Every Wednesday, a trio of SI.com staffers will sit down for a discussion of the hockey world's hot-button issues. This week, Brian Cazeneuve, Sarah Kwak and I talk about the NHL continuing to eye Las Vegas as an expansion site, the possibility of three-on-three overtime coming to the league and the trade market in the wake of Tuesday's deal between the Canadiens and the Stars. First up:
• The NHL-to-Las Vegas story took on new life Tuesday with Mike Russo's report that deputy commissioner Bill Daly spent time this past weekend visiting an arena site, meeting with potential owners and doing some legwork on local fan interest. That story was followed by Ken Campbell reporting that an ownership group (that supposedly includes billionaire William Foley and the Maloof family, the former owners of the NBA's Sacramento Kings) has already been approved and that Vegas will enter the league as an expansion team in time for the 2017–18 season. So ... what do you make of all this?
BRIAN CAZENEUVE: I would say this is the worst kept secret in hockey. Look, the league has been intrigued by Las Vegas for a long time. A big stumbling block has been the fact that nobody wants to be associated with a city that's so associated with gambling. Also, would the locals, who don't have a long history with the game, take to hockey? And does a league built on tradition really want to put a franchise in the most transient city in the country? The answer to that last question, at some point, will be yes. But will the move occur before, after or in concert with also bringing teams to Seattle, Quebec, and Hamilton/Toronto?
SARAH KWAK: I have to say that I only marginally understand the fascination with Las Vegas as an expansion city for the NHL. Like you said, Brian, it's a largely transient city with a population that already has a lot of options for entertainment. Vegas is also in the middle of the desert. I don't personally see how a franchise there would be successful. I hope that the league has learned from the saga of the Coyotes, and that it will really think this one through and vet it from every angle before signing off. And I've got to believe that if Vegas is a real possibility, there is also at least one more on the horizon. To make the conferences even, they'd need to add one more to the West. Seattle?
ALLAN MUIR: The commish has said that adding teams for the sake of evening out the conferences isn't a valid argument, so I think it's possible that Vegas could enter the league alone. Seattle would be the most geographically pleasing option to round out the New 32, but there are so many hurdles to be cleared in that market that it may be years before the city can put together a viable package. Quebec would seem to have everything going for it but geography. I don't see either Quebec or Toronto 2.0 in the short term.
As for Vegas itself, I'm a little more hopeful than you guys. I'm not discounting the road blocks you mention, or the relatively short window for achieving success. A shiny new toy will fill seats for only so long. If the NHL is hoping to carve out a spot for itself between Donny & Marie and Penn & Teller, a Vegas team would have to do more than just win. It would have to deliver some sizzle—and quickly. That's something that never really happened in Atlanta or in Phoenix or, for the most part, in South Florida, for a variety of reasons.
You can bet that the $400 million expansion fee (give or take) will get the NHL past those concerns and allow a Vegas franchise the chance to prove that it can sell more than just season tickets to casinos. With the right management and aggressive marketing, I think it can work.
• The AHL's three-on-three overtime experiment seems to be playing out as expected, with more games ending in a hockey-like situation instead of going to the shootout. Do you think the NHL will follow suit and, if it does, is that a good thing for the game?
I have never liked the shootout primarily because it takes place outside the flow of play. It just feels too much like a gimmick. And while I think three-on-three play is fun to watch because it really highlights the great skaters in the game, it also feels fake. It would turn games into contests involving half the rosters. Forget shortening the benches; three-on-three would chop them into shards. The long change increases scoring. Ice resurfacing increases scoring. If anything, I’d let overtime periods run for 10 minutes at four-on-four. If nothing is decided then, hey, the NHL has been fine with ties for most of its history, so why not again?
The NHL used to be fine with one broadcast a week on Saturday nights, but it isn't going back to that, either. People want results when they invest their time and money. A winner and a loser. That's not to say there's no such thing as a good tie or an entertaining tie, it's just that they don't make for the best possible product. It hasn't been that long since we saw underdog teams spend an entire third period playing Kill The Clock just to eke out a point. Please, let's not go back down that road.
As for the shootout, I can't really be the only guy who still likes it, can I? I get the purist argument that it's not hockey, but as a someone who grew up with CBC's old Showdown in the NHL segment, I'm always entertained by one-on-one battles. Nothing wrong with four-on-four OT, but given my druthers, I'd like to see the shootout expanded to five shooters, or have the NHL adopt international standards that allow shooters to be “recycled” after the first three shots.
It's clear that the anti-shootout argument is gaining strength (take a look at the energy sapping “dry scrape” that's pointlessly performed before every shootout this season), and I'm resigned to the inevitability of three-on-three. But based on the thrill factor alone, I'd really hate to see the shootout marginalized.
I don't have as big a problem with the shootout as many of the purists, but I would say, of course, ending a game with a hockey play is more desirable than ending it with a shootout. Sure, the AHL's seen a good deal of success with its new format, but two months is a small sample size. I'd need to see that the change has the same effect, long-term. I mean, during the first year that the NHL introduced the shootout, less than 12% of games went past overtime. Now nearly 15% of them go that far. Who is to say that the same trend wouldn't happen in year 3 or 4 of the AHL's OT experiment? The NHL always talks about adaptation, and, well, I suspect that even with changes in format, an adaptation—risk-averse overtime play—may win out.
Until they went on a recent win streak, I was thinking the Bruins would be in the market for another backliner. But the return of Torey Krug and, eventually, David Warsofsky as well as the emergence of Joe Morrow and Zach Trotman may lessen that possibility. In Carolina, Hurricanes GM Ron Francis says he won’t move Eric Staal, but can he afford to sit still? Mike Green has picked his game enough so that if the up-and-down Capitals can’t sustain much traction, he’d be a good catch for a team that is having trouble scoring. (Winnipeg? Montreal again?) You wonder if a team with a new GM such as Colorado, Toronto, Washington or Philadelphia will be more likely to make a move.
Caz, you brought up Toronto and to me that's probably the most interesting team to watch. The Leafs invested heavily in the #fancystats game over the summer. Can those numbers-obsessed geeks identify a player or players whose underlying stats aren't up to snuff and convince Dave Nonis to ship them out? And can they help identify the underappreciated gem hiding on another team's roster? Or were these front-office acquisitions defensive in nature, put in place to prevent lopsided swaps like Tuukka Rask for Andrew Raycroft or trading two picks to move up in the draft to acquire Tyler Biggs? I don't know yet, and I can't wait to find out.
Two other questions: How soon before they blow up the Coyotes or what's left of the Sabres? And how will the recent revelations about the stagnant salary cap affect what teams will do? Will teams that are up against the cap still be willing to wait until rental season to see how competitive they will be before they decide to make a significant move?
Oh I think the salary cap news could be mighty interesting in seasons to come. I think it changes a lot of things for a handful of GMs, but then the effects of that will trickle down throughout the league. That said, how does it change the trade market now? Probably not a lot, but it may if the flat cap talk becomes reality. It's hard to say about trades, though. And GMs will tell you all the time that making trades is getting more and more difficult. One of the main issues here is that so many players have no-move clauses these days that it really inhibits teams from making a significant shakeup. You can't think of trades from a purely hockey standpoint without being sensitive to what cards the individual players hold. So I really don't know which team will move next, but this early in the season, it seems that the ones near the bottom tend to be the most desperate for a change. I think Edmonton and Arizona have got to be looking for help.
I think Arizona is thinking fire sale more than upgrade—there's already buzz about the Coyotes moving Antoine Vermette—but you might be right about Edmonton. I don't think it'll be anything major (I'd be shocked if Jordan Eberle was involved) but I could see them doing something to add a little fizz to the chemistry of a team that can't quite put it all together.
I can really see Columbus GM Jarmo Kekalainen engineering some kind of swap. The Blue Jackets are on a nine-game skid, and nine points (and seven teams) removed from the final playoff spot in the East, but there's still time to make a move that would keep them in the mix until they're healthy again. They don't want to fritter away all the good will they built up last season. Colorado needs to do something to shore up its defense and take some of the load off Semyon Varlamov. The Rangers and Flyers might look for help. And I don't think that Stars GM Jim Nill is done, either. I think he uses the cap space he created with the Sergei Gonchar deal to bring in a veteran blueliner to patch that leaky defense in Dallas.