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.

Depth scoring helps Penguins get by Canadiens

MONTREAL, QC - JANUARY 18:  Olli Maatta #3 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates his third period goal with teammates during the NHL game against the Montreal Canadiens at the Bell Centre on January 18, 2017 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.  The Pittsburgh Penguins defeated the Montreal Canadiens 4-1.  (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)
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MONTREAL (AP) Eric Fehr and Jake Guentzel scored in the second period to lead the Pittsburgh Penguins past the Montreal Canadiens 4-1 on Wednesday night.

Defensemen Ian Cole and Olli Maatta also scored for Pittsburgh, which won its second game in a row after a three-game skid.

Sven Andrighetto scored for Montreal, which lost its second straight and has only two wins in its last six games. The Canadiens’ offense remained in a rut coming off a 1-0 loss Monday in Detroit.

Penguins goalie Matt Murray was back in form after Monday’s wild 8-7 win over Washington, making 19 saves. But Carey Price‘s woes continued as Pittsburgh outshot Montreal 26-20. Price allowed three or more goals for the eighth time in 10 games.

A tight-checking first period saw Pittsburgh strike first as Cole took a feed from Evgeni Malkin on a counterattack and scored on a high shot inside the near post with Patric Horqvist screening Carey Price. Malkin picked up his seventh point in five games.

Fehr, who got into the lineup with Matt Cullen out 3-to-4 weeks with a foot injury, was left alone in front to take a pass from Chris Kunitz and score 5:19 into the second. Guentzel made it 3-0 at 17:38 when he tipped a point shot from Cameron Gaunce, who was making his Penguins debut.

Andrighetto got one back at 18:11 when he banked one in off Murray from the side of the net.

Conor Sheary got away with tripping defenseman Jeff Petry behind the Montreal net and fed the puck to Maatta at the point for a low shot that went through Price’s pads 15:36 into the third frame.

A scoreboard tribute was paid to former Montreal Expos star Tim Raines for his induction to the Baseball Hall of Fame earlier Wednesday.

UP NEXT

Penguins: at Carolina on Friday night.

Canadiens: at New Jersey on Friday night.

PHT Morning Skate: Tortorella says ‘not a chance’ LeBron James could play hockey

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Auston Matthews is putting together one of the best rookie seasons we’ve seen in a long time, but if it wasn’t for Ukrainian skating coach Boris Dorozhenko’s unique teaching methods, he might not be the player he is today. (ESPN)

–Not many people expected the Minnesota Wild to contend for the Central Division crown this season, but their play is making some in the national media believe they have a chance to do some damage in the near future. “I give them a ton of credit,” NBC hockey analyst Pierre McGuire said. “They’ve put themselves in a great position to win a Cup. This is the best team they’ve had in Minnesota ever. Like, ever!” (Minneapolis StarTribune)

–If he wasn’t a basketball player, I could see LeBron James playing in the NFL. But a hockey player? I don’t think so. It sounds like Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella agrees with me. “He can’t skate,” Tortorella said during a radio interview. “He’s too damn big, he can’t skate. And you can tell him I said that, I challenge him.” (BarDown)

–The Boston Bruins were up 3-0, 4-1 and 5-4 in last night’s game against the Red Wings, but they still found a way to lose the game. Watch the highlights of that tilt by clicking the video at the top of the page.

–Every hockey fan is aware of the incredible season Sidney Crosby has put together, but for some reason, Evgeni Malkin‘s stellar play seems to be flying under the radar. After all, Malkin isn’t too far behind Connor McDavid for the scoring title. “He doesn’t get as much attention as he deserves,” said Penguins assistant coach Sergei Gonchar. “Not only this season or that season. I think overall if you look at his career, I don’t think he has been covered as much as some other guys. I think he deserves more credit for what he has done in his career.” (NHL.com)

–The 2003 NHL Entry Draft is regarded as one of the best drafts in league history. That year, the Penguins took Marc-Andre Fleury first overall, but if it had to be done over again, who would the top pick be? According to a pair of Sportsnet hockey analysts, Patrice Bergeron or Ryan Getzlaf would go number one if that draft could be done over again. (Sportsnet)

–In his final year of eligibility, former Expos outfielder Tim Raines was finally voted into the hall-of-fame yesterday, and the Montreal Canadiens made sure to congratulate him during last night’s game:

Sharks grind out win, make life difficult for Kings

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If the San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings meet again, it will be in the playoffs. If they do so, the Sharks will hold quite a bit of a recent edge.

They defeated them in the first round of the 2016 playoffs and won the 2016-17 season series with the Kings after beating L.A. in a tight 3-2 affair on Wednesday.

During a week where leads have been flimsy and goals came in flurries, this one started off pretty hot. The Sharks generated a 2-1 lead in the first period, and then the two teams exchanged goals in the second, with Joe Pavelski‘s goal ultimately standing as the game-winner.

The Sharks won after a scoreless third period, keeping them in a position to take back first place in the Pacific Division:

1. Ducks – 59 points in 47 games
2. Oilers – 57 in 47
3. Sharks – 56 in 45

San Jose has an opportunity to make up that ground with its games in hand. The Kings, on the other hand, see their margin of error for a wild card spot dwindling:

Second wild card spot: Kings, 48 points in 45 games

Canucks – 48 in 46
Predators – 47 in 44
Stars – 46 in 46
Jets – 46 in 48

The Sharks made life easier for themselves while making it tougher for the Kings. If that’s the end of their interactions for 2016-17, Sharks fans should be quite happy.

Red Wings rally by Bruins in another game that evokes the Eighties

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Things looked pretty grim for the Detroit Red Wings after the Boston Bruins chased Jared Coreau from the net with a quick 3-0 lead. Maybe the Red Wings took note that this has been a weird, high-scoring week in the NHL, because they rallied back and eventually won 6-5 via a shootout.

To recap the zaniest games of each day from this odd few days of hockey:

Monday: The Pittsburgh Penguins beat the Washington Capitals 8-7 in an overtime thriller.

Tuesday: The Dallas Stars managed to hold off the New York Rangers in a 7-6 victory. Plenty of weird things happened beyond all of those goals.

Wednesday: Red Wings storm back from that 3-0 deficit to eventually win.

Games like these can be a nightmare for coaches and goalies on both sides, yet Claude Julien was probably especially steamed by this one.

The Bruins were up 3-0, 4-1 and 5-4 but the Red Wings kept fighting back. As a defensive-minded coach, Julien couldn’t have been happy with his team’s play.

(That’s the coach’s answer to slamming a video game controller in a frustrating loss.)

Fitting in with this week’s other wilder contests, there were flurries of goals even beyond the trio that quickly gave Coreau the boot. The Red Wings warped a 4-1 Bruins lead to a 4-4 tie with three goals in a little more than 10 minutes of time.

Adam McQuaid then regained Boston’s lead 21 seconds after it was tied, but the Red Wings didn’t give up. Instead, they applied a ton of pressure in the third period until Gustav Nyquist tied it up with about three minutes left.

Detroit still has a long way to go to protect its remarkable playoff streak, especially when teams like the Bruins can at least salvage “charity points” with losses. If the Red Wings want to make an unlikely push, they’ll need to show the kind of resolve that was on display on yet another wild night in the NHL.