To 32 and beyond: Seattle may not be end of NHL expansion

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The NHL will soon have 32 teams if Seattle is approved as expected next week. An even balance between conferences. A cross-border rival for the Vancouver Canucks in the Pacific Northwest.

Surely the league is done growing for a while?

Maybe not. Two and a half years after voting to add a team in Las Vegas in what has been a rousing success, the NHL has plenty of options when it comes to what’s next. No North American professional sports league has stretched past the number of 32, but no one is ruling it out for the NHL to get there on this continent or beyond.

”The leagues adapt, they look around and they make judgments: Are there markets we would like to go into? Can they support the teams at the revenue levels that we need? If we expand too much too fast, do we dilute the talent such that the product suffers? And those are all judgment calls in the end,” NHL Players’ Association executive director Don Fehr said. ”Some leagues and owners are more cautious than others. But sooner or later I would like to believe that in the kind of economy we have, all potential avenues will be explored.”

Considering the success of the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, Seattle has seemed a no-brainer from the beginning and no one expects anything but approval from the Board of Governors on Tuesday. Seattle would begin play in either 2020 or 2021.

”Hockey needs to be and wants to be in those really fast-paced cities that are growing and setting the mark,” Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said. ”Because if we do well here, it’ll raise all the boats for all the teams.”

Vegas already raised the bar for Seattle, which will pay an expansion fee of $650 million – a 30 percent increase over the $500 million that cleared the way for Vegas to begin play last season and far beyond the $45 million the San Jose Sharks paid to enter the league in 1991 to begin a new era of expansion.

As soon as the NHL went to 31, getting to 32 was inevitable. As balanced as it might seem, it’s not the end.

”Not sure there is any magic about 32,” deputy NHL Commissioner Bill Daly said. ”Expansion is appropriate when a convincing case can be made that it will be beneficial and add value to the league as a whole.”

While Daly was reluctant to address what might be next with the Seattle vote pending, Houston, Quebec City and Toronto have all been touted as possible new homes for an NHL team. Communications company Quebecor applied for an expansion team for Quebec City at the same time as Las Vegas. Billionaire businessman and new Houston Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta has already met with Commissioner Gary Bettman.

”Houston’s a big city,” Fehr said. ”It’s got a long history with professional sports in North America. You would like to think that sooner or later the NHL will have a team there. When and under what circumstances I’m not going to try and predict.”

Andrew Zimbalist, a Smith College economic professor who has written extensively on sports and business, said professional leagues operate much differently from other entities when demand increases. Instead of making more of a product, like a sneaker or beer company might, leagues and teams raise ticket prices or seek new arenas.

Expansion, of course, is another way to feed the beast and Zimbalist said a league could get to 40 teams if it is popular enough and the revenue is spread around correctly.

Any dream of a 40-team NHL would almost certainly involve European expansion, which Bettman said no one has come up with a viable plan for yet. Amid speculation about basing a single NFL team in London, the NHL would likely need to put a full division in Europe to make any sense. And even that has its obstacles, with New Jersey Devils captain Andy Greene pointing to the drastic time changes and coach John Hynes unsure about the long-distance travel as part of an 82-game season.

”When you look at the NHL schedule without going to Europe, it’s a monster,” said Hynes, whose team ended training camp in Switzerland, played an exhibition game there and opened the season in Sweden. ”Then you add in European travel and time changes and NHLPA days off for recovery time and it takes its toll.”

For now, the NHL will continue to play games in Europe, explore China and increase its regular season to 1,312 games – once Seattle joins the fray.

Ducks’ Urho Vaakanainen crashes into boards, leaves on stretcher

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ANAHEIM, Calif. — Ducks defenseman Urho Vaakanainen was taken off the Honda Center ice on a stretcher after he crashed into the end boards in the first period of Anaheim’s preseason game against the San Jose Sharks.

The Finnish defenseman was conscious and alert with full movement in his extremities at UCI Medical Center, the Ducks said.

The frightening incident occurred midway through the opening period when Vaakanainen smashed into the boards at a dangerous speed behind the Sharks’ net. Vaakanainen appeared to be concentrating on the pass he had just made to Derek Grant, who scored the Ducks’ opening goal on the assist.

Vaakanainen’s teammates came onto the ice and gathered around him as he was taken away on the stretcher.

The Ducks acquired the 23-year-old Vaakanainen from Boston last March in the deal that sent longtime Ducks defenseman Hampus Lindholm to the Bruins. After recording two assists in 14 games for the Ducks last season, Vaakanainen is attempting to win a top-six role on Anaheim’s defense this fall.

Lightning donate $2 million to Hurricane Ian relief efforts

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TAMPA, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Lightning and team owner Jeff Vinik are donating $2 million toward Hurricane Ian relief efforts.

The NHL team announced that $1 million each will be donated by the Tampa Bay Lightning Foundation and the Vinik Family Foundation.

“This is a tragic situation for many families and communities across the state of Florida, but especially so in the southwest region of the state,” Vinik said in a statement released by the team. “In times like these the most important thing we can do is support one another, and we hope this donation will help families recover and rebuild in the months to come.”

Ian made landfall Wednesday on Florida’s Gulf Coast, south of the Tampa Bay area. The Lightning postponed two home preseason games and moved the club’s training camp to Nashville, Tennessee, during the storm.

Maple Leafs sign defenseman Rasmus Sandin to 2-year deal

Rasmus Sandin
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TORONTO — Rasmus Sandin has signed a two-year, $2.8 million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the club announced on Thursday.

The 22-year-old from Sweden was the 29th overall selection in the 2018 draft. Sandin had 16 points in 51 games with Toronto last season. He’s played in 88 career regular-season games, with six goals and 22 assists, and has one goal in five playoff games.

“Got a great set of tools,” fellow defenseman Jake Muzzin said. “With experience, I think they’re only going to get better.”

The signing comes as the Leafs’ blueliners been hit hard by injuries. Muzzin has been dealing with a back issue, and Timothy Liljegren recently had surgery for a hernia.

Toronto then lost Jamie Benn (groin) and Carl Dahlstrom (shoulder) in Wednesday’s 3-0 preseason victory over the Montreal Canadiens, pressing forwards Calle Jarnkrok and Alexander Kerfoot into defensive roles for two periods.

Back with Wild, Fleury welcomes big workload as clear No. 1

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ST. PAUL, Minn. — With his ever-present smile, tireless approach and long list of accomplishments in the net, Marc-Andre Fleury has always embraced a heavy workload.

The Minnesota Wild sure haven’t shied away from leaning hard on their new – and 37-year-old – goalie. After arriving in a deadline-day trade in March and re-signing with the Wild in July, the guy everyone calls “Flower” is still fully abloom as he begins his 19th season in the NHL.

“They say, `You play,’ I play, unless maybe I’m hurt or something,” Fleury said. “But other than that, I like playing.”

Wild general manager Bill Guerin initially planned to bring back both Fleury and Cam Talbot, who made the All-Star team and went 13-0-3 in his last 16 regular season starts before being benched in favor of Fleury for the first-round playoff series against St. Louis. The Wild lost in six games, after Talbot got the cold start in the elimination game and gave up four goals on 26 shots.

Guerin changed his mind, though, after signing Fleury to a two-year, $7 million contract. Realizing Talbot’s frustration from the lack of postseason action, he didn’t want to risk any tension or discontent. Talbot was traded to Ottawa for Filip Gustavsson, who will be the No. 2 goalie while top prospect Jesper Wallstedt gets more development in the AHL.

Gustavsson has only 23 career regular-season starts, nearly 200 fewer than Talbot, so it’s a good bet that Fleury will get the majority of the games.

“I was ready to share the load with him, but things didn’t work out and happy to be having the chance to play maybe a bit more. It’s fun to play. It’s more fun than sitting on the bench,” said Fleury, who went 28-23-5 in 56 combined starts for Chicago and Minnesota last season with a 2.90 goals against average and a .908 save percentage.

The Wild reconvened for training camp last week, beginning their quest to recapture the mojo they enjoyed last season while setting franchise records for points (113), wins (53) and goals (305). The only team that finished ahead of them in the Western Conference was Colorado, which went on to win the Stanley Cup, but they never met the Avs in the playoffs because the Blues got to them first.

There’s a strong chemistry in place, at least, to build upon.

“We still have a lot of guys here who were here last year. We’re just trying to make it even better, just trying to listen to everybody,” center Joel Eriksson Ek said. “We want to set a standard and a way for how hard this team’s going to work.”

The Wild start the regular season by hosting the New York Rangers on Oct. 13.

COMINGS AND GOINGS

The most significant roster move of the summer amongst the skaters was the inevitable salary-cap-driven trade of second-leading scorer Kevin Fiala to Los Angeles. Fiala had a career-high 33 goals and 52 assists last season. Guerin otherwise dabbled mostly in two-way contracts in free agency for depth. Former Anaheim center Sam Steel signed with Minnesota last month, one day after defenseman Dimitry Kulikov was dealt to the Ducks.

MORE POWER

The Wild were done in during the playoffs by abysmal special teams. They went just 4 for 24 on the power play against the Blues, and head coach Dean Evason had the team working on that on the first day on the ice. The penalty kill that lagged last season was a focus of the second practice.

“It has to get better, no question,” Evason said.

BLUE LINE SHUFFLE

Captain Jared Spurgeon has been placed with Jonas Brodin on the first pair on defense, and Jake Middleton has joined Matt Dumba on the second unit. Dumba and Brodin are close friends who’ve been paired together for several seasons.

“Dumbs is a shooter too,” said Middleton, who re-signed for three years and $7.35 million. “It’s pretty exciting. I can get some cookies passing him the puck. That’d be a big plus. I think it’ll work well. He loves hitting guys too. He plays a gritty game as well so I think we’ll be a good combo.”

UP FRONT

With Jordan Greenway recovering from offseason surgeries, Tyson Jost will get the first chance to skate with Eriksson Ek and Marcus Foligno. The departure of Fiala has opened at least one spot for a rookie to make the team, with 2020 first-round draft pick Marco Rossi in line for it.

ON THE SLATE

This is the first time in eight years the Wild will play their regular-season opener at home. After three more games at Xcel Energy Center, they don’t hit the road until a five-game trip that starts Oct. 22 at Boston. The Wild have a season-long nine-game homestand from Feb. 9-21.