30 Thoughts: Why the sudden delay in expansion talk?

Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman provides an update on the latest expansion developments between the NHL, Quebec and Las Vegas.

Prime Time Sports’ Bob McCown joked Tuesday that my trip to New York was a waste because NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman gave very little information about possible expansion.

My response: no day in New York City is a waste.

I’ll feel the same way if the NHL decides on expansion to Las Vegas and Quebec City. Seriously, who’s going to complain about road trips to those two cities?

But a few things haven’t stopped nagging at me since the commissioner’s afternoon media conference. If you go back to the June announcement explaining the process, Bettman and Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly confidently revealed a defined plan.

Now, we’re in a kind of limbo. No one — aside from Bettman, Daly and a few confidants — really understands where it stands and, more importantly, when (or how) it ends.

The obvious answer is: look, there’s at least $500 million to be made here, so don’t kid yourself. Money talks. But Tuesday’s announcement did create some doubt. In three months, we’ve gone from “Step Right Up!” to “Hold Your Horses.”

Despite that, there are some who privately believe Las Vegas is a slam dunk. I won’t go that far, because anything can happen, so put me into the “I believe it’s going to happen” category. It’s in the west, which is shy two teams right now. It’s bold, it will create major buzz, it’s got an owner who wants to get going already and it’s the anchor tenant in an arena owned by people who know how to stage events. If the NHL doesn’t do it, the NBA eventually will.

No matter the concerns about how many hockey fans are there and who will actually attend the games, I’ll be shocked if they don’t say, “We’re going to try it.”

As a Canadian, I want Quebec City. As hockey markets go, there absolutely 100 per cent should be a team there. They love the sport, live it, breathe it. Centre Videotron was a huge success in hosting the exhibition game this week. A couple friends made the trip, providing such glowing reviews I wondered if they were paid off.

One of the French reporters asked about the 18,000-plus attendance for Montreal/Pittsburgh, only to have Bettman basically say, “There’s a lot more to it than that.”

In retrospect, the one moment that really stands out to me was when the Quebec delegation met with the media following its presentation at NHL headquarters. Quebecor CEO Pierre Dion and Vice-Chairman Brian Mulroney were well-prepared for us.

They smiled through every answer, hitting all the right notes. Only once did it veer slightly off script. Sometimes, it’s not what is said. It’s the facial expressions — the difference in cadence. When asked about the Canadian dollar (in English), it’s the one time Mulroney didn’t smile, didn’t deliver an ebullient response.

It was tight.

“Even with the exchange rate, we can handle the team,” he said.

Maybe.

But, as someone who wants Quebec back in the league, I want that team to be successful. On June 1, 2011, the Winnipeg Jets bought the Atlanta Thrashers for $170M. That day, the Canadian dollar was slightly more valuable than the American version, at $1.029. Now, it’s at $0.752.

Remember all of the hand-wringing about going back to Winnipeg? (Was there enough corporate support, etc. etc.?) Well, Quebec City is looking at an expansion fee of almost $670M (CAD) — almost four times what the Manitoba capital had to pay.

I have no doubt Quebecor has a plan and outlined it to the executive committee. But it’s hard not to look at this and say, ‘Wouldn’t it be much better for Nordiques II to wait?’ It’s a hard thing to hear, because the company wants to be part of the NHL. Fans are clamouring for it, and if you say, “hang on,” you risk losing the opportunity to be part of an exclusive club.

But there’s also the possibility the dollar rebounds — or one of the NHL’s current problem children needs a move (which would, in theory, cost less).

I can’t help but look at this sudden delay and wonder if this is a very big part of it — from the NHL’s point of view.

30 THOUGHTS:

1. There’s another conspiracy theory making the rounds: the NHL is waiting for someone in the Seattle area to get their act together and get in the game. There’s no doubt the league hoped for at least one bidder from the region to be a part of this. If I was in the commissioner’s chair, I’d be wary that everyone folded rather than be part of the game.

2. Best feature about Centre Videotron, from a consumer perspective: Apparently, there is a large concourse/waiting area so people don’t have to stand outside and freeze while trying to get into the building. (Sources say it gets a little frosty there in January.)

3. One executive had an interesting suggestion for the potential expansion teams: give them a pick at the end of each round of the 2016 draft to stock their prospect pools. “If they’re picking 31st and 32nd overall, you’re not worried about them taking someone who could play next season,” he said. (Any expansion team would begin no sooner than 2017-18.) I ran this up the flagpole to see if there’s any possibility it could happen, and was met with a resounding no. “Does that guy want to be the Las Vegas GM?” someone responded.

4. Question being asked by agents and team execs: is a player with a no-move clause exempt from an expansion draft? What about a partial no-trade? This one’s going to be interesting.

5. It was lost in the expansion conversation, but Bettman said revenue estimates were to see a number above $4 billion in 2015-16. Last year’s total was around $3.8B.

6. After last year’s All-Star Weekend, the NHL held internal discussions about changing the format for the game itself. (Note to league: continue to provide beer during the player draft.) One of the ideas was making it a mini three-on-three tournament. The American Hockey League, which test-runs potential options, is considering that possibility for its own All-Star event this season. No guarantees, but it’s being discussed.

7. Remember one thing about Travis Zajac, mentioned in last week’s notes: he has a no-trade clause, so he controls his future. Even if Zajac wanted to go (which is unlikely), a few sources — including agent Kurt Overhardt — pushed back hard against rumours from last weekend and downplayed the possibility of anything happening at this time. Lou Lamoriello likes the player, but there were no substantive discussions.

8. Edmonton Vice-President of Hockey Operations Craig MacTavish attended an Islanders-Flyers game last week, another situation that created some buzz.

“Don’t go to DEFCON 1 on this,” a source said, downplaying the visit. (It was not Philadelphia GM Ron Hextall, quoted elsewhere in this blog.)

9. Nothing confirmed, but the Edmonton Oilers look like they are preparing to take the captaincy off Andrew Ference. Never an easy decision, but always more stressful in a white-hot market like Edmonton. In 1999-2000, Kris King, who was an alternate captain, went through the same situation in Toronto. He agreed to take the letter off his sweater, because he knew he wouldn’t play as much. I remember talking to King privately about it, how difficult it was, but how he knew it was time.

“I was not an everyday player, what I had in done in the room as a leader wasn’t what it had been previously … It’s hard to lead when not playing,” King, now a Senior Vice-President of Hockey Operations for the NHL, said this week. He had been the captain in Winnipeg before coming to Toronto. “Whether it was Pat (Quinn) who brought it up or myself, I don’t remember. But I knew it was the right move for the team. I’m not going to lie, it was tough. You pride yourself on being a leader on a team.”

King’s advice for Ference if it does happen: “Not having an ‘A’ did not change way I operated day-to-day. A lot of guys who played were leaders and never wore a letter. Good teams have 16 assistant captains and a captain, or a majority of guys you can lean on. There were still times I had to step up and do things, and guys counted on the fact I would do that.”

King made one other key point: for Ference to step up and play an active role in the beautiful Spider-Mable story while this is going on was very special.

10. The Dallas Morning News’ Mike Heika reported the Dallas Stars will carry eight defencemen — likely a nod to the knowledge someone would take a chance on Jamie Oleksiak if placed on waivers. Montreal Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin doesn’t show his cards, so things can be tough to pin down, but I get the sense a few teams have asked about his plans for Jarred Tinordi. The best intel I can find is that Bergevin would rather swim in Cheez Whiz than put him on waivers. That leaves either Tinordi making the team, or they do something.

11. The Minnesota Wild claimed Chris Porter on waivers from the Philadelphia Flyers, ending a search for a depth forward. Word was they had also checked out Daniel Paille, who was with the Chicago Blackhawks on a PTO.

12. Jack Han, the video and analytics co-ordinator for the McGill Martlets hockey team, thought P.K. Subban changed his stick for this season, and a little research indicates that is correct. Subban moved to more of a mid-toe curve, similar — but not an exact duplicate — to what Erik Karlsson and Kris Letang use. Someone joked it should be referred to as “The Subban.”

13. Lars Eller’s move to the wing to accommodate Alex Galchenyuk at centre triggered another round of “is this it for him in Montreal?” conversation. One GM pointed out Eller had 14 even-strength goals last season. Other players at that number: Nazem Kadri, Ryan Kesler, Chris Kreider, Bryan Little, David Perron, Wayne Simmonds and Jeff Skinner. Not bad at all.

14. Hextall is playing things cautiously with his young defencemen, sending down Shayne Gostisbehere, Samuel Morin, Ivan Provorov and Travis Sanheim early in the exhibition schedule. Gostisbehere’s demotion came as the biggest surprise, since he’d scored three preseason goals.

“If he had played all of last year, he’d be very close,” the GM said of the 22-year-old, who tore his ACL last November.

But there’s another practical reason for this. He has eight defencemen under contract and “four of them battling for two spots. We need a longer look at them and they want to play,” Hextall said, especially Andrew MacDonald, determined to make up for a painful 2014-15. The GM — and coach Dave Hakstol — need to sort out what they’ve got now. He didn’t say anything about showcasing them, but you have to assume that’s part of it, too.

15. While looking at Philly’s defence, I found an old quote in my notes about how at least one team liked Mark Streit’s game, but didn’t want to do anything while he still had several years remaining on his contract. That GM is no longer in place as Streit enters the second-last season of his deal. But you wonder if anyone else might feel that way.

16. An opposing coach said the biggest change he’s seen in the Flyers is in the neutral zone. Hextall agreed with that, saying the Flyers work with more of a pack mentality than last year, before stressing “that’s not an indictment of the coach [Craig Berube], it’s more about the players.” Is it where he wants it to be?

“Getting there, but not fixed yet.”

Hextall’s impressions of Hakstol at the coach’s first pro camp?

“Not intimidated. Confident in his abilities and himself.”

17. Hextall did not want to talk about Brayden Schenn, but word is he received several calls about the forward after being quoted as saying “I think he’s been ok” during camp. The sense from outside is Hextall didn’t mean for it to come across as badly as it was portrayed, and I’m not sure it’s a guarantee Schenn will be traded — as we all assumed after we heard that.

“Put it this way,” another exec said. “If he wants to trade Brayden Schenn, he could very easily do it.”

18. There’s been a linkage between the Boston Bruins and Dustin Byfuglien, but, at this time, it appears more likely the Bruins look at more cost-effective additions on the blue line. That refers to both salary and what it would take to acquire a player. I thought they might want to look at Jan Hejda, released from his PTO by Chicago, but that didn’t happen.

19. As for Byfuglien and the Jets, it doesn’t sound like there’s been a ton of talk about an extension. (Watch, it happens just as soon as this gets posted.) Most of the contract attention is focused on Byfuglien and Andrew Ladd, but it wouldn’t be much of a surprise if Jacob Trouba discussions become Winnipeg’s most important conversations.

20. Christine Simpson and I taped a commercial with the Sedins, and while we were waiting, Henrik said a few of Vancouver’s young players would surprise in the preseason. Hopefully he wagers on sporting events for extra spending money, because this prediction was right on. Vancouver has some interesting decisions to make as Ben Hutton, Jared McCann and Jake Virtanen press for a roster spot. When asked if anyone specifically impressed him during their summer skates, Henrik picked Brendan Gaunce, also pushing for time. As the salary cap flattens, a few GMs indicated they believe that makes it even more important to be patient with your young players, but GM Jim Benning is warning his vets he’s prepared to go young.

21. Ottawa Senators GM Bryan Murray unloaded on Mikael Wikstrand after the young defenceman went back to Sweden because of family concerns. I can totally understand Murray’s frustration. They are intrigued by Wikstrand’s potential and he probably would play some NHL games this year. But, when cooler heads prevail, I’d expect the Senators to try and see if there is still a future for Wikstrand in the organzation. He’s only 21. Remember that Ottawa has a long association with the agent, Todd Reynolds, through Mike Fisher, Chris Neil and Matt O’Connor. That can help.

22. Two-time gold medallist Mike Babcock said last weekend he would definitely want to coach Canada’s World Cup entry if Team Canada was still interested in him. The answer is yes, he’s a candidate, as no coach will be discounted just because he’s done it before — just like no player would be.

23. Babcock, on what he wants from the winger who plays with Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk: “Speed.”

24. Morgan Rielly, on what he worked on this summer: “Battle drills.”

He’d go one-on-one with Mike Santorelli, then join a larger group that included Jason Garrison, Chris Higgins and David Jones. The defenceman added he loves going against Santorelli, because the latter gets really upset when he loses. Rielly also said he changed his diet. Toughest thing to give up: “Pizza.”

25. With Ryan O’Reilly and Jack Eichel down the middle, the Buffalo Sabres tried 2014 second-overall selection Sam Reinhart on the wing last weekend in Toronto. He had three assists. It will be a big adjustment for Reinhart because, as one coach pointed out, “at wing, he’s going to get hit a lot more than he’s used to.” If he goes to the AHL, what position does he play?

26. If nothing else, Jack Eichel is showing the upcoming season will not be a Connor McDavid Calder coronation. He’s going to make this a race. In his first preseason game, Eichel directed Zemgus Girgensons and Matt Moulson into position as he needed them. Sometimes, rookies do that and eyes roll. One player said that wasn’t the case here.

“He knows what he’s doing and how to handle it.”

27. As impressive as Eichel looks, the Sabres were probably happiest when Robin Lehner posted a 26-save shutout of Toronto on Tuesday. Lehner looks… big. They need him.

28. One year ago, there was some concern about Rasmus Andersson’s commitment to the game. He got the message, worked hard to get in shape and played very well for the Calgary Flames in the rookie tournament and in preseason. If the Flames get the same commitment from Oliver Kylington, another player who saw his stock drop at the draft, a position of strength at the NHL level (defence) becomes a position of strength deeper in the organization. Brandon Hickey could be a good one, too.

29. Because we always try to tie up loose ends, congratulations to Adam Nugent-Hopkins, who received the Honda Accord brother Ryan won at the All-Star weekend. The Oilers’ centre joked about the lobbying he would receive for the vehicle once he returned home, but Adam was a deserving winner.

“His car was on its way out,” Ryan said.

30. At last week’s Canadian version of Kraft Hockeyville in North Saanich, BC, Larry Orr dropped the puck. Orr was a huge part of the area’s hockey community, a man Jordie Benn called “the father figure of the peninsula,” in an interview with Kevin Woodley of NHL.com. From the Benn brothers to Matt Irwin to Ryan O’Byrne and beyond, he helped so many young players have the equipment necessary to play.

Orr died of cancer Tuesday night at age 73, but his legacy is immense. As the cost of playing hockey continues to be one of the sport’s biggest challenges, communities need people like him to make sure children get a chance to compete. All the best to his wife, Sandy, and sons Darcy and Derek — the golf professional at Shaughnessy Country Club.