Is it time for the NHL to consider expansion?

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Thumbnail image for garybettman2.jpgWith the glut of available players in free agency there’s a definitive issue at hand for the NHL and their players. While we’re sure that a lot of folks would like to hang the blame on Ilya Kovalchuk for seemingly bogging down the market for weeks with his free agency, that’s just not how it worked in reality. The truth of the matter is that a lot of teams that would traditionally spend on free agents were pushed to or are well over the cap this summer while many other teams are operating on an internal budget.

The Globe and Mail’s James Mirtle has kept a running tally of who has signed and who is available this off-season both unrestricted and restricted and some of the names still left out there are noticeable and still useful players. Many of these players either have over-estimated their worth and won’t compromise on salary or they’ve found that the market has dried up completely thanks to teams spending on cheaper players or opting to promote from within. If that sounds familiar it’s because it sounds an awful lot like how life is in the real world for job seekers. In the NHL world, it stinks to lose veteran players, especially good ones but there’s one way out there to help make sure some players can still have the NHL to call home:

Expansion

I know what you’re saying, it’s crazy and the game already has too much going on with it as it is and adding more teams to what seems like a crowded NHL landscape would be madness. Yeah, that’s all true without a doubt. But is the talent level enough right now to be able to sustain two more NHL franchises? Taking a look around at the players sitting in the free agent pool and the small handful of talent that has departed to play in Europe just this off-season, it may be time for the NHL to take a hard look at the possibility of maximizing their opportunity to grow the sport just a little more and not be worse for the wear.

Look at the guys that have departed for Europe this off-season: Evgeni Nabokov, Denis Grebeshkov, Maxim Afinogenov, Brian Pothier, and potentially Vesa Toskala. All five guys are guys that ideally would have jobs in the NHL and all four guys that found the job market dry up for them.

How about the unrestricted free agents? Just to list off a few of the notable guys: Antti Niemi, Jose Theodore, Brendan Morrison, Paul Kariya, Marek Svatos, Slava Kozlov, Owen Nolan, Paul Mara, Fredrik Modin, Willie Mitchell, Bill Guerin. The list is loaded with guys still very capable of playing at an NHL level and many of these guys might not have NHL jobs this year. While many could be headed to Europe, others might end up either retiring early or signing AHL deals.

If there were two more NHL teams offering up 23 roster sports out there,  the competition for free agents might actually be out there and while it’s likely that the AHL talent pool would be a bit thinner than normal, there’s certainly a few guys languishing about in the ECHL that could be better served in the AHL.

When the NHL expanded in the 1990s it’s very possible it was a mistake to do so in that it was a cash grab for NHL owners who wanted the money. At the time, the NHL wasn’t pulling elite talent from Europe as much as it is now, Americans weren’t producing as much elite talent as they are now and the NHL relied heavily upon guys that may not have had a job in the NHL right now with their skill sets. Going back to the early 90s, however, those guys were just good enough to make it. Nowadays, that’s not the case at all.

Elite talent is continuing to come over from Europe (Mats Zuccarello-Aasen of Norway with the New York Rangers for example), Americans are producing elite talent at a dizzying pace, and while the KHL as well as the Swedish, German and Finnish elite leagues make for excellent options for Europeans and North Americans alike, the NHL is still the king of the mountain in professional hockey. The NHL is where the big money and the big notoriety comes in.

The owners would welcome expansion because it means all the current owners add two more governors and two more exorbitant expansion fees to collect money from. It also means adding two new (or renewed) television markets in which to spread the word about the game. The players love expansion because it means more jobs in the NHL and more members to have join the NHLPA. In a time when both sides find it very hard to agree on anything at all, expansion is the one thing both sides could agree on in a big way.

Whether it happens sooner than later or at all is up for debate (and believe me, this is already debated) remains to be seen if ever at all. If we’re ever to see movement on this possibility, it’s likely we could hear about it during the labor talks coming in 2012. There are people with interest in owning an NHL franchise, they’d just rather have a brand new one. Jerry Bruckheimer and the True North group in Winnipeg come to mind immediately. The possibilities are there to do it, whether the league and the players want to go that way is the ultimate question.

Against the odds: Team Europe provides Team Canada’s most difficult challenge in World Cup

TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 29: Team Europe looks on after their defeat to Team Canada for the World Cup of Hockey Championship during Game Two of the World Cup of Hockey final series at the Air Canada Centre on September 29, 2016 in Toronto, Canada. Team Canada defeated Team Europe 2-1.  (Photo by Peter Power/Getty Images)
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The World Cup of Hockey is over. It received praise and it received criticism in its return.

In a twist from previous tournaments, organizers decided to field a Team North America, consisting of players under the age of 23 from the U.S. and Canada, and a Team Europe, consisting of players from eight different countries outside of Sweden, Finland, Czech Republic and Russia.

Both teams were called gimmicks.

Against the odds — 33/1 to win the tournament when it began — Team Europe overcame a sluggish start in the pre-tournament round to nearly force a third and decisive game in the World Cup final versus powerhouse Canada.

At the beginning, the addition of Team Europe, led by Anze Kopitar, to this competition looked to be a regrettable idea. Team North America skated them into the ground in those pre-tournament games.

Team Canada’s depth and skill was something to behold. Many of this team’s players have come together at the Olympics, and before that, the world juniors. This should give you an idea of their domination the last six years: Sidney Crosby is now 25-0 in his last 25 games for the Canadian national team dating back to the 2010 Olympics, according to the NHL.

After being by far the best team in this tournament through the round robin and semifinal, Team Canada was tested in the final. On Thursday, Team Europe played great for 57 minutes and was that close to winning the game, before Canada’s improbable comeback.

“They played their hearts out. When you see the minutes on some of the guys and you see the effort of players that reached for their potential all the way through the game, it’s extremely painful to see the final result,” Team Europe coach Ralph Krueger told reporters.

“But I feel nothing but pride of the way this group performed today, the challenge they put up against Canada. This group just continued to surprise and beat the odds and beat the thoughts of everybody that was watching.

“I think we turned this into a hell of a final, which nobody expected, and it was certainly the best game played by anybody against Canada in this tournament was today. And now we have to digest it.”

Not bad for a team considered to be a gimmick.

Video: Brad Marchand buries late short-handed winner for Team Canada

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On Monday, Brad Marchand signed a lucrative eight-year, $49 million contract extension with the Boston Bruins.

On Thursday, he scored the winning goal — on the penalty kill — for Team Canada, as it fought back to win Game 2 of the World Cup final by a score of 2-1. Patrice Bergeron and Marchand scored 2:09 apart late in the third period, as the Canadians came back to stun Team Europe, which had controlled a good portion of Thursday’s game.

While it had been the line of Bergeron, Sidney Crosby and Marchand that had caused the opposition problems in this tournament, Jonathan Toews actually set up the winner, as he rushed up the ice on the penalty kill and dropped to Marchand.

The Bruins forward then ripped a shot past Jaroslav Halak.

Not a bad few days for Marchand.

Team Canada stuns Team Europe with late comeback to claim World Cup

TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 29: Patrice Bergeron #37 of Team Canada is congratulated by his teammate Steven Stamkos #91 after scoring a third period goal during the third period during Game Two of the World Cup of Hockey final series at the Air Canada Centre on September 29, 2016 in Toronto, Canada. The Team Canada defeated the Team Europe 2-1.  (Photo by Peter Power/Getty Images)
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John Tavares hit the post on a wide open net. Steven Stamkos whiffed on a one-time slap shot attempt. And Team Europe shut down every other player wearing red and white — for about 57 minutes.

Yup. It looked like it would be that kind of night for Team Canada.

After running through the World Cup competition during the round robin and semifinal portions, Canada was facing the possibility it could suddenly be forced into a third and decisive game against an underdog Team Europe.

Cue an improbable comeback.

Down 1-0 and finding it difficult to get anything going offensively, it started for Team Canada with a power play goal on a deflection from Patrice Bergeron. And then, with 44 seconds remaining in regulation time, the Canadians struck again, this time on the penalty kill, as Jonathan Toews set up Brad Marchand for what turned out to be the winning goal.

Team Canada, which has won back-to-back gold medals at the Olympics, claims the World Cup, winning Game 2 on Thursday by a final score of 2-1. Sidney Crosby was named tournament MVP.

As per David Amber of Sportsnet, Crosby joins Joe Sakic as the only two players to win the World Cup, Olympic gold, world championships, world juniors, Stanley Cup, Hart Trophy and the Conn Smythe Trophy.

Team Canada had surged by its opponents thanks to such a deep, skilled lineup and the goaltending of Carey Price. But after taking the first game of this best-of-three series, the Canadians looked completely out of sync in the second act.

They weren’t the faster team, especially in the first period.

They turned the puck over. They gave up too many odd-man rushes. Their power play didn’t capitalize — until it mattered the most.

If it weren’t for the play of Price, this one could’ve been a blowout. His best save came off Marian Hossa late in the third period.

Since the elimination of Team USA, Team North America, Team Russia and Team Sweden, it seemed like the drama would be drained from this tournament as it came to its close, the Canadians looking like a runaway champion.

The final seemed like it was only a formality.

For a long time Thursday, it looked like Team Europe could actually force a Game 3. But Canada has found another way to win.

But this time, it was far from a dominant effort.

Report: No timetable for Sharks’ Meier to return from illness

SUNRISE, FL - JUNE 26:  Timo Meier poses for a portrait after being selected ninth overall by the San Jose Sharks during the 2015 NHL Draft at BB&T Center on June 26, 2015 in Sunrise, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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Timo Meier and the San Jose Sharks aren’t taking any chances.

An illness, reported to initially be strep throat, has kept the prospect forward off the ice for five straight days, as per Kevin Kurz of CSN Bay Area. There is no timetable for his return, the report adds, and that could have an impact on whether Meier makes the Sharks roster out of training camp.

From CSN Bay Area:

The illness has likely diminished Meier’s chances to make the opening night roster, as he’ll miss the Sharks’ second preseason game on Friday and will probably not be in any condition to play on Sunday in Vancouver, either. It was thought before camp that the ninth overall pick from the 2015 draft was ready to seriously challenge for a spot on the Sharks, perhaps even as a replacement for Tomas Hertl on the top line if Hertl becomes third line center.

Meier spent last season in the QMJHL, where he scored 34 goals and 87 points in 52 games split between the Halifax Mooseheads and Rouyn-Noranda Huskies.

It was around this time last year the Sharks sent Meier back to junior, after he left quite an impression on the Sharks coaching staff during the preseason.