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.

NHL On NBCSN: Points starting to come for Sharks’ Erik Karlsson

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Tuesday night’s matchup between the San Jose Sharks and Edmonton Oilers at 10 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Offensively, things are going pretty good for the San Jose Sharks. Their 68 goals through 21 games has them near the top of the NHL.

Of those 68 goals, only six have come from their blue line with Erik Karlsson joining the “goals scored” club on Saturday night against St. Louis. The blast came on his 62nd shot of the season, which, along with his 95 percent PDO, shows that the opportunities have been there — it’s just that the puck hasn’t been going in for him.

“I’ve been feeling good all year, it just hasn’t worked out on the scoresheet,” Karlsson said after Saturday’s victory. “But sometimes that’s the way it is. I don’t think I’m doing anything different now. As a team, we’re progressing, and we’re playing better hockey at times. That includes me, and everyone in here.”

We know the kind of offense the Sharks can provide, especially from a back end that also features Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic. The September acquisition of Karlsson, who scored nine goals and recorded 62 points last season with Ottawa, only bolstered that as well as a power play that can easily break the 20 percent mark (19.7 percent success rate this season).

[How much longer can Oilers go on like this?]

But it hasn’t been an easy plug-and-play for Karlsson and the Sharks through a quarter of the season. Finding himself partnered mainly with Vlasic and Brenden Dillon, Karlsson’s impact on the offense is still a work-in-progress. 

“[H]e’s been playing some real good hockey, and I think he’s been really solid for us lately,” said Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer. “For me, the offense is a bonus. We know it’s going to be there and the numbers are going to be there at the end of the year because they have to be based on what he’s doing, but he’s been real solid all over the ice for us lately.”

DeBoer’s right. Karlsson, per Natural Stat Trick, is currently tied for the NHL lead among defensemen in individual shot attempts (120), top five in possession (59.92 Corsi percentage), top-10 in high-danger chances for (85), and top-10 in Corsi for relative percentage (5.61), which means the shot differential of shots directed at the opposing team’s net per 60 minutes when he’s on the ice. He’s currently on a three-game point streak with a goal and four assists.

So it’s not as if we’re seeing a different Karlsson now that he’s wearing teal instead of red and black. Through 21 games the bounces haven’t been going his way. But considering his body of evidence, sooner or later his impact will be felt in San Jose.

Randy Hahn (play-by-play) and Bret Hedican (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will call Oilers-Sharks from SAP Center in San Jose.

MORE: PHT Power Rankings: NHL’s most impactful offseason additions so far

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

PHT Morning Skate: Crosby closer to return; Heiskanen’s usage

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• The AHL’s Cleveland Monsters and Rochester Americans will be taking part in a unique home-and-home series. The teams will host Nickelodeon nights on Dec. 26 (in Cleveland) and March 22 (in Rochester) and they’ll wear Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Foot Clan jerseys. [Amerks]

• “Mike Yeo had to go. This isn’t a free pass for him. But the core players on the St. Louis Blues have now been passengers on two ships that hit the iceberg.” [Post-Dispatch]

• The slow start by the Pittsburgh Penguins is as ugly as it looks. [Pensburgh]

• While Sidney Crosby is progressing towards a return to the Penguins’ lineup, Matt Cullen is now out “long-term,” according to Mike Sullivan. [Tribune-Review]

• A few days after Willie O’Ree was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, his old team, the San Diego Gulls, honored him with throwback jerseys and a bobblehead. [Color of Hockey]

Mike Hoffman on returning to Ottawa Monday night: “It almost doesn’t feel like a road game. I spent a good chunk of my career here. I have a lot of good memories in this building. These are the fun games I look forward to, coming back to the place where you started.” [Ottawa Citizen]

• Another season of the Edmonton Oilers showcasing just how top heavy they are. [TSN]

• It’s time for Todd McLellan to go in Edmonton. [Edmonton Journal]

• Have you seen the pads Scott Darling will wear when the Carolina Hurricanes don the Hartford Whalers throwbacks? Beauty.

Brian’s Custom Sports

• The Sergei Bobrovsky / Artemi Panarin storyline continues to hover over the Columbus Blue Jackets. Will it turn out to be a distraction? [Sportsnet]

• The Dallas Stars’ usage of rookie defenseman Miro Heiskanen has been interesting and really makes most of his skillset. [Dallas Morning News]

• The Detroit Red Wings will be without Darren Helm for 6-8 weeks after the forward suffered a shoulder injury. [NHL.com]

• It’s time for the Anaheim Ducks to realize exactly what they are. [Anaheim Calling]

• Expand the NHL playoff format? No thanks. [Spector’s Hockey]

• How the NBA can be a blueprint for making hockey fun again. [Courier Post]

• A look at some of the most surprising developments so far of the 2018-19 NHL season. [Yardbarker]

• The soon-to-be 32nd NHL city has a rich history with the sport already. [Seattle Times]

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Blues fire Yeo, name Berube interim head coach

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After falling 2-0 to the Los Angeles Kings, the St. Louis Blues fired Mike Yeo, naming Craig Berube interim head coach late on Monday night.

This continues an astoundingly terrible November for NHL head coaches. Last season, there were no in-season firings across the league. Yeo now stands as the third head coach in November alone, following John Stevens and Joel Quenneville.

[Read more: Coach Q out in Chicago / Kings can Stevens]

Considering that the Kings fired Stevens, you almost wonder if Willie Desjardins exchanged a knowing glance with Berube at some point.

The timing is interesting, even beyond the coaching change happening after the Blues lost to another team that fired its head coach.

Despite landing Ryan O'Reillywho’s been absolutely fantastic in St. Louis – the Blues fell to 7-9-3, suffering their third shutout loss in four games. The Blues currently rest in last place in the Central with 17 standings points; only the lowly Kings rank lower in the West with 15.

Such a start simply wasn’t acceptable for the Blues, particularly after Yeo failed to take them to the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Yeo leaves the Blues as an in-season firing not that long after being an in-season replacement. He took over for Ken Hitchcock during the 2016-17 season, coaching in 32 regular-season games as the Blues rallied to a postseason spot. Yeo was able to exact some revenge against his former team, the Minnesota Wild, as the Blues won the series in six games.

That would end up being the only playoff round Yeo would win as Blues head coach. They fell in six games to the Nashville Predators, and then St. Louis failed to earn a postseason berth in 2017-18. Now, 19 games into 2018-19, the Blues have made another change.

Much like Yeo, Berube traveled a path from NHL head coach (with the Philadelphia Flyers in 2013-14 and 2014-15) to assistant with the Blues, ultimately replacing Yeo now.

Teams certainly don’t aim to replace coaches, but especially while a season is in full swing. With that in mind, longtime Blues GM Doug Armstrong has to be feeling some serious heat after making that decision twice in three seasons.

As wily as Armstrong’s been at times (landing ROR, handily winning the Brayden Schenn trade, deftly timing the Kevin Shattenkirk trade), the Blues have been “good, but not good enough” for far too long.

Yeo wasn’t a disaster in St. Louis. In the end, it felt like the Blues were not necessarily adapting to the winds of change in the NHL.

The Blues need to get up to speed, and fast. If not, it might cost Armstrong and Berube their jobs.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV 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.

The Buzzer: Hat trick Laine returns; Juho who?

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Headlines from a hectic NHL night:

Three Stars

1. Matthew Tkachuk

Let’s consider this a dual top star pick with Johnny Gaudreau (1G, 3A), as both players collected four points as the Flames raced out to a 7-0 lead and an eventual 7-2 win against the Golden Knights.

Giving Tkachuk the slight edge over “Johnny Hockey” because he got an extra goal (2G, 2A) and both of his assists were primary points.

Gaudreau earned the rare distinction of grabbing his four points in one period, matching an Olli Jokinen achievement, but Tkachuk only needed 24 seconds into the second period to hit four points in the contest. Perhaps the Flames’ big guns could have poured it on even more against a Golden Knights team that might have been a little fatigued in closing out a back-to-back? Either way, impressive stuff.

2. Kyle Connor

Patrik Laine got the glory in collecting yet another hat trick as the Jets held off the Canucks on Monday, but Connor could have selfishly bagged his second goal of the night by aiming at an empty net instead of sending the puck to Laine.

Connor generated an extra point for Winnipeg, scoring one goal and three assists.

The sophomore winger was part of the Jets’ barrage of Vancouver, as Connor fired seven of Winnipeg’s 49 shots on goal, a team-high mark for Monday.

3. Juho Lammikko

Raise your hand if you weren’t super-familiar with this Finnish Florida Panthers forward before Monday. (C’mon, put it up.)

The third-rounder from 2014 (65th overall) came into the night with zero goals and six assists in 16 NHL games. Lammikko generated four assists in Florida’s wild win vs. Ottawa. Lammikko gets dinged a bit for being in a losing effort.

In case you’re wondering, here’s how to pronounce his name, via Hockey Reference: YOO-hoh lah-MIH-koh.

Highlights of the Night

  • Check this post for that memorable Carey Price save.
  • One can debate how much of a distraction Mike Hoffman was for a “broken” Senators locker room. Maybe some will grumble that he received a friendly ovation during his return to Ottawa. What you can’t deny is that he scored against his old team, and you might not even be able to argue against the notion that he did so with serious style:

(More on Hoffman in a moment.)

  • Tyler Ennis might need to turn up the difficulty level:

Factoids

Yes, Patrik Laine is earning “Hat Trick Laine” references for good reason.

Another astounding tidbit:

Yes, Monday’s goal was special to Hoffman, but it was also part of an outstanding run:

Hot take: as impressed as you might be by Pekka Rinne tying Miikka Kiprusoff, it probably means way more to Rinne.

Scores

TOR 4, CBJ 2
NYR 2, DAL 1
BUF 5, PIT 4 (OT)
WSH 5, MTL 4 (OT)
FLA 7, OTT 5
LAK 2, STL 0
NSH 3, TBL 2
CGY 7, VGK 2
WIN 6, VAN 3

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV 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.