No matter how hard Bettman tries, the Panthers and Coyotes won’t escape relocation speculation

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Once again, Gary Bettman was keeping the jackals at bay.

The Florida Panthers, the commissioner said yesterday in Boca Raton, were not going anywhere. Not Quebec City. Not Seattle. They were staying put. In Sunrise.

“Nobody should be focusing on the Panthers as a relocation candidate. Period,” he said, per the Canadian Press. “It’s inconsistent with everything we know and believe, it’s inconsistent with everything (owner) Vinnie Viola would be telling me and inconsistent meaning he has no intention of moving the club. He is committed to South Florida.”

Bettman said the same thing in November.

Of course, he also said yesterday, “If we’re having this conversation in two or three years, it might be a different issue.”

Which is why, no matter what Bettman says, the Panthers will remain a relocation candidate in the eyes of many. With all those empty seats? How could they not be? Heck, the owners themselves broached the possibility of a BB&T Center without a hockey tenant.

Ditto for the Arizona Coyotes, with their out clause looming and their deal with Andrew Barroway reportedly falling apart, even though Bettman denied it was dead.

Perhaps soon people will start talking about the Carolina Hurricanes, given the steep decline in attendance we’ve seen in Raleigh, from an average of 15,483 last season to 11,823 after 13 games in 2014-15. Come to think of it, the ‘Canes were being mentioned as a relocation candidate in the summer.

Maybe all of the above is why the NHL is moving cautiously with expansion — despite all those expressions of interest and the hundreds of millions of dollars that could be pocketed, the league first wants to see how things shake out in its more fragile markets.

Earlier this week, Bettman provided a salary cap target of $73 million for 2015-16, up from $69 million.

It was great news for big-spending teams.

“As it grows, it is good for all of the teams that can afford to grow with it,” Maple Leafs executive Brendan Shanahan told ESPN’s Craig Custance.

And the teams that can’t?

The answer is, it makes things harder. Harder to turn a profit. Which makes it harder to put a competitive team on the ice. Which makes it harder to turn a profit.

A vicious cycle.

Just don’t expect Bettman to change his tune anytime soon.

“I believe that [the South Florida] market will support the Panthers and that they will reform the way they’ve done business over the last few years and I think the community will respond positively,” he said.

We shall see.