31 Thoughts: What Seattle means for future NHL expansion

Irfaan Gaffar caught up with Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan, who offers up her favourite team name as “Krakens,” and says she’s ready to beat the Canucks.

• 2021–22 Seattle start ‘blessing in disguise’
• Nothing imminent on 33rd NHL franchise
• Some GMs unhappy with Nylander contract

Ninety minutes before Gary Bettman stepped to the podium and made things official, several members of Seattle’s bid team were asked inside the Board of Governors’ meeting. Not that it was ever in doubt, but walking into a room full of people clapping for them slammed it home.

It’s ancient history, but you forget that the previous expansion process was supposed to be more about Seattle than Las Vegas. There were rumours of multiple bids, one from the city and one from the suburb of Tukwila, just south of Seattle. When the deadline hit, there were zero bids from the area. They fumbled like Dave Krieg.

Vegas joined for $500 million. It wasn’t the predicted outcome, but it worked out best for the league and, in the end, Washington state. Barely two months after the Golden Knights began play, Seattle — and Seattle alone — was authorized to file a fresh application. The message was clear: figure it out, and you can join the club. For $650 million.

“If this was easy, it would have happened a long time ago,” CEO and President Tod Leiweke told David Amber. “My brother (Tim) did a brilliant job of pulling the arena plan together.”

Tuesday’s celebration was smooth as Soundgarden. The arena problems are solved. The organization was represented by three things the commissioner likes: an understated-but-confident owner (David Bonderman); a smooth, experienced executive at the helm (Leiweke); and a bit of Hollywood (Jerry Bruckheimer, who realized a longtime dream with a piece of this team). The weather at the meetings in Sea Island, Ga., was mostly rainy, so everyone from the Pacific Northwest felt comfortable.

At the beginning, we doubted Vegas. Could this really work? There won’t be any doubts here.

Bruckheimer is expected to have a major role in setting “the look” of the franchise, although he modestly downplayed that. Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan told Sportsnet’s Irfaan Gaffar that she liked “Krakens” as the team name. It’s so ridiculous; I love it.

“I know they are very focused on something that will be meaningful to Seattle,” Bettman said.

It would be easy to paint the NHL’s decision to push back the debut to 2021–22 as a disappointment. After all, the organization offered to go on a lengthy road trip at the start of the season before that to make sure the new arena would be ready. But between possible delays and CBA uncertainty, it was too risky.

Leiweke was smart. Instead of focusing on the negative, he spun it as a positive.

“I think we (now) have a chance to do some things with the arena that we wouldn’t have had a chance to do,” he said. “In some ways, it could be a blessing in disguise.”

Senior advisor Dave Tippett, who has coached 14 NHL seasons, didn’t want to start the franchise with extended travel.

“One thing I talked to Tod about was, Las Vegas played two games on the road and they came home and played seven in a row,” he said. “They went 6-1 and set the tone for the whole season.”

The extra year gives everyone a chance to celebrate, break ground on Wednesday, celebrate some more, celebrate some more after that and then take a deep breath. If you’ve got time, use it. Make those extra arena plans, consider the name, figure out what you want to do in the front office.

The original plan was to hire someone this spring. (You will hear the names Ken Holland and Kelly McCrimmon.) Now? The timeline might stay the same. It might get pushed back.

For Seattle and the NHL, waiting is a good thing.

31 THOUGHTS

1. Let’s empty the Board of Governors’ notebook first. Is Seattle merely a two-way stop on the route to more teams? Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly told the Associated Press’s Stephen Whyno, “Not sure there is any magic about 32,” in a story published the day before these meetings began.

Quebec City is aching to get in. Houston has expressed interest. Europe needs multiple cities and a lot of planning. There are other wild cards, including the Palletta family of Burlington, Ont., which has met with the NHL and quietly waits to see how the commissioner feels about another team in Southwestern Ontario. Bettman said he “wouldn’t disagree” with the sentiment, but the league is not looking right now. Daly said his quote was “not really intended to be that way…. What our Board asks is, ‘Does an expansion franchise add value to the league?’”

Translation: For it to go past 32, the NHL needs a legit reason.

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2. Now that Seattle is done, Ottawa rockets towards the top of Bettman’s to-do list. He was tight-lipped, simply saying he is “disappointed” by what’s happened. He wouldn’t want anything to overshadow the expansion news, but I’d also bet two other things: there is delicate information he wants to keep private and he knows the situation is a tinderbox, easily turned into a five-alarm blaze. Keep the gasoline far, far away. There’s work to be done.

3. Arizona owner Andrew Barroway put up some last-minute resistance to moving from the Pacific Division to the Central, but it was too late. There’s logic in thinking this eases a move to Houston, but Daly said “one has nothing to do with the other.” It’s been reported there is a sale brewing, and that’s believed to be true. It will be interesting to see if new owners have any objection to leaving the Pacific, and what that could mean. The NHLPA also has to approve the change, just like it did for the 2013–14 league-wide realignment.

4. Item that might only interest me: The increased expansion fee means more “moving money” for players selected by Seattle in 2021. Those selected by Vegas received approximately $16,000 to relocate their families. Future “Krakens” get $20,000.

5. As Nick Kypreos reported, there was discussion about shortening intermissions from 18 minutes to 15. On one side is the desire to resume the game as quickly as possible, and not make fans/viewers wait. On the other is the wish to sell beer, food and concessions.

6. Bettman is on record with his dislike of expanding the playoffs. But, after attending the meetings, it is very clear there are many teams who would like to do it. I don’t know where this goes, because the commissioner is very much in control of his league. It’s really interesting, though.

7. Finally, best line: One exec wondered if he could “still fit into [his] Nirvana shirts.”

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8. According to multiple sources, Pittsburgh “tested the market” on Phil Kessel. This one is tricky, because the Penguins appear to have decided to hold off on anything involving him for the time being, but that doesn’t mean it can’t or won’t be revisited. Three weeks ago, the Penguins were last in the Eastern Conference. Tuesday’s win over Colorado put them within two points of the playoffs, and who is betting against them? GM Jim Rutherford’s been searching for ways to upgrade the roster. He’s made two moves — Carl Hagelin to Los Angeles for Tanner Pearson, Daniel Sprong to Anaheim for Marcus Pettersson — but is eyeing more. The Penguins don’t have a ton to trade without seriously altering the team. Kessel has some control of the process with partial no-trade protection. Toronto still pays $1.2 million of his $8-million salary. The winger has 10 goals and 29 points in 26 games, so the production is still there. We’ll see where it goes.

9. St. Louis GM Doug Armstrong’s proclamation that his coaching search would expand into Europe flicked on a lightbulb in the noggin, reminding that it was time to check in on World Cup Team Europe coach Ralph Krueger. There’s been interest in Krueger since that tournament, but his day job — chairman of Southampton Football Club in the Premier League — keeps him at arm’s length. His reply: “I am focused on completing this season in the EPL. I will assess my future soon.” Hmmmmmmmmmn.

10. Could Philadelphia’s GM change affect Wayne Simmonds’s future? According to several sources, Hextall thought very highly of the powerful winger, but was unwilling to commit term to the 30-year-old. There are differing opinions on whether or not Simmonds was being shopped. Some said yes; others said Hextall preferred to wait and see if the Flyers stayed in the race. Now we’ll find out what Chuck Fletcher thinks.

11. The Flyers really wanted Fletcher. He met with Paul Holmgren and Comcast Spectacor CEO Dave Scott in-person, while at least one and possibly two other candidates were interviewed via video conferencing. There are a lot of things that will be interesting about Fletcher’s first 100 days. In initial comments to local reporters, he preached patience. But word at the Board of Governors’ meetings was some of the people who hired him aren’t that patient.

12. One scout said Hextall left behind a couple of late-rounders with potential: Ohio State’s Tanner Laczynski (169th in 2016) and Virden, Man.’s Wyatt Kalynuk (196th in 2017), who plays at Wisconsin. “No guarantees, but they’ve got a chance,” he said.

13. The Blackhawks are really pounding the pavement. GM Stan Bowman was at Arizona/Los Angeles on Tuesday. Cap-ologist Kyle Davidson made their last trip, which is not a regular occurrence. They had two scouts at Los Angeles/Vancouver last Tuesday, three at Dallas/Calgary on Wednesday and two more the following night for Los Angeles/Edmonton. That’s more Kings than in a blackjack shoe.

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14. Chicago might be thinking about Sam Gagner, too. He chose Vancouver over them in the summer of 2017. They were interested.

15. Mikko Rantanen is on pace for 135 points. He’d win every scoring title since 1995-96 with that total. Mario Lemieux (160) and Jaromir Jagr (149) were the last to beat 135. Unreal.

16. Auston Matthews has returned from injury four times in his NHL career. He’s got six goals and two assists in those games. The latest was a three-point performance last Wednesday versus San Jose.

17. Toronto is going to take a shot at keeping Jake Gardiner. The odds are long, but he likes it there and they like him. He leads the Maple Leafs with 19:46 at even strength per night. They will offer him term and be generous with bonus and structure. It comes down to how much he’s willing to leave on the table.

18. It’s public knowledge that William Nylander’s 4:20 pm ET Saturday phone call shook things loose and got his deal done. As the deadline moves farther in the rear-view mirror, information seeps out. One thing that’s very clear is both sides believed there was a very real possibility this wasn’t going to get done. Dubas let other teams know two days earlier that if anyone was willing to meet both Toronto’s price (to trade) and Nylander’s (to sign), they should contact him. There was conversation, but it doesn’t sound like anything was close.

As we know now, his heart wasn’t in trading Nylander. Yes, some GMs were unhappy at the final number, but with a shot at competing for the Stanley Cup, Dubas’s sole responsibility was to his own organization. Nylander’s a good player, and they have a chance.

“I would bet that Dubas thinks some other GMs were screwing with him,” one exec said. “They were saying they’d spend $7.5 million on Nylander to make things harder on [Dubas].”

Why?

“First, you might want to get Nylander. But, hey, you want to disrupt Toronto. They’re a good team. Or maybe you don’t like them. There could be many reasons. It happens.”

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19. Ten years ago, the average age of the highest-salaried players on each NHL club was just under 30. (Some teams had a tie at the top.) Half the teams’ highest-paid guy was over that age, and only four — Sidney Crosby, Rick Nash, Alexander Ovechkin and Eric Staal — were under 25.

This season, the average age of the highest-paid per team is a hair below 29, 14 are above age 30 and seven are under-25: Jack Eichel, Bo Horvat (tied with Loui Eriksson), Dylan Larkin, Nathan MacKinnon, Connor McDavid, Sean Monahan (tied with Johnny Gaudreau and Mark Giordano) and David Pastrnak (tied with Brad Marchand). Next year, Calgary (Matthew Tkachuk) and Colorado (Rantanen) will still be on that list, but you can add Carolina (Sebastian Aho), Toronto (Mitchell Marner, Matthews), and Winnipeg (Patrik Laine). Three players who might still get there but have struggled are Brock Boeser, Ivan Provorov and Zachary Werenski.

That’s close to half the teams, and it’s where we are going. About a year ago, an agent said he was talking with counterparts who represent players in other North American team sports. He said they did not understand the mentality of hockey’s stars/best players, who constantly left money on the table. But players, agents, coaches, executives and owners recognize that we are heading into a new world, and Nylander’s negotiation was a smack to the head of anyone who didn’t recognize that.

“The mentality is changing,” one GM said last week. “The best players are aiming higher, especially with the possibility of contract rules changing in the next CBA.”

“The guys making ‘middle money’ will be squeezed out or traded,” another said.

And then there’s the question of how players will react to this trend.

“Should we be entering CBA negotiations,” agent Anton Thun asked, “without knowing how this will affect the current agreement?”

20. All the attention in Ottawa is on unrestricted free agents Matt Duchene and Mark Stone. But, under this scenario, what are the Senators going to have to do with Thomas Chabot, who will be 22 in January? He’s leading all defencemen in scoring, and can be extended in July.

21. One player on upcoming CBA negotiations: “It would be solved by sharing some expansion money.” But he’s not betting on it.

22. Washington won the Stanley Cup last June with its top four in terms of average annual value (Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom and Braden Holtby) earning 40.2 per cent of the cap. None have any structure that would be illegal under current rules. Regardless of what happens this year, it’s clear that Toronto GM Kyle Dubas wants to try to win with an even higher percentage next season. If the ceiling is indeed at $83 million in 2019-20, would anyone be surprised if Nylander ($6.9 million), John Tavares ($11 million), Marner and Matthews ($22 million combined? Maybe more?) are at 48 per cent of the cap? Conventional wisdom is you can’t keep everyone. Dubas would like to try, be more “top-heavy” than we’ve seen. Other organizations are going to be very interested in the results.

Winnipeg’s percentages won’t be as high, but that’s another team that might try it, too.

23. A thought from a Leaf-loving co-worker on all the contract talk surrounding a talented, entertaining team with a shot at something special: “Only Toronto would not allow itself to enjoy this.”

24. What a story developing in Arizona, with 22-year-old Adin Hill. He came off the bench to beat Minnesota last Tuesday, then followed with victories over Nashville (his first career shutout, on the road), St. Louis and Los Angeles. Hill is listed as six-foot-six, but was a foot shorter in his WHL draft year. The Coyotes took a shot with the 76th pick in 2015, after he’d grown a bit. But he’d played one full season at Portland by then. Good gamble. The word is he’s a confident kid, not fazed by the pressure. That’s definitely true, as he holds the fort with Darcy Kuemper and Antti Raanta in sick bay.

25. Edmonton coach Ken Hitchcock asked Mike Modano to watch a few Oilers games and send some notes about McDavid. Via text, Modano said you’re always working on playing without the puck.

“The best way is to have [McDavid] kill penalties. You have to stop and start a lot more, face the puck. Not swinging away from it. All the best players had to implement this, or their teams would have never won.”

The Hall of Famer added they also discussed how the coach handled Modano early in their relationship.

26. The Oilers dialled back on McDavid’s minutes after he was on a record-setting pace seven games into the season. He’s back up to 23:59 a night under Hitchcock. That includes 20:54 at even strength, unprecedented for a forward.

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27. San Jose’s 6–2 defeat in Ottawa reminded me of an old Pat Quinn line. He was always upset when his team played poorly in a game it knew meant something to someone. It signalled to him that “something was wrong.”

Once he freaked out when the Maple Leafs let down late in a game and blew a Glenn Healy shutout. He would have been angry if Erik Karlsson’s return went like that under his watch. Obviously, Sharks GM Doug Wilson felt the same way, meeting with his team before it rebounded to defeat Montreal. Wilson does not like doing that, preferring to leave it up to his coaches, but sometimes circumstances dictate it. The Sharks have taken longer to get going than we thought.

28. How friendship creates competition: One executive, who knows both Sidney Crosby and Nathan MacKinnon, said he loved watching their spectacular Pittsburgh/Colorado game last week in Denver. Down 3–0, Crosby scored a natural hat trick to tie it.

“It wasn’t a surprise,” the exec said, “that MacKinnon set up the next goal to win it for the Avalanche. They are good friends, but they want to beat each other.”

Of course, it figures that neither reached the scoreboard when Pittsburgh won the rematch.

29. If you’re unfamiliar with the “Chelsea Dagger” controversy in Vancouver, a new in-arena DJ played the song during a Canucks game a week ago. Fans went apoplectic, considering the ferocity of the 21st-century Chicago/Vancouver rivalry. The crazy thing about this is that when Alexandre Burrows scored to eliminate the Blackhawks in overtime of their 2011 Game 7 classic, there were people in the organization who wanted to play the song, rubbing it in Chicago’s face. GM Mike Gillis fought against it. I didn’t cover that series, but heard the rumour later in those playoffs. I asked Gillis if it was true. He wouldn’t answer.

30. The NHL Alumni — fresh off a major success with individually branded whiskeys for Wendel Clark, Guy Lafleur and Lanny McDonald — is preparing to participate in the “Last Game,” a shinny event to be played in April at the North Pole. Hall of Famer Slava Fetisov, the United Nations’ Environment Patron for Polar Regions, is involved in planning the game, which is designed to call attention to the dangers of climate change. The reason it is called the Last Game is because there’s a danger it might be just that.

31. 32 Thoughts in 2021–22. Need more sources.

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