by Mike Chen on 11/09/09 at 03:00 PM ET
Joe Starkey, columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, recently stated something that we’ve heard off and on over the years: that the NHL needs to contract. Now, I’m guessing Starkey is saying this from a talent perspective instead of looking at economics, because he’s not saying “These troubled markets need to be addressed.” Rather, he states that five teams should go, then states which ones he’d cut off.
The “three to five teams should disappear” argument pops up from time to time, but I think if you realistically consider how the talent would actually be redistributed, it’d make much less of a difference than one might think.
Here are some numbers to consider:
-20 players suit up for each NHL game, 18 skaters and two goalies. Three guys sit in the press box.
-If you lopped off five teams, that’s about 16% of the league. To correlate that, that means that theoretically three or four guys could be redistributed throughout the league—could, not would.
So let’s take Starkey’s notion of killing Florida, Tampa Bay, Atlanta, Phoenix, and either LA or Anaheim (we’ll pick Anaheim since I doubt even in this scenario the NHL would allow the Kings to go). How much would NHL rosters actually change? Would the talent level of the league significantly improve?
Ok, it’s a given that a Steven Stamkos or Ryan Getzlaf going somewhere else would make an immediate impact but would there be enough to change the overall quality of the league?. What about the third or fourth liners of the world? Many of them are interchangeable parts, which means that a handful of them would get jobs in the NHL and the bulk of them would disappear into the AHL or KHL. And let’s not even take the salary cap into consideration here, because that creates impossible projections about what goes up or down.
So then let’s assume that the Holy Grail of some pundits is achieved and the NHL contracts five teams. I think a reasonable assumption is that each of the remaining 25 teams would get either a first or second line player (e.g. Zach Bogosian, Shane Doan) and one guy to fill in on the checking line or third D pair while sharing time in the press box. Would that really make the overall quality of the league better? Of course some teams would immediately get an injection of talent, but I don’t think if you showed clips of pre-dispersal and post-dispersal games to an objective viewer, he’d go “Wow, what a difference.”
The NHL already pulls talent from the best leagues in the world. Of all the hockey players in the world, these guys believe that redistributing about 30 talented guys will make up for “over-expansion” and “diluting of the talent pool”? Please.
Currently, 31 players who played in the NHL last season signed with the KHL prior to the 2009-10 season, and that’s not including guys like Jaromir Jagr or Alex Radulov. While the NHL-to-KHL roster is mostly a mix of lower-echelon top-six players and checkers, it’s still a loss of talent that isn’t dramatically changing the NHL. There’s a definite difference between the KHL’s best 30 guys and the best-of-the-best of who’d be in any group of five contracted rosters, but the drop off to the next level isn’t that dramatic.
Maybe I’m just missing something but I see the NHL talent pool as being more than supportive of 30 teams. A big part of this comes from the number of high-quality European- and American-born draft picks over the past decades. The percentage of non-Canadians in the first round has grown significantly over the years, and that’s not because Canada isn’t putting out top-end talent—it’s because the rest of the world is starting to catch up:
1985: 5/21 (23.8%)
1995: 9/26 (34.6%)
2005: 15/30 (50%)
While this may upset some nationalists, ultimately it provides us with a larger talent pool to support a better NHL. So then the question goes back to the notion of contraction. The only reasonable argument for contraction is because the economics of the league can’t support 30 teams, not because of talent. However, history has shown us time and again that teams can be successful in non-traditional locations if they’ve got strong ownership, they’re managed well, they’re coached well, and they draft well. The problem is that you wind up with a lot of people at the top making wrong decisions, and that trickles all the way down through the team and affects the fan base. (See: Koules, Oren and Barrie, Len)
If Starkey and others like him wanted to advocate for franchise relocation, I think that’s a more reasonable debate. But as the NHL talent pool gets more diverse and as more top-end talent comes out of USA Hockey or European countries, the idea that it’s too diluted to support 30 teams is becoming quickly outdated.
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