With the recent expansion bids by Las Vegas and Quebec, the NHL could expand from its current 30 franchises to 32. The NHL has seen substantial growth over its 100-year history, with the league going from six to the aforementioned 30. So what could the ramifications of an expansion have on the Capitals? And what could we expect the process to look like? Let’s go back to past expansions and find out.
On June 24, 2015, the league started accepting applications for expansion. The last team to do so was in 2011, when the Atlanta Thrashers moved to Winnipeg to become the modern-day version of the Winnipeg Jets. Since it was simply relocating, the roster did not have to be assembled from scratch. However, if Quebec and/or Las Vegas is awarded a franchise, they’d have to dip into other teams’ rosters to form theirs.
Taking a look at the process in which expansion takes place is key to understanding how teams become successful. For example, Las Vegas, one of the two cities that placed bids, could only be a viable option for an NHL club if there was substantial interest in the sport. Surprisingly, interest in ice hockey dates back to 1991, when Wayne Gretzky and the Los Angeles Kings took on the New York Rangers outdoors. Las Vegas boasted a minor league team known as the Las Vegas Thunder, which operated from 1993-1999. Several former NHL players were members of the Thunder at some point in time, including: Petr Nedved, Radek Bonk, Pavol Demitra, Alexei Yashin, Ruslan Salei, and former Caps goalie Clint Malarchuk. So the interest in the game is not as low as one might think.
As mentioned previously, the new organization(s) would dip into another franchise’s roster to construct the founding team’s depth chart. The league allowed each existing franchise to protect one goalie, five defensemen, and nine forwards, or two goalies, three defensemen, and seven forwards. For example, if a team lost a goalie in 1998 when the Nashville Predators were established, they could not lose a netminder in 1999, when the Thrashers were formed. The Capitals lost forward Andrew Brunette to the Predators, and defenseman Mark Tinordi to the Thrashers. Though the loss of Brunette did not impact the Caps significantly, the loss of Tinordi hurt the Caps; Tinordi had been a key part of the team’s run to the Stanley Cup Final. Going back further in 1974, the year the Capitals entered the NHL, there was a second organization: the Kansas City Scouts (who would eventually relocate to New Jersey), alternated picks with Washington; meaning each team had the same amount of selections. Among the Capitals’ most-notable selections were Goalie Ron Low with their first pick, and former captain Yvon Labre with their fourth pick. Labre, as every fan knows, had his No. 7 retired by the team after he spend seven seasons with the organization.
Some notable players have been lost by other NHL teams over the years as well. In the Predators’ expansion year, they took goaltenders Mike Richter and Tomas Vokoun from the New York Rangers and Montreal Canadiens, respectively. The Caps lost Tinordi, as mentioned above, and Brunette, but overall did not lose major players. If an expansion does take place in the future, the divisions may have to be realigned once again. If Quebec is rewarded a franchise, the Nordiques will likely be reformed. With its proximity to Montreal, Quebec would likely be in the Atlantic division, while Las Vegas would presumably be in the Central or Pacific.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman stated in 2014 that the process of an expansion team would take “two or three years”, meaning it may be awhile before we see any real progress in the construction of teams or arenas, which is another key component. A city must be able to support an organization by providing a place to play, as well as being able to host visiting fans. It’s also extremely important that the team have success. The Thrashers made the playoffs just once in the 12-year history of the franchise. Their first year’s average attendance was 17,206. It dropped for most of the team’s tenure in Atlanta, only rising slightly. It’s final season attendance was 13,469. Success plays an important role in attendance numbers and the Thrashers were not able to sustain a winning team.
The most-recent expansion teams were the Minnesota Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets. While Minnesota is a hockey hotbed, Columbus took time to become a competitive, dangerous team. Columbus to begin with is not a natural hockey market, but as the team’s success has increased, so too has its attendance. Expansion can be exciting, but it also poses a challenge for the new team’s city, the league itself, and the teams already in existence.
By Michael Fleetwood