NHL expansion vs. relocation: What’s the right move?

Florida Panthers' Tomas Fleischmann (14) and Arizona Coyotes' Connor Murphy (5) battle for the puck during the third period of a NHL hockey game in Sunrise, Fla., Thursday, Oct. 30, 2014. The Panthers won 2-1. (AP Photo/J Pat Carter
Florida Panthers' Tomas Fleischmann (14) and Arizona Coyotes' Connor Murphy (5) battle for the puck during the third period of a NHL hockey game in Sunrise, Fla., Thursday, Oct. 30, 2014. The Panthers won 2-1. (AP Photo/J Pat Carter

Thanks to injuries to three of their top six forwards, the Pittsburgh Penguins iced a roster against the New York Rangers on Monday night that could be summed up as “Sid, Geno and oh right that guy.” I mean, no disrespect to Nick Spaling and Steve Downie as first-line wingers, but ... well, that ship just sailed I guess.

Take a few roster players from any team in the NHL not named the Chicago Blackhawks, Los Angeles Kings, St. Louis Blues or Tampa Bay Lightning, and suddenly that fourth line or that third defensive pairing becomes a sparsely used liability. It’s not that an NHL team can’t find warm bodies to fill in; it’s that they might not be NHL bodies.

Which brings us to expansion.

The NHL took its boldest foot forward into the desert this week by approving Bill Foley, the potential owner of a Las Vegas franchise, to test the market with a season-ticket drive. This is huge: a chance for the Vegas hockey faithful to show that there’s a viable season ticket base that goes beyond what the casinos will buy up as comps.

But viability of that market only proves that the market is viable. It’s a separate argument from whether the League can sustain 32 rosters of NHL-caliber players.

This is obviously a concern whenever the League expands. Add two teams, and that’s two roster players from each of the other 30 shipped out to Las Vegas and/or Quebec and/or Seattle.

Check the 2000 expansion draft. Say goodbye to your backup goalie.

Then you have the free agents being gobbled up to fill out the rosters. Two more predators in the sea, and it’s already been over-fished.

Gary Lawless of the Winnipeg Free Press believes in reshuffling vs. expanding; or as he puts it, “put a bullet in Arizona and Florida and strengthen the league, rather than further water it down.”

From Lawless:

The league's urge to grow its business is understandable. But it's folly. Of course, contraction is never going to happen. The NHL would never consider having less than 30 teams.

So relocate. It's the lesser of two evils. Vegas is going to work and Bettman admitted Monday the league wouldn't need to test Quebec City in a similar manner if it were to come under serious consideration.

These markets make sense on several levels -- much more so than the ridiculous boondoggles we've witnessed in Sunrise, Fla. and Glendale, Ariz.

Where is it written a relocation fee can't match an expansion fee? An extra $100 million isn't going to stop Las Vegas or Quebec City. Bettman has both markets right where he wants them. Desperate for his league.

Not to be cruelly dismissive of Coyotes and Panthers fans – who have watched their franchises stumble, bumble and go bust, preventing these markets from ever solidifying – but getting a lived-in franchise in Las Vegas would be in the NHL’s best interests.

Cliché as it is, there was one constant I heard from locals in Vegas when I asked how a team can succeed there: They said “a winner.” And while expansion teams can find success quickly – usually by Year 3, as evidence by the San Jose Sharks and Florida Panthers and Minnesota Wild – it’s a tad easier to accelerate that success when you’re building around, say, Aaron Ekblad vs. Andy MacDonald.

I don’t necessarily buy that the product will suffer greatly if two more teams enter the league. A lot of us have PTSD from seeing a slew of new teams clutch, grab and trap their way to moderate success in the 1990s because they didn’t have the weaponry of established teams. That can’t happen in today’s NHL, under these rules. At least in theory.

Ultimately, the expansion vs. relocation thing might not be the NHL’s call, but the marketplace’s. If the Coyotes reach their out clause trigger in Glendale. If yet another owner bails on the Florida Panthers after realizing empty seats don’t buy $9 beer. To go back to Winnipeg, they have the Jets today because the Thrashers collapse before the Coyotes could.

The game’s afoot in Vegas. It’s how the NHL decides to play this hand that’s the mystery.