Contracting the NHL

Contraction. It’s an issue that Major League Baseball is trying to deal with and has been hit with huge skepticism concerning it. Still, this contraction talk and the finishing of the Olympic hockey tournament made me think: Could the NHL contract nine teams to get it back to a competitive 21 teams?

To do this I’ll examine one-by-one each of the 30 NHL teams and put up my reasons for and against contracting each team.

After each team will be a score, from one to four concerning the likelihood, should the NHL decide to contract (which Gary Bettman said he wouldn’t but many hockey fans could name a few clubs the league could do without), of the team being contracted:

1 – Highly unlikely

2 – Doubtful

3 – An outside chance

4 – Definite

My criteria is: Franchise performance, especially over the last 10-15 years and attendance/fan interest in the club’s hometown.

Anahiem Mighty Ducks (4)

FOR: Simply put, the team has been terrible, save for two years from 1996-98 when they BARELY qualified. The Ducks’ insistence on keeping Paul Karyia has hurt them, as he could land major talent in a trade. His presence only serves to show that the Ducks’ management is inept and as attendance shows, the fans are not having any of it.

AGAINST: For one, it’s Disney’s team meaning an improvement can be made by injecting cash for spending on players. If the Ducks’ management smartens up, the team might improve and the fans may come back.

Atlanta Thrashers (3)

FOR: Another example of how badly diluted the talent system is. Go ahead, try to name five Thrashers EXCEPT Ilja Kovalchuk, Dany Heatly and Ray Ferraro. The NHL has failed there once, there’s no reason to suggest it might fail again.

AGAINST: The team’s only three years old and expansion teams are always bad in their first few years. Two factors work in their favor: 1) Ted Turner owns them, meaning that money can by spent on improvement and 2) their only winter time competitors, the NBA’s Hawks and NFL’s Falcons are bad as well.

Boston Bruins (1)

FOR: One of many teams with a lot of bad luck. The B’s have always iced playoff teams except a few years only to come up short. It has been 32 years since the Bruins last won the Cup and 13 years since they went to the final. This kind of inconsistencies may have a (slight) chance of drawing away fans.

AGAINST: The Bruins have a good fan base and actually look like Stanley Cup contenders this year. Besides, they’re a tradition rich Original Six team a team so engraved in hockey history that cutting them would lose the NHL a lot of fans.

Buffalo Sabres (2)

FOR: The team’s a mess right now and one Buffalo Sabre fan considers Darcy Regier an awful General Manager. For the record, the Sabres have rarely iced quality teams, except for a few years in the early 1990’s. They are a small market to boot.

AGAINST: No matter how bad Buffalo becomes, the fans will always show up. Buffalonians are passionate about their teams, so much so that Buffalo literally stops working if their teams falter.

Calgary Flames (3)

FOR: The team is brutal and has been for the past six years. They are a small market team too, which means that money isn’t as available as in other cities. Still the most discouraging thing is that when the team was off to the it’s best start in franchise history, attendance actually dropped. This from a franchise that needed a season ticket drive to keep them in Calgary.

AGAINST: They’re a Canadian team in a hockey mad country and it would raise a huge uproar if they were contracted. Just look at the outcry over the moves of the Winnipeg Jets and Quebec Nordiques.

Carolina Hurricanes (3)

FOR: They inherited the Whalers, which were never any good save for a few years in the mid-eighties. The team is only an average one and would have to fight for the playoffs if they didn’t play in a lousy division.

AGAINST: They are one of the examples of why there SHOULDN’T be contraction. Had this been written a year ago, they would have scored a four because of the huge fan apathy. But after a rousing playoff series against the Devils, hockey has arrived in the Carolinas. Mind you, the team must now produce, but that’s a different story. Besides, their main pro wintertime competition, the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets are almost for certain to be in New Orleans next year.

Chicago Blackhawks (1)

FOR: They come up short. The team has gone forty-one years without a Cup and before this year, looked so bad that it might as well have been fifty. Management made them terrible, proving (almost) their ineptitude and that may come to the forefront again if they can’t retain Tony Amonte in big market Chicago.

AGAINST: They’re a tradition rich Original Six squad and this year finally look like the Blackhawks of old. Besides, the fan’s care in Chicago and they have a big market.

Colorado Avalanche (1)

FOR: A lot of Canadians are bitter towards them, since they used to be the Quebec Nordiques and the Nords moved just before realizing their team’s Stanley Cup dreams. The NHL has also failed here before.

AGAINST: The quality of their team. They may not respect the Nords’ retired numbers (some Avalanche wear numbers the Nords retired) but they have proven to be a very good bunch with a great farm system, which means they’ll be good for a long time. They also have a good fan base as well.

Columbus Blue Jackets (3)

FOR: Another brutal team, they could be compared to the Montreal Expos of baseball, a team that often grooms youngsters only to trade them as they start to get good, especially if they trade Lyle Odelien. Columbus is a hit-or-miss situation in that the Jackets are Columbus’ only major league team (if you discount NLL and MLS). They could have huge fan support down the road or they could play to empty seats. At least a lot of hockey fans would not mind their disappearance.

AGAINST: The team’s only in it’s second year of existence, so they haven’t had a lot of time to prove themselves. Besides, they have a promising youngster in Rostislav Klesla and could draft themselves into a decent team, a la the Ottawa Senators in a few years’ time.

Dallas Stars (3)

FOR: I’ll get flak for this for sure, but I do have my reasons. The big reason is the team’s poor performance this year. If this keeps up, the fans may start to turn away, especially since the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks are so good right now. They also don’t have a lot of tradition, nor are they Canadian, something that would be a saving grace for any team.

AGAINST: It’s too early to tell if this streak will keep up. Owner Tom Hicks has a huge wallet and can spend the team back into contention. They also have a lot of quality players.

Detroit Red Wings (1)

FOR: Their age. The Wings’ philosophy seems to acquire some nearly washed up superstar for some draft picks. If this trend backfires, the team will be left without a farm system, meaning, if it happens, it could be a very long time before they contend again.

AGAINST: Have you even looked at the standings? All this talk of the surprising Bruins, Islanders, etc. is moot in my eyes since the Red Wings are doing so well. Even if they weren’t, they have a long history to fall back on. Besides, they’re “Hockeytown”. Why would we want to take that away?

Edmonton Oilers (2)

FOR: Their market size. Although the right owner/manager could find a way to acquire a great player, they’re handicapped compared to other teams. Also, the team has yet to recapture its form that saw them take five Stanley Cups in seven seasons.

AGAINST: They’re Canadian and the fans there love them. The team looked like it was becoming an elite team before a tailspin down the standings occured. Still, the team is too good to just simply fade away and discard.

Florida Panthers (3)

FOR: The team has never been any good throughout its history, not even the team that got to the Cup final in 1996 (they had according to the Death of Hockey “smallish checkers who couldn’t score to save their lives,” and only got that far because they had a great goaltender). The Sun Belt has also proven to be a hockey wasteland, with many centres having tons of apathy towards the teams.

AGAINST: Contrary to popular belief, the Panthers DO have fans. The team, may I remind you brought us the “Rat trick” and has spawned the creation of HTR contributor pantherboy. I think they have a small core of fans, much like the Whalers did in Hartford, which may be able to keep them afloat.

Los Angeles Kings (2)

FOR: The team has had a mediocre history and they, along with the St. Louis Blues are the oldest teams that have yet to win a Stanley Cup. You can never be too sure about a Sun Belt team anyway. Besides, they have the NBA’s Lakers (and increasingly the Clippers) to deal with during the winter.

AGAINST: The team has weathered its leanest years which lasted all the way up to the late eighties without moving so there’s no reason that they can’t do it again if they have to (and all indications are that this year they won’t). Besides, if a team needs to be eliminated from California, the longevity of the Kings’ franchise would protect them.

Minnesota Wild (2)

FOR: The reason here may be because of hockey fans outside of Minnesota and not because of the team itself. Many do not like their nickname and their uniforms make the NHL look like a kiddie league. They also have to contend with the NBA’s Timberwolves who have become a force in the NBA, while the Wild are mired in last place.

AGAINST: The T-Wolves started poorly too, much more so than the Wild. The Wild look like the Ottawa Senators of the future, a team that starts slow but builds a quality team through the draft. And although the NHL has failed here too, many raised a furor about it.

Montreal Canadiens (1)

FOR: The team hasn’t qualified for the playoffs in three years and haven’t looked like Les Glourieux in ten. They also have a bad string of luck and play in a grotesquely big arena.

AGAINST: Contracting them would be like contracting the New York Yankees of baseball or the Dallas Cowboys of the NFL. The Habs have so much tradition and history and they represent all of Quebec whenever they play.

Nashville Predators (2)

FOR: The fans do not seem to care. Some hockey fans are also offended by their presence and their nasty crest. The team has also fared very poorly recently.

AGAINST: People tend to forget two things: One they’re an expansion squad and two they had a great expansion year. There is still time to pick things up by 2004 and there is no reason that they can’t rediscover their first year form.

New Jersey Devils (2)

FOR: The team’s struggling right now and have had a mediocre past. Their GM takes a small market approach which may hurt the Devils in the end. Also, when the Devils won their first Cup in 1996, they drove it around a parking lot as opposed to having a parade. While the Panthers have a small core of fans, they don’t have the New York Rangers or Islanders to deal with.

AGAINST: The team has some good players and were begining to turn things around just before the Olympics. Besides, when hockey fans talk of the team they would like to get rid of, the Devils are often a team that isn’t mentioned.

New York Islanders (3)

FOR: So they’ve rebounded… let’s not forget about what a sad sack organization this was for the past eight years and still would be had it not been for a new ownership. They have some bad players which could be a problem if any of their key players get hurt and they are almost always looked at as second fiddle to the Rangers.

AGAINST: The team’s performance this year. The fans have come back and the team might go far in the playoffs. Also, despite their short history, their four straight Stanley Cups might forever etch them as being part of hockey’s traditional teams.

New York Rangers (1)

FOR: The Blueshirts haven’t qualified for the playoffs in five years and they might make a sixth if they don’t wake up. The Rangers have a recent history of signing some top flight players and yet playing like bottom feeders.

AGAINST: 1) They’re part of the Original Six and 2) They’re in New York, a city that has proven for the past 76 years that it IS a hockey city. The Rangers will always have money to spend, even if it isn’t useful.

Ottawa Senators (1)

FOR: Their playoff ineptitude. The fact that quality Ottawa teams continue to get beat in the first round of the playoffs is nauseating, especially to Ottawa fans. The fan base may deteriorate if it doesn’t improve.

AGAINST: They have a good management, since their rise to glory through the draft has proven to be a model for many other teams to follow. They also have a lot of fans and they’re Canadian.

Philadelphia Flyers (1)

FOR: The team hasn’t won a Stanley Cup in 27 years meaning fewer and fewer people remember the Broad Street Bullies that took the Cup. Also, the Flyers rough house mentality has drwn the ire of hockey people who chime for teams that play finesse hockey as opposed to beating people up.

AGAINST: Despite the questionable tactics, the Flyers are a very good and deep franchise. They have a huge fan base in Philadelphia that has proven to be just as ruthless as the team. Want proof of the amount of fans they have? There are lots of Flyers fans here at HTR.

Phoenix Coyotes (4)

FOR: The Desert Dogs certainly play some good hockey, it’s just that no one seems to really care. Attendance is down in Phoenix, lending people to hope that they get moved back to Winnipeg (they used to be the Jets) where the move of the Jets to Phoenix prompted bigger rallies than Coyote home games.

AGAINST: There isn’t much of a case to keeping them. The team used to have fans and with a bit of luck they can rekindle their fire. Also, Wayne Gretzky owns the team and he would not want his team to get contracted.

Pittsburgh Penguins (3)

FOR: Another mediocre team that is also struggling this year. The Pens are beginning to resemble the Expos in their dealing of Jaromir Jagr and soon to be traded Darius Kasparitus. They were bankrupt a few years ago and by the looks of it, don’t seem to have escaped it all that well.

AGAINST: The team that Mario (Lemieux) built will almost never be forgotten. Mario saved the team from bankruptcy and might soon inject more life into the Pens. They have some talent, so a turnaround could be in the offing. They also have a good fan base.

St. Louis Blues (1)

FOR: Another team that has a habit of coming up short. They also are the oldest team that has never won a Cup. The string of playoff exits (Turek played badly even though St. Louis made the Conference finals) the past two years with quality teams needs to be stopped.

AGAINST: The franchise as a whole is a great one and this year’s team doesn’t seem to be an exception to that rule. The owners have proven that they have money, so market is not an issue. Besides, they also have a strong fan base.

San Jose Sharks (1)

FOR: They are a team that has yet to prove themselves. The Sharks still don’t have any respect in the league. To further compound matters, they play in the Sun Belt, which is a hockey wasteland.

AGAINST: The team is very good right now and their management seems committed to keeping that up (although trading Selanne is not a step in the right direction). Also, the Sharks will always have fans, since they managed to sell out in their early days when they couldn’t beat a junior team.

Tampa Bay Lightning (4)

FOR: The Lightning have never been any good in their existence and have shown that management can’t build them into a contender. It is safe to say that they rank a distant second to Florida in terms of fans as they rarely sell out. Many hockey people want them gone.

AGAINST: Like Phoenix, not much here. The Lightning do have one thing over the Coyotes in that they don’t have a major wintertime competitor, save for possibly the NBA’s Orlando Magic. Thus if the team can get better – considering also the quality of baseball’s Devil Rays (NOT the NFL’s Buccaneers) – the fans just may come back.

Toronto Maple Leafs(1)

FOR: For a time in the eighties they were brutal. They also have a very long Stanley Cup drought, something you can’t ignore hearing about from the Toronto media. They also have the NBA’s Raptors to contend with.

AGAINST: The Maple Leafs owner also owns the Raptors, so even if the Raps become more successful, the Leafs win out in the end. They’re also pretty good right now and they have a huge fan base that allowed them to weather the brutal eighties. Don’t forget that the Leafs are Canadian and an Original Six squad, too.

Vancouver Canucks (2)

FOR: This year, the last and a few years in the early nineties, aside, the Canucks have been a rotten franchise. They angered hockey people with their new (ugly) uniforms and fans stayed away in droves. They are also a small market team.

AGAINST: They’re Canadian. Also, their owner will put in money into the club if it begins to play well, which it has. They have some electrifying players right now and some rabid fans.

Washington Capitals (2)

FOR: The Capitals have a habit of coming up short. The team looked so strong in the 1980’s and didn’t get close to the Cup. They used to be pretty awful too. The most discouraging thing is that when the Capitals went to the Finals in 1998, 24 years after their inception, the Washington newspapers “ran an article introducing Washingtonians to hockey” (The Death of Hockey).

AGAINST: They are still a solid team right now, even if they aren’t playing like it. They have some good players and are not as hopeless as some other teams. Also, even though I haven’t ran into one, it would not surprise me if they have a lot of fans.