Photo Credit: Gary A. Vasquez/USA Today Sports

Thanks to the NHL’s hard work, Vegas expansion should be as boring as humanly possible

There’s an old line about every challenge being an opportunity in disguise, but the NHL operates under the reverse of that principle. For the league, opportunities are not openings to be exploited but rather problems in disguise.

So it should come as no shock that with an upcoming expansion draft, the league is once again doing its best to dampen down enthusiasm and sideline what should be a marquee event.

Let’s start with what an amazing opportunity this is, and the correct way to handle it.

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An expansion draft by its sheer novelty commands attention. It’s been nearly 20 years since the last one, meaning that for many fans this will be their first opportunity to see a new team assembled from scratch. Moreover, even for fans who followed previous waves of expansion, the salary cap is a game-changer.

For some teams, Vegas will represent a unique opportunity to shed some serious dollars, opening up the possibility of big trades or free agent additions or simply to retain young stars needing new contracts. Gary Bettman and company may not like it, but getting a Dan Girardi or Dustin Brown off the books could be as instrumental in bringing a Cup to New York or Los Angeles as any number of other moves.

All 30 fanbases will be united for one weekend by the expansion draft. It’s a rare thing for a league which has always struggled to command the attention of the entirety of its fan base in a single moment. It’s like the entry draft, except people actually know the names and the results are immediate. It’s like free agency or the trade deadline, except with a guarantee that every single team will do something.

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The anticipation has been building for more than a year. As someone who makes his living writing about the game and interacting with fans, I have no doubt as to the level of interest in this topic, if only because for the last year any discussion on a trade or signing has inevitably included a component on expansion draft ramifications.

So make it an event. Publicize protected lists as early as humanly possible, so that fans can follow the drama and the action from the outset. And when it comes time for the actual selection process, treat it like the draft lottery or the entry draft itself, with an official televised announcement of each selection and either a panel of experts or better still representatives from Vegas on-hand to analyze each choice.

Fans across the league could and would watch. Fans in Vegas would have a reason to get excited about relatively anodyne selections of No. 4 defencemen and third-line forwards. It would make the league the centre of sports news for a day and give its newest franchise the best possible start.

Naturally, the NHL doesn’t entertain such plans.

On Wednesday, ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun revealed that if the general managers could help it, fans wouldn’t even get to know which players would and would not be protected:

While I don’t doubt LeBrun’s reporting, I’d be surprised if the NHL could stick to this format because it’s so ridiculously stupid.

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General managers may not want to have awkward conversations with unprotected players. That’s too bad. Given the number of people who need access to the list, there’s no way this doesn’t leak to agents eventually, and from there to the players. If anything, putting off the awkward chatting is more likely to backfire than just being up front about the realities of a salary cap world.

General managers may also not want to face public criticism and second-guessing of their decisions. That’s also too bad. Their players perform for fans every night, facing assessment and criticism from the people who collectively pour millions of dollars into watching games. The idea that a GM should be immune to such evaluation is laughable on the face of it.

Fans like to understand the things their teams do and why they do them. The short-term pain of being transparent here is more than compensated for by the level of engagement that will result from allowing them to follow along.

More likely to stick is the television format the NHL is supposedly considering. Via Josh Cooper of Yahoo Sports:

The draft is set up to where all 30 other NHL teams must submit their list of protected players by 5 p.m. eastern on June 17. Then Vegas will submit their expansion draft selections by 5 p.m. eastern on June 20. The picks will then be made public on June 21. The decision for the league to televise the draft and bundle it with the awards in Las Vegas is important for the visibility of the Vegas franchise and big for the NHL as it becomes the first major pro sports league to enter the market.

If we may interpret this to mean that the league will televise the choices on the evening of Wednesday, June 21, that means keeping those results secret for a full 24 hours before pushing them out. That may prove to be a challenge for the NHL, and if the names leak in advance it will turn a must-watch event into an irrelevance. Even if they don’t, it will certainly take away some of the drama of what should be a momentous occasion.

To further subtract from the drama, they’ll host the NHL awards in the same time-frame.

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As for the timing, I’ve always been amazed by the NHL’s ability to bury its own best moments. The league summer calendar currently looks like this:

  • Stanley Cup awarded: mid-June, probably between the 11th and the 15th
  • Expansion draft: starts June 17, completed June 21
  • NHL awards: Around the expansion draft
  • NHL entry draft: June 23-24.
  • NHL free agency: July 1
  • Total lack of stories: July 5(ish) – mid-September

The Stanley Cup win should be exciting, and with any luck there will be more than one full day to discuss it before it’s buried by expansion draft storylines. Awards coverage is almost certainly going to take a back seat to those stories, but that’s okay because there should be a full day to digest it all before the amateur draft starts in Chicago. Then there’s an entire week before free agent frenzy, though of course that week will be packed with all kinds of trades and signings too.

The funny thing is that a lot of fans don’t just check out over the summer. Just because there aren’t any overly relevant stories doesn’t prevent fans from logging in to check out prospect profiles and salary cap calculations and to see if that random third-line winger has found a new team yet.

If the league was intentionally trying to keep itself out of the public eye for two months, it couldn’t do a better job. The expansion draft this year only furthers the foolishness of the NHL’s season-end schedule.

None of this is a surprise, though. This fits the NHL’s long pattern of forgetting that it is first and foremost in the business of entertaining its fans.

The league doesn’t market its stars, preferring old school hockey virtues to the possibility of anyone, anywhere, doing or saying anything interesting. Witness the wrath that descends upon any young player who too vigorously celebrates a goal, or adds a flourish during a shootout move, or (heaven forbid) says anything remotely disparaging of the opposition.

We’re now in the third decade of the dead puck era. Remember when the New Jersey Devils won the Stanley Cup in 1995, and in so doing created the template for an all-defence, all-the-time approach to the game of hockey? The average team scored 3.0 goals per game that year. In the 22 seasons since, the NHL has only topped that mark twice, in 1995-96 and 2005-06. This year, teams are scoring 10 percent less than they did in 1995.

Olympic negotiations are always an ugly slog, and there’s a real possibility that the league will sit out the 2018 games. The World Cup, the NHL’s homegrown replacement, is Mickey Mouse in both its conception and its execution when the league can be bothered to run it at all.

By its actions, the NHL has shown minimal interest in providing the best possible on-ice product. It has consistently put the narrow interests of players and executives above providing entertainment to the people who actually pay the bills. And when a golden opportunity to capture the imagination and attention of those paying customers comes along, the league just can’t help itself: It always manages to find patches of grey in even the bluest sky.


  • Oscarmike

    Who cares about the Olympics. It’s the biggest disgrace to humankind.
    How many people lost their houses and never got paid in Russia just so a bunch of spoiled millionaires can skate in circles on the ice.
    Keep the NHLers out of the Olympics.

      • Hemmercules

        These countries build a crazy amount of venues and accommodations for the games and half or all of it just lays to waste as soon as the games are over. Countries are willing to ruin their economy just to have the Olympics there and I dont think the Olympics actually make the host country any money most of the time.

        • Hemmercules

          That said…I still watch it most of the time. Some years hardly at all, specifically the summer Olympics. I actually wouldn’t care that much NHL players didn’t participate.

          • CMG30

            True, but history has shown that any economic benefits flow to areas that need it the least and are dwarfed by the bills. (See: Brazil which built a LRT line to the rich part of town where nobody uses LRT and Athens who’s hosting of the Olympics was the final straw that broke the country.)

  • btrain

    Agree with almost everything except for the insinuation that the league clamps down on goal celebrating and talking about the opponent. Perhaps I am out of touch but are those not well established unwritten rules within the culture of hockey itself (definitely in Canada at least). You show your opponent respect and carry yourself with class and act like you have scored a thousand goals even if it’s the first one of the year. The limiting of celebration to a 10 second hand raise and emotional cheer is likely far more driven by the players themselves and the culture of hockey then anything implemented by the NHL. I honestly wouldn’t want it any other way and am proud of the sport for this particular reason, for valuing the characteristic of modesty amongst other virtues. You want to see a theatrical performance that has nothing to do with the purity of the sport or the team effort that allowed the goal to occur in the first place, perhaps soccer is a better choice.

  • Burns14

    During the expansion draft, they should have players that could potentially be picked from each team. When they get selected or not, we can see their reaction first hand. Would be like the Bachelor, or whatever show that is. In all seriousness they better friggen televise the crap out of this, and show the dam protected lists.

  • Flea

    They should do the NHL Awards right at the end of the regular season. It would be a nice cap on the season, and that’s when people are talking about things like the Art Ross, Calder and Rocket Richard trophies. By the time they actually hand them out, there is a little intrigue behind some of the voted trophies but not much.

    Right before the playoffs people would eat up the NHL Awards, everyone would be excited for the second season. Maybe they couldn’t do the big to-do in Vegas, but maybe a synchronized event in all NHL cities.

  • Spydyr

    Wow the NHL sure knows how to take the fun out of things. Before this article it never even crossed my mind that the protected lists would not be made public and that the draft would not be broadcast live like the entry draft. It would be much better TV then the crappy trade deadline snooze fest. Hopefully the NHL sees the folly of it’s ways and changes things.

    • Dan 1919

      Can’t say I agree, the allstar game, draft, trade deadline, etc. are all things that I no longer watch. Vegas draft of third liners would fall into the same category of boringness for me.

  • Mike Modano's Dog

    Awesome article!!! Thank you! I sure hope the NHL changes its plans here and televises the crap out of this! Even the old stories about expansion drafts gone by are some of the best stories and most interesting events the NHL has ever done.

  • Oilerz4life

    Ya right Bettman will probly have some bell boy hired to hit up rails off the shwanger in his private little shin dig in the executive room afterwards…he’ll be wearing his customary pink speedo, complete with purple balloons and sparkly ribbons.

  • Agreed in full. The whole point of the expansion is to grow the audience, and they’re essentially passing up on some big time opportunities.

    Other sports like NASCAR and the NBA went through transformative periods where they focused on growing the sport and making them more accessible, and it worked well for both. I’m waiting for the day the NHL decides to do the same. It feels like the guys at the top are a bit out of touch.

  • JimmyV1965

    Great article JT. It’s so frustrating being an NHL fan sometimes. The 50 middle aged white guys runnning this league don’t have a clue and they all think alike. There’s so many things that can make this an even better league but I just don’t think they are capable of change.

  • Oscarmike

    Sign McDavid to a $6 million/yr contract and when he retire Katz can make him part owner and give him 25% of the company.
    Just like Lemieux in Pittsburg. The situation isn’t the same as Lemieux but McDavid saved this franchise.
    If Oilers are worth $600 million when McDavid retires as a player that’s $150 million in market shares.