As Markham, Ont., flirts with the idea of building an NHL-capable arena, an interesting storyline has emerged alongside the main attraction. Former NHLPA head Paul Kelly reportedly told members of the suburban city council at Tuesday’s meeting that expansion was high on the NHL’s agenda, pushing membership of the NHL to 32 teams.
I’m not here to judge the merits of expansion. A second team in Toronto and a return to Quebec City wouldn’t help the NHL’s geographic imbalance in the east, but I’m sure owners in the west would be more than placated by the expansion fees and revenues generated in two more Canadian markets.
What does intrigue me, however, is what impact expansion would have on rosters. Not just for the new teams, but league-wide. Would the NHL get even younger?
The past is not the best place to seek answers, though it is worth noting that as soon as Ken Linseman’s legal challenge paved the way for an 18-year-old draft, his next club, the WHA’s Birmingham Bulls, went on a youth spree. Linseman led the Bulls in scoring as a teenager in 1977-78 before leaving for the Philadelphia Flyers the next season. Without him, Birmingham went back to the well, bringing in teen sensations Michel Goulet, Rick Vaive, Rob Ramage and Craig Hartsburg (not to mention goalie Pat Riggin, who made a team-high 46 appearances in net). Sure, the Bulls were the only team in the WHA to miss the playoffs (Indianapolis suspended operations after 25 games), but they were only two points behind Cincinnati in the final standings.
Hop back to the present and you’ll find a hockey landscape where the Kontinental League can offer salaries and opportunities that turn North Americans such as Kevin Dallman and Tim Stapleton into stars instead of depth players, while current NHL team Columbus rolls into the shortened season with a lineup boasting precisely zero players with a 30-goal NHL campaign on their resume.
The problem, of course, is rushing prospects into the league before they’re ready. Don’t take this column as an endorsement of expansion as a means of getting first round draft picks into the NHL sooner; this is merely an exposition.
If any cohort of players could handle the leap, it’s the current generation. It’s practically a given that Nathan MacKinnon and Seth Jones will jump straight to the NHL next year and they don’t even know what sweater they’ll be pulling on. During the summer, both players (who share an agent in Pat Brisson) took a trip to Los Angeles where they had a chance to work with Patrick Kane’s skills coach, Darryl Belfry, and fitness guru T.R. Goodman, the man responsible for helping Chris Chelios cheat time for a decade. And they got worked out by the Athletes’ Performance firm at the same facility where NBA star Derrick Rose was training. But Jones and MacKinnon weren’t the only ones given that chance: fellow 2013 eligibles such as Curtis Lazar, Morgan Klimchuk, Anthony Mantha and Justin Bailey were there, too, soaking it all in. Younger players (most notably 2014 prospect Roland McKeown of the Kingston Frontenacs) also got the star treatment. That’s a far cry from what Guy Lafleur or Denis Potvin did during their summers.
Every year now, a handful of kids go straight from the draft to the NHL. Another handful play some games before heading back to junior, since their teams don’t want to burn the first year of the prospect’s entry level contract. But riddle me this: If the Minnesota Wild, for example, had lost a couple of players to an expansion draft, would Mathew Dumba have been returned to Red Deer or stayed on in the Twin Cities? Same goes for Ryan Strome and the Islanders, who now has two NHL training camps under his belt, but is back in Niagara playing junior.
If the NHL increases to 32 teams, the talent pool is going to have to expand as well. Franchises will be forced to make tough decisions on youngsters.
And if you want to look into the history books when it comes to teens and expansion, just look up Pat Falloon and Alexandre Daigle.
Ryan Kennedy, the co-author of Young Guns II, is THN's associate senior writer and a regular contributor to THN.com. His column appears Wednesdays and The Hot List appears Tuesdays. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/THNRyanKennedy.