The most recent NHL realignment provides a curious conundrum: what’s to make of a league with 16 Eastern Conference teams and 14 Western Conference teams? Assuming eight from each side make their respective playoffs, that would seem to give a definitive edge to those in the Western Conference. The NHL made a long-time rumor come true by moving Detroit to the Eastern Conference along with Columbus, and the Winnipeg Jets got shifted to the Western Conference after two years of stressful play in the Southeast Division.
Expansion is a very real possibility, and the league may even be planning to expand already. It would make sense to add two Western Conference teams. Could the league keep it simple and add one team each to the Pacific and Central Divisions? Could they add yet another team to the Eastern Conference to push a team out west? Both are possible if the league adds teams in two of the five cities I think are most likely to host an NHL team in the near future.
One city that has received some chatter that I don’t think is an expansion candidate is Markham, Ontario. After Jim Balsillie’s failed attempts to relocate the Phoenix Coyotes to Hamilton in 2009, I think putting a third team in Ontario just won’t happen. Obviously there are more hockey-hungry markets in the eastern part of North America, but I just don’t see the league moving Columbus or Detroit back west after just letting them in this year. Maybe someone picks up Columbus and take them to Ontario or Quebec, but I’m looking for the five most likely places the NHL could place a team. The main factors in such a decision include the readiness of an NHL-capacity arena, the presence of hockey in the market, and how that team fits in to the four-division alignment instituted for the start of the 2013-14 season.
5. Houston, Texas
- NHL-ready arena: Yes – Toyota Center (17,800 hockey capacity)
- Other hockey teams in city: No – AHL Houston Aeros moving
- Divisional placement: Central
Texas is a huge sports state. Two professional football teams, two professional baseball teams, and three professional basketball teams are spread throughout the state. But can such a market in the deep south sustain two professional ice hockey teams? That’s questionable. The people are there, but the hockey interest might not be.
The Dallas Stars seem to be on an ascent with the recent acquisition of star center Tyler Seguin, who could join Jamie Benn as the faces of the franchise. Putting an expansion team in Houston would make for a southern rivalry that could broaden the appeal of the sport in such a non-traditional hockey market. The Minnesota Wild are moving their AHL affiliate out of the Toyota Center, which leaves the city without any hockey team. The building will be packed many nights this winter as Dwight Howard will lead the new look Houston Rockets in NBA action. Perhaps the era of change for that franchise could usher in a new pro sports team in Houston.
4. Portland, Oregon
- NHL-ready arena: Yes – Moda Center (18,280 hockey capacity)
- Other hockey teams in city: Yes – WHL Portland Winterhawks
- Divisional placement: Pacific
One thing needs to be made very clear if it isn’t already – as far as Pacific Northwest markets are involved in NHL expansion, Portland is the clear Plan B for the NHL, and it’s not even close. The Portland Winterhawks won last year’s WHL championship riding the success of Blues prospect Ty Rattie and Nashville Predators draftee Seth Jones, so there has been a recent track record for successful hockey in the area.
The Winterhawks split time between the Memorial Coliseum and the Rose Garden, now named the Moda Center, which hosts the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers. As in Houston, an arena that already boasts an NBA team could easily host an NHL team as well. Should plans for another Pacific Northwest mecca fall through, Portland is in the same vicinity and would be a great addition to the Pacific Division.
3. Quebec City, Quebec
- NHL-ready arena: No – New Quebec City Amphitheatre to be completed 2015
- Other hockey teams in city: Yes – QMJHL Quebec Remparts
- Divisional placement: Atlantic
Suffice to say Quebec City is hockey crazy – so much so that the province can support its own major junior hockey league. They have been dying to bring an NHL team back to town ever since the Colorado Avalanche were formed in 1995. Bringing back the Nordiques would surely add a nostalgic element that would be fantastic for the state of the game, and that has to be weighing heavily on Bettman’s mind.
The only problem is the big arena question. The Quebec City Coliseum, which currently hosts the QMJHL’s Quebec Remparts, only has a capacity of roughly 15,000. That would have been a tough sell for the NHL, even with the relocation of the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg’s MTS Centre, which has a similar capacity. The New Quebec City Amphitheatre was designed with the goal of attracting an NHL team, and could potentially be ready for the start of the 2015-16 season.
Could Bettman and Company wait that long on expansion? Would they be willing to realign again to accomodate another historical team? Those answers could very well be yes, but they also keep Quebec City out of my top two locations for NHL expansion.
2. Seattle, Washington
- NHL-ready arena: No
- Other hockey teams in city: Yes – WHL Seattle Thunderbirds
- Divisional placement: Pacific
I am of the belief that ultimately, if the NHL wants a team in Seattle badly enough, then they will find a way to get one there as soon as possible. Chris Hansen has put forth the money for an arena, and the city has approved the plan, but is unwilling to break ground until at least one franchise could be acquired. The city would love to get the Seattle Supersonics back into the NBA, but they could probably break ground with an NHL team in hand and work on the NBA aspects down the road.
Seattle would be a fantastic hockey market if the league wants to continue growing the game throughout the United States. Without an American presence in the Pacific Northwest region with Oregon and Washington, NHL fans have to root for a team from California or Alberta, or more likely, the Vancouver Canucks. A Vancouver-Seattle rivalry would be great for the popularity of the league due to team proximity. With a drive of less than three hours between the two cities, it could become the western version of the Buffalo-Toronto international rivalry.
But with the lack of an NHL-ready arena ready to go, I can’t say that Seattle is the most likely spot to host one of two NHL expansion teams, especially with Portland such a viable alternative. With that, my most likely city for NHL expansion is…
1. Kansas City, Missouri
- NHL-ready arena: Yes – Sprint Center (17,544 hockey capacity)
- Other hockey teams in city: No
- Divisional placement: Central
Kansas City has everything that the league would like to see in a city bidding for an expansion franchise. First off, they have a state-of-the-art facility in the Sprint Center. With no major league sport commitment, the city went ahead and built the arena with the hopes of someday landing a team; today, even without a team, the arena has been a great success and a major contributor to the city.
Second, the city has definite interest in NHL hockey. The Penguins and Kings faced off in a preseason matchup in 2011, and the game drew a sellout crowd of 17,779. Let me reiterate that: a preseason hockey game, between two outside teams, sold out in Kansas City.
Thirdly, the city has had teams before that could be drawn upon for a mascot. The Kansas City Scouts were formed in 1974, but moved after three short years to Denver, where they became the Colorado Rockies. That franchise now resides in New Jersey as the Devils.
And last but certainly not least, the location fits right into the NHL’s new alignment. Kansas City is in perfect location to join the Central Division. There could also be a new Missouri rivalry, pitting Kansas City from west Missouri against St. Louis in east Missouri.
My prediction? Starting in the 2015-16 season, Seattle will be added to the Pacific Division, and Kansas City will be added to the Central Division. With all due respect to Ontario and Quebec, America needs some more hockey.
Around the Rink Columnist Joe Ray – @joeray119
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