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.

Report: Leafs win arbitration case with Cowen

OTTAWA, ON - JANUARY 21: Jared Cowen #2 of the Ottawa Senators prepares for a faceoff against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Canadian Tire Centre on January 21, 2015 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.  (Photo by Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images)
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The Toronto Maple Leafs have won their arbitration case with Jared Cowen, who will remain bought out.

TSN’s Bob McKenzie reported the news today. It is a significant loss for Cowen, the 25-year-old defenseman who came to the Leafs in February as part of the Dion Phaneuf trade.

From Sportsnet’s story before the ruling:

At issue is whether Cowen was healthy enough to have the final year of his contract bought out by the Leafs last summer. A lengthy section of the CBA is devoted to “procedures for determining fitness to play,” and they include a player’s right to pursue a second medical opinion beyond what is provided by the team.

That information, plus witness testimony and other evidence, will be taken into account by the arbitrator while rendering a decision.

For Cowen, there is $3-million in salary at stake. That represents somewhere in the neighbourhood of 25 per cent of his career NHL earnings to date – a huge amount given his injury history and diminished future earning potential.

For the Leafs, it’s significant win. They’ll actually get a $650,000 cap credit this season. Next season, they’ll take a $750,000 hit, and after that their obligations are over.

If they’d lost, they would’ve lost the credit and assumed a $3.1-million cap hit this season, the final year of Cowen’s contract.

Sportsnet explains why the Leafs didn’t want to lose:

That’s a $3.75-million cap swing in total and would almost certainly result in the Leafs invoking long-term injury relief on one of three players – Nathan Horton, Stephane Robidas or Joffrey Lupul – to remain compliant.

Even though the LTI maneuver would offer immediate relief, it’s something the Leafs hope to avoid since it would increase the size of the cap overage penalty they’ll carry into next season because of performance bonuses expected to be earned by as many as five rookies in their current lineup.

Cowen had hip surgery after he was bought out. It’s been reported he may not be ready to play until February, assuming he can find a team. He played 37 games for the Senators last season, registering no goals and four assists.

Related: Lupul to start season on injured reserve, still aims to play again

No hearing for Taylor Hall after Larsen hit

NEWARK, NJ - DECEMBER 06:  Taylor Hall #9 of the New Jersey Devils hits Philip Larsen #63 of the Vancouver Canucks in the second period on December 6, 2016 at Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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Devils forward Taylor Hall will avoid supplemental discipline for his big hit on Vancouver’s Philip Larsen, an NHL spokesman has confirmed.

Midway through New Jersey’s eventual 3-2 win over the Canucks, Hall caught Larsen behind the Vancouver goal with a massive bodycheck, knocking Larsen unconscious. The Danish blueliner was prone on the ice for several seconds before receiving medical attention, and was eventually stretchered off.

Hall wasn’t penalized on the play.

Larsen spent the night in a New Jersey-area hospital, per Sportsnet, and is flying to Vancouver today to meet with team doctors.

Hall said he didn’t regret throwing the hit, but felt awful about the result. He and Larsen do have a history, having briefly played together in Edmonton.

“I’m looking to make contact there, but I never want to see a guy laying on the ice there like that,” Hall said, per NJ.com. “I only know how to play the game one way, and you’ve got to play it hard. But like I said, I feel terrible.

“When you see him laying on the ice like that, he’s a former teammate of mine, and I just would have loved to make a hit there and continue the play. I hope he’s OK.”

Related: The Devils are hanging around, thanks to a great home record

The Devils are hanging around, thanks to a great home record

NEWARK, NJ - APRIL 9: Cory Schneider #35 of the New Jersey Devils and teammates salute their fans after defeating the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Prudential Center on April 9, 2016 in Newark, New Jersey. The Devils defeated the Maple Leafs 5-1. (Photo by Adam Hunger/Getty Images)
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Last night’s game in Newark was mostly notable for the scary situation involving Vancouver’s Philip Larsen, who had to be stretchered off the ice following a devastating hit by Taylor Hall.

But the players played on, and the Devils eventually defeated the Canucks, 3-2.

The victory improved New Jersey’s record at Prudential Center to 8-0-2. The Devils are the only team in the NHL that has yet to lose in regulation at home. They’ve struggled on the road, going 4-7-4.

A quarter of the way through the season, the jury remains out on New Jersey as a legitimate playoff contender. The Devils have just six regulation wins, with four of their victories coming in overtime and two more in the shootout. Only the Panthers (5), Coyotes (4), and Canucks (4) have won fewer games in regulation.

But keeping games close has served the Devils well. Twelve times they’ve been tied after 60 minutes, guaranteeing them at least a point. Heading into tonight’s action, they sit just one point back of Washington for the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference.

“We’re in a playoff race,” Capitals head coach Barry Trotz told reporters this morning ahead of his team’s game with the Bruins (on NBCSN).

The Devils don’t play again until Thursday in Montreal, where a tough stretch starts for John Hynes’ crew. New Jersey returns home to face St. Louis Friday, then it’s back on the road for games at the Rangers, Blues, Senators, and Rangers again.

Wings activate Howard off IR following six-game absence

MONTREAL, QC - NOVEMBER 12:  Jimmy Howard #35 of the Detroit Red Wings looks on during the NHL game against the Montreal Canadiens at the Bell Centre on November 12, 2016 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.  The Montreal Canadiens defeated the Detroit Red Wings 5-0.  (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)
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The Red Wings have played pretty well lately — 5-1-2 in their last eight — and got some good news on Wednesday, as veteran netminder Jimmy Howard was activated off injured reserve.

Howard has been out since Nov. 25 with a groin injury, suffered early in a game against the Devils. He’s missed the last six games as a result, but will — per NHL.com — take part in Thursday’s practice and presumably be ready to dress in time for Friday’s game against the Blue Jackets.

Howard was playing very well prior to getting hurt, posting a 1.82 GAA and .940 save percentage in 12 appearances, 11 of those being starts.

His return means it’s back to AHL Grand Rapids for Jared Coreau, who was recalled a couple weeks ago and made his NHL debut against the Penguins last Saturday, stopping 32 shots in a 5-3 loss. That game was the only one in the last eight in which Detroit failed to secure at least a point.

A big reason for that run was the play of Petr Mrazek. With Howard out, the Czech ‘tender has performed admirably, especially over his last five games — Mrazek has stopped 147 of 158 shots for a .930 save percentage, posting a record of 3-0-2.