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Examining Future NHL Expansion Scenarios

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Other cities besides Las Vegas are seeking an expansion bid. What would the NHL look like with 32 teams?

After a unanimous vote of approval from the current owners, Las Vegas will become the home of the newest NHL franchise. Though Vegas is the only city to receive an expansion team, other cities have shown interest in housing a new hockey franchise.

Expansion and relocation can affect the landscape of the NHL. If a team relocates to a remote location, it can cause logistical travel problems. The Atlanta Thrashers moved to Winnipeg in 2011, but remained in the Southeast Division until 2013 despite being at least 1,200 miles from any of their divisional opponents. Adding new teams to the league might encourage realignment. 

The realignment in 2013 created four divisions split between two conferences. The Western divisions had seven teams each, while the Eastern divisions had eight. To balance the divisions in each conference, the Detroit Red Wings became an Eastern Conference team.

The NHL’s expansion to Las Vegas increases its size to 31 teams. Vegas will play in the Pacific Division, which will now have eight teams. For now, no further realignment is planned when Vegas begins play. If another city receives an expansion team, realignment could fix any geographical imbalances by the new team.

One potential city for expansion is Seattle. Seattle would balance the conferences with 16 teams each. A team in Seattle would also create a new TV market in Oregon and Washington, which would span the large area between San Jose and Vancouver. The team would have a potential rival in Vancouver, which is only a few hours away.

If Seattle was awarded a team along with Vegas, the Western divisions would be unbalanced. One option in this case would be to add Seattle to the Pacific Division, while moving the Arizona Coyotes to the Central Division. Seattle would be a geographic rival of Vancouver, as the two cities are only 140 miles apart. Arizona is the only team in the Pacific that lacks a strong divisional rivalry. The Coyotes would be relatively close to Colorado and Dallas, which could develop as new division rivals. Although the Coyotes are almost 600 miles from Denver, all of the other Pacific teams would have nearby rival teams.

                     Map from Seattle and Las Vegas locations added.

Quebec City is another potential expansion candidate. Media company Quebecor, which owns Quebec City’s new arena, made an expansion bid along with Vegas. Their bid was ultimately deferred, a result of the weakened Canadian dollar. Though the economy limited their chances this year, Quebec City has been vying for an NHL return.

Quebec City would most likely join the Atlantic Division, where they would rekindle their old rivalry with the Montreal Canadiens, who are only three hours away. If NHL hockey returns to Quebec City, there would likely be at least one team that switches divisions. Las Vegas would add to the West, but Quebec City would give the Eastern Conference 17 teams.

To balance the conferences, one team would need to move to the Western Conference. The Detroit Red Wings would be fit in well in the Central Division, considering they’re within 600 miles of four Central teams. Switching conferences would give the Red Wings more games against their Western rivals, including the Chicago Blackhawks and Colorado Avalanche.

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          Map from Quebec City and Las Vegas locations added.

With 32 teams, it would also be possible to create divisions of four teams, similar to the NFL’s eight-division, two-conference format. While the current four-division format would still work, splitting the divisions could improve geographic rivalries and travel times. If Seattle receives an expansion team, they would fit with the three western Canadian teams to form a division, while Vegas would create a division with the three California teams. 

Northwest DivisionSeattle, Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary
Pacific DivisionLos Angeles, Anaheim, Las Vegas, San Jose
Southwest DivisionArizona, Colorado, Dallas, Nashville
Central DivisionWinnipeg, Chicago, Minnesota, St. Louis
SoutheastFlorida, Tampa Bay, Carolina, Washington
NortheastMontreal, Boston, Ottawa, Toronto
MetropolitanN.Y. Rangers, N.Y. Islanders, New Jersey, Buffalo
AtlanticDetroit, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Columbus

If Quebec City is the 32nd team, the eight divisions would look slightly different. Without a team in Seattle, the four Western Canadian teams could form a division, while the Red Wings would take Winnipeg’s spot to form a new Central Division. Quebec City would form a division with three other far-northeastern teams, including the Montreal Canadiens.

Northwest DivisionEdmonton, Calgary, Vancouver, Winnipeg
Pacific DivisionLos Angeles, Anaheim, San Jose, Las Vegas
Southwest DivisionArizona, Colorado, Dallas, Nashville
Central DivisionDetroit, Chicago, Minnesota, St. Louis
Southeast DivisionFlorida, Tampa Bay, Carolina, Washington
Northeast DivisionQuebec City, Montreal, Boston, Ottawa
Metropolitan DivisionN.Y. Rangers, N.Y. Islanders, New Jersey, Buffalo
Atlantic DivisionToronto, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Columbus

Switching to an eight-division format would improve travel times for most teams, especially in some of the geographically larger divisions. If each team had only three divisional rivals, it would decrease the amount of travel among divisional opponents. The Central Division is particularly large. The two closest teams in the division, St. Louis and Nashville, are separated by 230 miles. Dallas and Colorado are particularly isolated, with at least 600 miles between them and each of their divisional opponents. 

There would be challenges to finding the best realignment scenario. The distance between teams in the South Central region would still be large, no matter how the divisions would be shaped. If Arizona was forced to join the Central Division, they would be forced to travel over 500 miles for all of their divisional games.

Besides the logistical issues, a few teams have also struggled financially. Recently, there have been emerging doubts about the Hurricanes’ future in Raleigh, while the Arizona Coyotes have continued to face financial woes. This does not mean another expansion team is off the table. Las Vegas received an expansion team despite Arizona’s uncertain future. 

For now, the divisions will remain unchanged when Las Vegas joins the league. If any other expansion teams emerge in the near future, realignment will be likely. Until another expansion team is created, it will be difficult to predict exactly how the landscape of the NHL will look like in the future.

Edited by Jeremy Losak, Jazmyn Brown.

Which of these NHL expansion teams is the oldest?
Created 6/29/16
  1. Nashville Predators
  2. Columbus Blue Jackets
  3. Tampa Bay Lightning
  4. San Jose Sharks

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