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.

Blue Jackets-Maple Leafs stream: 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers

Blue Jackets-Maple Leafs stream
John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
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NBCSN’s coverage of the NHL’s Return to Play continues with Sunday’s Stanley Cup Qualifier matchup between the Blue Jackets and Maple Leafs. Coverage begins at 8 p.m. ET on NBCSN. Watch the Blue Jackets-Maple Leafs stream at 8 p.m. ET on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

After back-to-back overtime games on Thursday and Friday night, both which saw the winning team overcome a three-goal deficit, the Blue Jackets and Maple Leafs will meet Sunday night in a win or go home scenario. This is the only Qualifying Round series to go to Game 5.

The winner of this game will play the Lightning in the First Round.

A win in this game would give Columbus a postseason series wins in consecutive seasons for the first time in franchise history. Last year, the Blue Jackets won their first-ever playoff series by becoming the first team in NHL history to sweep the Presidents’ Trophy winners (Tampa) in the opening round.

WHAT: Columbus Blue Jackets vs. Toronto Maple Leafs
WHERE: Scotiabank Arena – Toronto
WHEN: Sunday, August 9, 8 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
ON THE CALL: John Forslund, Mike Milbury
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Blue Jackets-Maple Leafs stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

(8) Toronto Maple Leafs vs. (9) Columbus Blue Jackets (Series tied 2-2)

Sunday, Aug. 2: Blue Jackets 2, Maple Leafs 0 (recap)
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Maple Leafs 3, Blue Jackets 0 (recap)
Thursday, Aug. 6: Blue Jackets 4, Maple Leafs 3 (OT) (recap)
Friday, Aug. 7: Maple Leafs 4, Blue Jackets 3 (OT) (recap)
Sunday, Aug. 9: Blue Jackets vs. Maple Leafs, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN (livestream)

West NHL playoff matchups set after Stars finish third, Blues slip to fourth

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With the Stars beating the Blues 2-1 via a shootout, the West NHL matchups are all set for the First Round of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Blues joined the Bruins as teams that finished the regular season at the top of their conferences but sank to the fourth seed thanks to rough round-robin showings, while the Stars rose a spot to third. In case you missed it, the Golden Knights took first by beating the Avalanche, who settled for second in the West.

Meanwhile, three of the four East NHL matchups are set for the First Round of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, as the Lightning await the winner of Game 5 of Blue Jackets – Maple Leafs (on NBCSN at 8 p.m. ET; livestream).

The Blues held a 1-0 lead for much of the round-robin game. Joe Pavelski then tied things up 1-1 in the dying seconds, however, setting the stage for the Stars to snatch the third seed via a shootout. It all felt … fitting.

Jeff Vinnick of Getty Images got an exclusive shot of fans who will miss the round-robin games:

G-get it? (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images)

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

All West NHL matchups set for 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs

1. Vegas Golden Knights vs. 12. Chicago Blackhawks

Robin Lehner against the team he briefly played for this season? Fun/awkward.

2. Colorado Avalanche vs. 11. Arizona Coyotes

Taylor Hall against Nathan MacKinnon and the rising Avs could make for good theater.

3. Dallas Stars vs. 8. Calgary Flames

Calgary could be a threat, although the Flames have been up-and-down.

4. St. Louis Blues vs. 7. Vancouver Canucks

The Canucks boast quite a bit of starpower for a lower seed (although the West presents multiple lower seeds that, while flawed, have some big names).

Three of four Eastern Conference matchups now set for 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs

1. Philadelphia Flyers vs. 12. Montreal Canadiens

(Yes, that still feels weird on a few levels.

2. Tampa Bay Lightning vs. winner of Blue Jackets/Maple Leafs Game 5

Who would you prefer to face if you were the Lightning?

3. Washington Capitals vs. 7. New York Islanders

The Capitals vs. former head coach Barry Trotz? Not bad.

4. Boston Bruins vs. 6. Carolina Hurricanes

Tough draw for the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Bruins, huh? Boston needs to hope that the Hurricanes got a little rusty after quickly sweeping the Rangers.

MORE:
• 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

NHL Return to Play: Final Round-robin standings

nhl round robin standings
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The NHL round-robin schedule has wrapped up and know the final standings. The Flyers and Golden Knights went undefeated through three games and have clinched the top seeds in their respective conferences.

The Bruins may have been a 100-point, Presidents’ Trophy winning team during the regular season, but they went winless and will have to settled with the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference.

Below is a look at the final NHL round-robin standings and the First Round matchups.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Final standings

Philadelphia Flyers (3-0-0, 6 points)
Tampa Bay Lightning (2-1-0, 4 points)
Washington Capitals (1-1-1, 3 points)
Boston Bruins (0-3-0, 0 points)

Sunday, Aug. 2: Flyers 4, Bruins 1 (recap)
Monday, Aug. 3
: Lightning 3, Capitals 2 (SO) (recap)
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Lightning 3, Bruins 2 (recap)
Thursday, Aug. 6: Flyers 3, Capitals 1 (recap)
Saturday, Aug. 8: Flyers 4, Lightning 1 (recap)
Sunday, Aug. 9: Capitals 2, Bruins 1 (recap)

First Round matchups
• Flyers vs. Canadiens
• Capitals vs. Islanders
• Bruins vs. Hurricanes
• Lightning will play the winner of Toronto/Columbus series.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Final standings

Vegas Golden Knights (3-0-0, 6 points)
Colorado Avalanche (2-1-0, 4 points)
Dallas Stars (1-2-0, 2 points)
St. Louis Blues (0-2-1, 1 point)

Sunday, Aug. 2: Avalanche 2, Blues 1 (recap)
Monday, Aug. 3: Golden Knights 4, Stars 3 (recap)
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Avalanche 4, Stars 0
Thursday, Aug. 6: Golden Knights 6, Blues 4 (recap)
Saturday, Aug. 8: Golden Knights 4, Avalanche 3 (OT) (recap)
Sunday, Aug. 9: Stars 2, Blues 1 (SO)

First Round matchups
• Golden Knights vs. Blackhawks
• Avalanche vs. Coyotes
• Stars vs. Flames
• Blues vs. Canucks

MORE:
• 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule


Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Three of four East playoff matchups set after Capitals take third, Bruins land fourth

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After the Capitals beat the Bruins 2-1 to take the East’s third spot, three of that conference’s four playoff matchups are now set. The 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers proved to be unpredictable with the Flyers in first, Lightning in second, Capitals third, and Presidents’ Trophy-winning Bruins fourth.

This concludes the East portion of round-robin games. The West side is complete, too, after the Stars beat the Blues in a shootout. We’ll get a totally complete playoff picture league-wide after Game 5 of Maple Leafs – Blue Jackets.

Game 5: Blue Jackets vs. Maple Leafs, 8 p.m. ET; livestream

T.J. Oshie opened the scoring, while Tom Wilson reminded people of amusing David Pastrnak tweets by nabbing the 2-0 goal that became the game-winner. Once again, the Bruins’ top line didn’t find the net, although David Pastrnak looked spry. It’s also fair to wonder about John Carlson‘s health heading into the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Three of four Eastern Conference matchups now set for 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs

1. Philadelphia Flyers vs. 12. Montreal Canadiens

(Yes, that still feels weird on a few levels.

2. Tampa Bay Lightning vs. winner of Blue Jackets/Maple Leafs Game 5

Who would you prefer to face if you were the Lightning?

3. Washington Capitals vs. 7. New York Islanders

The Capitals vs. former head coach Barry Trotz? Not bad.

4. Boston Bruins vs. 6. Carolina Hurricanes

Tough draw for the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Bruins, huh? Boston needs to hope that the Hurricanes got a little rusty after quickly sweeping the Rangers.

All West NHL matchups set for 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs

1. Vegas Golden Knights vs. 12. Chicago Blackhawks

Robin Lehner against the team he briefly played for this season? Fun/awkward.

2. Colorado Avalanche vs. 11. Arizona Coyotes

Taylor Hall against Nathan MacKinnon and the rising Avs could make for good theater.

3. Dallas Stars vs. 8. Calgary Flames

Calgary could be a threat, although the Flames have been up-and-down.

4. St. Louis Blues vs. 7. Vancouver Canucks

The Canucks boast quite a bit of starpower for a lower seed (although the West presents multiple lower seeds that, while flawed, have some big names).

MORE:
• 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.