How NHL expansion will work; Quebec City now out in cold
Quebec City never had a chance.
To the surprise of no one, the market's expansion bid was found lacking by the NHL's Executive Committee, which instead has voted to admit Las Vegas as the sole new franchise for the 2017-18 season.
The return of the Nordiques is on hold. Indefinitely.
On the surface, it doesn't make much sense. The city has a rich and long-standing hockey history, a deep and passionate fan base, a brilliantly appointed new arena and, most important, a well-heeled owner-in-waiting. You could have bet the house on QC, a market that, in the words of NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly, "checks off all the boxes."
But the Executive Committee was looking for more than just an impressive application. It needed two things that Quebec City couldn't provide: location and a stable currency.
The impetus for even considering expansion was a desire to address the league's geographical imbalance. The Eastern Conference currently hosts 16 teams, two more than the West. Vegas meets that need, no muss, no fuss. QC just happens to be in the wrong place.
It's also in the wrong time. Two years ago, when this process first found its legs, the Canadian dollar was at 92 cents U.S., enhanced largely by the strength of the commodities market. But when the price of oil crashed, it took the loonie down with it. It floundered around 68 cents for a time before rebounding to its current 78 cents. That's a viable level, but the rapid fluctuation has already cut deeply into the bottom line. Commissioner Gary Bettman told Bloomberg News it could cost the league as much as $200 million when the numbers are all sorted out.
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And that's just one year. The league feels the loonie eventually will level off around 80 cents, but the uncertainty ate away at the appeal of the market, dooming the bid.
There's a hockey logic to adding QC, but not a business one. Not now, anyway. Maybe not ever. From the league's perspective, it just makes more sense to hold the 32nd spot and hope that Seattle's dysfunctional politicians stop shooting themselves in the foot long enough to get a downtown arena built. That, after all, is the market that got this whole expansion process rolling in the first place. And it's one the league is willing to wait for.
So now, we wait until the official announcement, which is expected on June 22. At that point we could have a nickname (Black Knights is the very appealing odds-on favorite). Maybe even a jersey design.
We should also have a better idea of how the expansion draft process will work. We've known for some time that existing teams would be allowed to protect seven forwards, three defensemen and one goalie or eight skaters and one goalie (an option that would allow defense heavy teams to protect those assets at the expense of exposing more forwards). Details are starting to leak out about further stipulations, including these from James Mirtle of the Globe and Mail:
- The expansion team is required to select one player from every team including a minimum of three goalies, nine defenseman and 14 forwards.
- Teams are not allowed to reacquire players that the team traded between Jan. 1, 2017 and Jan. 1, 2018, so that arrangements are not made to “hide” certain players from getting drafted.
- Teams must expose at least two forwards and one defenseman who played 40 games in the 2016-2017 season, or 70 games in the previous two seasons.
- The expansion team must build a roster that reaches at least 60 percent of the 2016-2017 salary cap.
- The expansion team is not allowed to buy out anybody who was picked in the draft until the following off-season.
- The expansion team will have the same draft lottery odds as the team that finished third-last in the league, and will not be allowed to pick lower than sixth at the 2017 NHL Entry Draft.
- Teams are required to protect players who possess no-movement clauses active during the 2017-2018 season.
Of those, the 40/70 rule is the most intriguing. It suggests the availability of more young, NHL-ready players for Vegas to choose from, setting them up with a prospect base that can contribute immediately as well as in the future. It could also impact the way current teams work their rosters next season to ensure they have enough qualifying players to expose at the draft.
Existing teams then will lose one quality player to expansion. No doubt that was an easier sell than asking them to cough up a second player at the same time to Quebec City.
So the hockey dream moves a step closer to reality for a town that didn't even know it had one. And QC is on the outside, an expansion reject left holding on to the slim hope of relocation.