GM Meetings Takeaways: Interpreting the latest expansion talk

Damien Cox weighed in with the Hockey Central crew on how expansion and an expansion draft would work and whether it is worth it for expansion teams to be competitive in their first few years.

BOCA RATON, Fla.—So the NHL will announce its expansion plans before this year’s draft.

Which could be no expansion at all.

Really, aside from giving some hints out as to how an expansion draft might work for Quebec City or Las Vegas or both or neither, league general managers didn’t learn a lot more this week as far as what the NHL’s plans are for adding new teams.

“We might not expand,” said commissioner Gary Bettman today. “It might be two teams, it might be one. We don’t know yet. There’s no requirement that we adhere to any timetable.”

It does seem unlikely that the league would have done all this work only to decide not to expand at all. Moreover, there’s a general belief that if one or two teams are added at the earliest for the 2017-18 season — and we’ll know that by June — the NHL wants any expansion entrant to be more competitive than, say, the defunct Atlanta Thrashers, who had 39 points in their first year.

That, of course, begs several questions. How competitive? Better than the 33-34-17 Florida Panthers in that team’s first year?

And given that the entry draft has really become the only way to acquire elite talent in a salary cap league, how good does a first-year team really want to be? In other words, wouldn’t a new franchise want to be lousy initially in order to gain access to the top picks in the same way the Toronto Maple Leafs are being lousy right now?

Moreover, it wasn’t being bad out of the gate that killed the Thrashers. It was a lukewarm market, some poor management decisions and an unwieldy ownership situation. So this notion that making expansion teams better in their first season will guarantee their success seems rather flawed.

Bettman, however, said NHL governors believe that a weak start can kill the initial enthusiasm in a new market.

“If you’re going to bring in new teams, you want them to have perhaps a level of competitiveness that’s a little greater than we’ve had in past expansions,” said Bettman.

“So the draft will probably be a little deeper than it’s been in the past. Every team will lose one player (per expansion team), no more no less.”

What emerged from today’s meeting is that each team will likely be able to protect seven forwards, three defenceman and just one goalie. Any new team would have to draft enough highly-paid players to get to the salary cap floor.

However, as always, layered on top of that will be all kinds of exemptions, like first and second year professionals, drafted players still in junior hockey or Europe, and quite probably players currently with no-movement clauses in their contracts.

“(No movement clauses) are an issue that hasn’t been resolved,” said NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly. “I told them what the possibilities might be.”

Basically, if the pool of players made available to Quebec City or Las Vegas in an expansion draft is better than other years, it’s likely to be only slightly better.

“We did get a little information on the criteria, which could help us with our planning,” said San Jose GM Doug Wilson. “But if there is expansion I think they’ll give us enough lead time to put those things in place.”

The general managers did get some guidance on next year’s salary cap, which is likely to be at or just below $74 million next season, up from $71.4 million this season. That $74 million figure, however, is based on the NHL Players Association deciding to kick in the five per cent cap escalator, which it has done every year except for the 2006-07 season.

If the players elect not to use the escalator, teams would likely be looking at no increase in the cap.