Expansion Blues

Oh, goody.

It’s pretty depressing to write about hockey during a lockout. It’s even more depressing to read about it. Day after day goes by and there’s nothing but shrill posturing or stoney silence, and every meeting they walk into with hope they seem to walk out of with hate. So it’s not surprising that the hockey media is desperately fishing around for happy-sounding stories. Lockout reporting is composed of one part financial data, one part despair, and one part pictures of kittens and babies.

And, now, one part dreams of expansion. Earlier this week, Jason Kay reported that there was ‘strong speculation’ that the NHL would, once the labor dispute was resolved, announce two new expansion franchises: one in Markham (just north of Toronto, for you unenlightened heathens) and another in Quebec City.

It seems probable. As our most perceptive colleague Cam Charron pointed out earlier today, the NHL loves expansion fees. As I intend to point out later, an arena in Markham gives somebody a hell of a lot of leverage against the League, so much that it would be problematic for Bettman to leave its owners out in the cold. Both teams are likely to be very popular, both markets are likely to be very profitable. I don’t know for certain that expansion will happen, but there are plenty of reasons why it would.

As probable as it is, though, it’s also unfortunate, because while expansion might be a great thing for NHL owners, it’s not a good thing for NHL hockey.

Don’t misunderstand: I love the idea of NHL franchises in Markham and Quebec City. Toronto deserves more NHL hockey. Quebec deserves more NHL hockey. These are places with deep historical and cultural links to the game, and moreover they have the economic and social capital to support it in the style to which it is accustomed. They absolutely deserve teams. Hell, if it were up to me, I would give them teams right now, lockout or no. Oh, you say, Markham’s arena isn’t ready yet? I don’t care, they can have a team right now anyway and play out of Jeff Marek’s barn. That is how ready I am to give the GTA another team.

But I wouldn’t give it, or Quebec City, an expansion team. I’d give them teams that already exist and are wasting away in some undersupported, ungrowing market. Which teams, specifically, would I move? That’s another post for another time, but for now just pretend they’re not yours. For the duration of this essay, pull the veil of ignorance across your mind and pretend you do not know what team you are a fan of. In fact, go further: pretend you are a fan of no team in particular but simply of watching hockey games.

The argument in favor of expansion rests on the assumption that it is a virtuous and desirable thing to “bring NHL hockey” to more cities and, therefore, more hypothetical fans. It sounds like a very generous impulse, as if the League had no thought but to magnanimously sprinkle its infinite wealth of hockey across the whole world. We’re not trying to make money, kittens, no no no. We’re trying to grow the game. No, scratch that… share the game.

But what is the value of “NHL hockey”? What is the meaning of the NHL, other than a shield and Gary Bettman’s smilin’ face? Ostensibly, the entire point of the League is elite play. That’s why it has the big TV deals, that’s why it has the Stanley Cup: because of it’s claim to put on a version of the game so sophisticated and rarefied that it cannot possibly be replicated under any other brand. If “NHL hockey” doesn’t mean “consistently, recognizably awesome hockey”, then it means nothing at all.

This elite hockey is a real thing. I’ve argued in this space before for the value of other levels of hockey, and I do believe in it, but there is no doubt that there are certain kinds of magic with stick and puck that only an infinitesimal fraction of the population can perform, and whatever league claims the most of those people is going to have a particular appeal that no other can match.

However, the supply of these special players- the ones who can do the kind of things that separate NHL hockey from AHL- is both finite and miniscule. In fact, I’d argue there aren’t enough such players to supply the 30 teams we currently have, much less the 32 proposed or the 40 some say Bettman dreams of. NHL hockey is already riven through with AHL hockey as it is. Far from increasing scoring or spreading skill around, two more teams would only widen those rifts.

To see how much AHL hockey is in your NHL hockey, consider line-matching. It is a well-known fact that some coaches prefer best-on-best match-ups, while others try to match a checking line against the their opponent’s top threesome. What is less discussed, though, is how many coaches favor worst-on-worst matchups. With a few exceptions- the Canucks with their zonestart orientation, the Oilers with their precious sheltered children- most NHL coaches prefer to put their fourth line out against other fourth lines.

Go to Behind the Net and scroll down to the very bottom of the ice time lists, and look, if you will, at the quality of competition. Look all the way across the stats- look at Corsi, look at shooting percentage. There is a whole raft of players in the NHL, across a swath of teams, who play less than ten minutes a night against easy competition and still do pretty much nothing with that time. Good guys they might be, tough guys, energy guys (some are goons, but not nearly all), but if the standard for NHL hockey players is being able to play capably against elite competition, these men are not NHL players. These are not the heirs of the tough guys of the 70s and 80s, who skated wing with the scorers. They’re a different breed, one who can only hope to keep up with each other.

These players, by which I mean every fourth liner who takes a few soft minutes against easy competition, who shoots well below League average year after year, who gets benched whenever the hockey becomes important, whose team does far, far better when he’s on the bench than when he’s off it… they dilute the quality of the game. I’m sorry to say it, it sounds cruel, but occasional fight aside the minutes they play are dead time, a dull exchange of dump-ins or rote defense, blandly focused on the lofty goal of going forty seconds without getting burned. If NHL hockey is about watching the best players in the world play with the utmost intensity, it is just not NHL hockey.

That coaches, so endlessly, ruthlessly, deviously focussed on pressing their own advantage, mutually consent to play worst-on-worst hockey is itself perfect evidence of talent dilution. By the sheer size of the League, by the sheer size of rosters, they are compelled to carry players they have no particular use for. It is not as if, were there fewer teams or fewer players per team, the bottom rungs of the roster would always receive such treatment. If you contracted the League by four teams and a hundred players, the then-worst players would be current third liners, and think for a moment about how much more defensive ability and scoring potential your third line has over your fourth. The worst players in the NHL, then, would be the sort of players NHL coaches could make good and frequent use of, the kind of players who could, in a pinch, be trusted to slow down Sidney Crosby, or even skate next to him.

The fifty new players who would come into the NHL to make Markham and Quebec possible would be almost entirely fourth-line quality players, of ability similar to those already occupying the roles or perhaps a little less. In the last rounds of expansion, dilution was ameliorated by the influx of high-level European players, but nowadays the best European players already come to the NHL. There is no great reserve of untapped hockey talent left in the world. Moreover, now there is the KHL, and with the NHL trying to do all it can to increase contract restrictions and decrease salaries, it is a very attractive alternative for a mid-range player from the region with no particular desire to leave his home continent. What high-end Russian player is going to be seduced to North America for the promise of a top-six role in Markham or Quebec who could not be seduced by the offer of such on any one of the many existing teams with gaps in their top lines? I do not see where you would get 50 new warm bodies for the NHL, except out of the AHL.

Surely, then, more low-level players would increase scoring? Give Stamkos and Malkin some more delicious dead meat to feast upon? I doubt it. As I said before, we already know that most coaches prefer to keep their worst players well out of the line of fire of the top guns, which means expansion or no the elites will mostly continue to play against either other elites or dedicated defensive specialists. If anything, two new franchises needing to be filled seems likely to decrease scoring. It means two more bidders on UFA day, two more hungry mouths needing to be filled up with first round draft picks. In conjunction with the salary cap, it further alienates great players from each other, making it that much harder for any one team to amass two whole lines of good scoring talent. It encourages coaches, finding themselves with more minutes to be filled up with worse players, to rely further on conservative, defensive systems like the New York slot-clog and the Tampa 1-3-1.

Expansion means more minutes of AHL hockey in the middle of NHL games. I, personally, like AHL hockey fine, but I also like it where it is- i.e. not in the NHL. Someone told me once that good AHL hockey is like heavy metal, but good NHL hockey is like a symphony, and it seems like an apt analogy. I would prefer to see AHL players playing at a level where their style and abilities are useful, part of the working strategy of the game. Having them filling dead minutes in the NHL, spending their entire careers just trying not to fuck up shift after shift and night after night is a waste of their abilities as much as of our time (although obviously they’d prefer to have the NHL salary, talent or no; sadly, we do not all of us get NHL careers).

***

A week ago or so, as a lockout diversion, James Mirtle of the Globe and Mail had a fantasy draft with some of his colleagues. It was a fantasy draft like any other, dudes going around and around a list picking names, just an imaginal recreation of the NHL. Except, unlike the real NHL, rather than 30 teams, Mirtle capped the League at 12. Yeah, I know, it sounds pretty boring, but as the hypothetical GMs tweeted out their hypothetical picks, I realized, fuck man, I wish I could actually see these games. These teams were all top-six forwards, all top-four defensemen, all players who could easily bring you to your feet and earn their place on the highlight reels. This is the hockey I want to see.

That’s the insidious thing about talent dilution: it erodes your expectations by inches, so slowly that you don’t even realize what you’ve lost until something- a lockout, the Olympics- dares you to imagine what could be.

Imagine yourself behind that veil of ignorance. Imagine it may or may not be your team we are considering contracting or relocating. What kind of hockey do you want to see? What does it mean to you, to have “NHL hockey” in your city? Is it enough if the shield is slapped on any old thing, providing the arena is luxe and the concessions flow freely? Is it better to have occasional, tangential access to a live version of a lesser game than to have television-mediated access to a far better product? There is NHL hockey in my city, but most of the games I consume are beamed through space from an arena three hundred miles yonder, and in truth it would cost me very little more to go all that way to see a game than it would to go to one right here. I would get far more pleasure out of being able to see a higher level on the TV than I do from a lesser level that has geographic proximity to me. I know what I would choose.

But if you wouldn’t, if you’re in one of those fortunate places where tickets are cheap and plentiful and you can’t imagine life without going to NHL games multiple times a week, if you believe that NHL hockey should be brought to more people even if the product is barely worthy of the name, then riddle me this: where does it end? If two more teams is good, would not four more teams be better? If we want to keep the NHL in Phoenix and Nashville and Sunrise and Columbus, and have it also in Markham and Quebec, why not Hamilton and Seattle and Kansas City? Why not Tulsa? Hell, think big my friends,why not Honolulu? Why not just absorb the AHL in its entirety and have NHL hockey everywhere? If talent dilution is not a problem at 30 teams, and not at 32 teams, then when does it become one?