BOCA RATON, Fla. — The expansion Atlanta Thrashers won just 14 games in their first season, finishing last in the NHL with a measly 39 points. They qualified for the playoffs only once in 11 seasons before folding up and moving to Winnipeg.
The NHL is trying to avoid a similar scenario in the future if it chooses to expand again. The league released a framework for a potential expansion draft to general managers Wednesday with the goal of having more competitive expansion teams from the get-go.
"If there’s going to be an expansion you want the teams to be a little more competitive than perhaps they’ve been out of the box," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said. "The notion has been that perhaps in the past if the team isn’t competitive enough out of the box there’s an initial enthusiasm and then it kind of wanes until the team re-establishes itself."
The basic premise for an expansion draft would see teams risk losing one player under a one-team expansion and two players under a two-team scenario. The rules for protection of players, however, would be tighter than the last round of expansion in 2000.
Teams under the current framework could protect seven forwards, three defencemen and one goaltender or eight skaters and a goaltender. First and second year pros in any league are automatically exempt as are unsigned draft picks.
"They want them to be somewhat competitive," Senators general manager Bryan Murray said of potential expansion outfits in Las Vegas and Quebec City.
The NHL last held an expansion draft 14 years ago when Columbus and Minnesota joined the league. Twenty-six of 28 teams (recently added teams in Atlanta and Nashville had their entire rosters protected) were permitted to protect either one goaltender, five defencemen, and nine forwards or two goaltenders, three defencemen and seven forwards.
The process this time will also be different because of the salary cap and contract implications.
Deputy commissioner Bill Daly stressed what is perhaps the most important factor for fans of NHL teams: "You may lose a good player, but it’s only one," Daly said of the single-team scenario.
Players with no-trade and no-movement clauses may see those protections fade under an expansion draft, a reality Daly said the league would discuss in more detail with the NHL Players’ Association.
The NHL plans to discuss the grander plan with the union soon.
General managers, meanwhile, were told to expect a decision regarding expansion for the 2017-18 season by the June draft.
Owners continue to deliberate on expansion bids from Las Vegas and Quebec City. The NHL’s executive committee, representing the views of ownership, have the option of recommending one, two or perhaps no teams, according to Bettman. The expansion process for the current applicants could continue beyond June, but not for entry into the league for the start of the 2017-18 campaign.
"I know people want answers, but we don’t feel any time pressure to do it," Daly said. "If we don’t get this resolved by June and we still want to expand it’s not 17-18 anymore it’s later. It’ll take whatever time it takes."
The league also informed general managers that the salary cap for next season would rise only slightly, if at all, from the current mark of $73 million to perhaps as high as $74 million. A sluggish Canadian dollar, Bettman conceded, was a factor but "it’s not as dramatic as some would suggest."
The NHL commissioner also commented publicly for the first time on the reduced suspension of Flames defenceman Dennis Wideman. Wideman’s 20-game suspension was reduced to 10 following an independent appeal to a third-party arbitrator.
Due to the laborious appeals process, which first included Bettman, Wideman had already served 19 games by the time of the reduction earlier this month. Asked if that process should be expedited in the future though Bettman seemed to think not.
"Mr. Wideman wound up sitting out 19 games," he said. "We thought it should be 20 so you’ll have to draw your own conclusion."
The NHL, Bettman added, was still considering its options.