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It's time for the NHL to take a new approach to expansion

The best cities for NHL expansion will almost surely need changes to the league's conference alignment format. 

And now the real fun begins.

After years of playing coy whenever the topic came up, the NHL finally took the first official step towards expanding The Original 30 on Wednesday with the announcement that it will begin accepting applications from interested ownership groups on July 6.

“The fact that we’re going through this process doesn’t mean we're going to expand,” Commissioner Gary Bettman said, doing his best to suck every ounce of fun out of the moment. “All it means is that we’re going to stop just listening to expressions of interest and take a good hard look at what they actually mean and represent.

“With all the well-chronicled expressions of interest, let’s see what we get when you’re required to sign on the dotted line on a formal application,” he said.

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We’ll see, alright. The truth is, they might get more than they’re expecting. Not every tentative inquiry launched since the last round of expansion 15 years ago will be followed up by a formal application over the next few weeks. But there’ll be more than a few entities willing to go all in with a commitment that could top $500 million.

Although Bettman insisted that no one has priority, the list starts with Las Vegas. Would-be owner Bill Foley essentially forced the league into this position with his expertly run campaign to bring hockey to Sin City and he’s all but certain to be granted a franchise with an admission date of 2017-18.

The Vegas entry has its detractors spouting the usual non-traditional market, hockey in the desert, tourist economy arguments, but it has plenty going for it as well. Foley has collected more than 13,000 season ticket deposits and other expressions of commitment from the community. He’ll have access to a spectacular new building. And he’ll be the only game in town.

And he has geography working in his favor. That certainly helps his chances. But should it?

The expectation has always been that if/when the NHL expanded it would be with the idea of balancing the two conferences. Adding a market like Las Vegas along with Seattle or Portland or Kansas City or Houston would tidy up a problem that apparently vexes some people even though it appears to have no real impact on the way the game is played.

It may turn out that a viable bidder emerges from one of these markets over the next six weeks armed with an action plan that includes an NHL-caliber arena. Or maybe it won’t. And that’s when the league needs to remember to keep its eyes wide open.

Because there will be suitors lining up from Eastern markets. Really promising suitors.

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Quebecor, for instance. The media giant sent out a press release 90 minutes after Bettman’s announcement stating that its “objective is to establish an NHL franchise in Quebec City and it intends to make every effort to achieve that goal.” Other than location, what could stop it? The company behind the bid is not just loaded, it has a working relationship with the league via broadcaster TVA. It has a spectacular building, Le Centre Videotron, on the verge of opening. And while the city is small, it has the Winnipeg success story to validate its aspirations.

The market would undoubtedly prove lucrative. So would a second team in Toronto, or perhaps more accurately, the Greater Toronto Area. There are hurdles to be crossed there, including the financing of a building along with potentially massive indemnification payments to the Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres. But that’s just money. If Graeme Roustan and his crew land a franchise they’ll make more of that than they’ll know what to do with.

The foundations for success are there. So why let geography dictate their admission?

Really, if the main obstacle to planting a franchise in a hockey-mad city with a state-of-the-art arena (or one potentially on the way) is that it wouldn’t address the problem of imbalanced conferences then maybe it’s time to re-examine the business plan.

Besides, there’s more than one solution to achieving balance. To whit: Eliminate the two-conference concept entirely.

Really, is any there any unshakeable reason for the league to remain attached to the East/West divide that’s always been more about convenience (remember when Detroit and Columbus were in the West?; how about when Toronto and Tampa Bay were in the ostensibly western Campbell Conference that included Los Angeles and Calgary, among others) than anything else?

So forget geography. Focus instead on the cities that have the greatest chance of success. Then worry about how to divvy them up.

If there are two worthy applicants, for example, the league can go to four eight-team divisions. Want to bring in three teams? Create three 11-team divisions. Either is viable with a 1 vs. 16 playoff format, although that’s certainly not the only way to skin the postseason cat.

There are bound to be some surprises as the process unfolds over the next few weeks. A fresh take on what qualifies, or disqualifies, a market should be one of them.

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