBA. He may also have good traditional rivals in Los Angeles, Anaheim, and San Jose.

But he has a lot of potential strikes against him. Las Vegas is the only market in which sports have to compete against human vices, in this case gambling and prostitution which are both legal in Nevada. No other sports franchise in North America has to compete with these potential deterrents.

But even without these problems, Las Vegas is the type of city so often chosen during NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman’s tenure. When it comes to expansion and relocation, Bettman has selected mostly American cities that have had no contact with hockey in their history. This was done primarily to impress American television networks that NHL hockey was a “big 4″ American sport and that by introducing the game all over the United States without heed to where it might be successful, it would be possible to get a rich, American television network contract. Some of these cities were successful and Bettman can take a well-earned bow, but the markets with the worst attendance are franchises like Raleigh, Miami, Phoenix, and Columbus where hockey is like an alien element. Las Vegas fits that pattern perfectly. One such market, Atlanta, has already been declared dead for the second time and moved north to Winnipeg.

Now comes worse news. The Arizona Coyotes, the NHL’s other “desert team”, one of Las Vegas’s potential close rivals, are in trouble again and may have to move to the other side of Phoenix at Tempe, Arizona in a yet-to-be-built arena. It is not a good omen for success in Las Vegas.

You have to admire Foley’s pluck (and question his sanity) to make his dream come true. Let’s hope the Golden Knights become one of the NHL’s better franchises and not another Phoenix. In the city that loves the high roller, right now Bill Foley is unquestionably the biggest gambler of all.

Despite Ticket Drive, Las Vegas Remains A Doubtful City

As the NHL expansion drama develops, it seems like Las Vegas and Quebec City will be inevitably chosen. Significantly the NHL’s excessive terms have changed the minds of possible bidders from Hamilton, Toronto, Hartford, Seattle, Portland and Milwaukee. I chose these cities because they and Quebec City have one significant different characteristic from the front-running city, Las Vegas, a credible fan-base.

In 2010, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman made a pre-expansion tour of the three cities that lost their franchises in the 1990s, Quebec, Winnipeg, and Hartford and gave them the three terms for readmission. These were credible ownership, an NHL acceptable arena, and an adequate fan-base. These conditions are mandatory for every bidder in any future NHL expansion.

The arena and ownership issues are in various stages of development for all the above cities, but all these cities have deep roots in hockey and have no problem with the third condition, the fan-base – except the front-running city, Las Vegas.

Las Vegas typifies the kind of American city that has been so characteristic of the relocation/expansion city choices made during Gary Bettman’s time as Commissioner. Except for Denver and Minneapolis-St. Paul, none of them have much interest in or have much history with hockey. Columbus, Miami, Atlanta, Dallas, Nashville, Anaheim, Raleigh, Phoenix… many of them had to be introduced to and “taught” the game of hockey. Some of them have been successful; many have been money-losers.

They were chosen not because the “fans” in these cities loved hockey but because Bettman and the NHL wanted to be a “big four” sport in the United States, with a lucrative American television contract like the NFL, MLB and the NBA. By spreading the game of hockey all over the United States in unfamiliar markets, it was hoped to make hockey an “American game” – and win that lucrative television contract. As noted above, the results have been very spotty. In some seasons, as many as ten American NHL franchises were losing money.

Meanwhile in Canada and the north-western United States, the areas so conspicuously ignored by the NHL when it came to expansion/relocation, there was fury and bitterness at the NHL’s expansion/relocation choices. Hockey-loving cities like Winnipeg, Quebec City, and Hartford were stripped of their teams in favor of money-losing cities like Phoenix. The NHL was deemed anti-Canadian.

There was a “see I told you so” response from Canada when Winnipeg got its team back from Atlanta. And if Quebec City gets the Nordiques back, as seems likely during this coming expansion, more wounds will be healed. Nor can Canadians complain if cites like Seattle, Portland, Hartford, and Milwaukee got a franchise. They all have extensive experience with hockey in the NHL, at the American university level, or deep roots in Canadian junior hockey.

But a city like Las Vegas, like so many other choices made during the Bettman years is at best a 50-50 proposition. It is an interesting novelty now, the first time a “big four” sport tried to establish itself in the city, but will it remain so? Will fans stick with the team during the initial bad times that all expansion teams have at first or will interest wane as the defeats pile up? Everybody knows that except in extreme circumstances, cities like Quebec, Hamilton, Seattle, Portland, etc. are going to stick with their teams through thick and thin. That has not been the case with many American franchises during the Gary Bettman years.

But there are positive signs. The prospective ticket drive has been a success, indicating that many Las Vegas sports fans are willing to put their money where their mouths are. And if hockey does take off in Las Vegas, there is no reason for anybody to complain. Las Vegas, unlike Seattle was ready with both an arena and ownership. Right now, they deserve all the support and best wishes they can get. If they are a success, they will have deserved the hearty congratulations of everybody. They will have earned it.