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The NHL should take a leaf out of European soccer’s book
Credit: Capture d'écran / Screenshot

Good news! The Arizona Coyotes are no longer one of the 32 active teams on the Bettman circuit. They have officially moved to Utah, and very few people are unhappy about the move, which, let’s face it, should have been made years ago.

The bad news, however, is that Gary Bettman is reportedly planning to add between two and four franchises to his already 32-team league in the near future: Houston, Atlanta, Arizona (they’ll be back if they manage to build an arena within five years), Kansas City, Quebec City, Portland, Milwaukee, Hartford and Longueuil Hamilton are all cities that have been the subject of rumours/speculation.

Frankly, I don’t think Alex Meruelo will be able to build an amphitheatre by 2029… when he couldn’t do it when he had a team. Take the billion, Alex, and take it easy!

36 teams: why it’s bad news
Why is it bad news to think that the NHL could go to 36 teams in five to ten years?

1. Because talent will be even more diluted. When Michael Pezzetta and Jesse Ylonen are regulars on your roster – and they’re playing against Connor McDavid and Nathan MacKinnon – there are too many teams in the best league in the world. And that you shouldn’t be in the same league as the Avalanche, for example!

2. Because if you don’t increase the number of teams in the playoffs, you’ll have 20 teams out of 36 playing 82 regular games of no real importance towards the end, and thus escaping the coolest moment of a hockey year: the playoffs. Your fan base can’t constantly watch others get something you never get. Talk to the brave souls who still support the Sabres…

3. Because increasing the number of playoff teams would only lengthen a season that’s already very/too long, with 82 regular games, six or seven playoff games and nearly 30 playoff games for the two finalist teams.

4. And because having a one-in-36 chance of winning the Stanley Cup is a problem. I don’t want to go back to a six-team league where the Habs – stronger than the others and backed by a geographically advantageous draft in Quebec – accumulated Cups like I accumulated debts when I was 19, but the other extreme wouldn’t be any better.

Now, there’s only one solution that I think would make this 36-team project worthwhile: creating two divisions (caliber) in the NHL.

Yes, as is done in soccer in practically every country. It’s not just guys who “fak” on the ground in soccer, Gilbert…

I know it would take courage and daring, but Gary Bettman could introduce NHL 1 and NHL 2, two leagues one below the other, with a few teams swapping places every summer. This is also done in European hockey,by the way.

NHL 1 would start with 16 teams, and NHL 2 with 16 teams.

Eight teams would participate in the playoffs in each of the two leagues. This could be increased to 10 – including a play-in for positions 7 to 10 – when four (or more) more franchises join the double circuit.

Between two and four teams could be promoted each year from NHL 2 to NHL 1, automatically relegating the same number of teams from NHL 1 to NHL 2: the regular-season champion, the playoff champion, the runner-up and, let’s say, the winner of an ultimate game (or two-of-three) between the two teams eliminated in the semi-finals could climb, while the eight teams that don’t make the playoffs in NHL 1 might have to participate in a possible tournament to avoid relegation.

I’m already salivating.

The salary cap could also be raised by $10 to $25 million in the first division, so more of the best players would play in NHL 1 than in NHL 2. This would create real superclubs… and send the expansion clubs into D2, not up against the best players on the planet.

The endless rebuilds would inevitably have to go through NHL 2, which would make NHL 1 play always at the top. And many owners would think twice before agreeing to rebuild and become rotten, since that would mean a multi-season stay in the second division (and no guaranteed short-term promotion afterwards).

And while we’re at it, we could also think about revisiting the draft formula. We could find a way to stop rewarding mediocrity with a lottery whose highest probabilities are given to the worst clubs on the circuit. In European soccer, you have to spot, develop via your academy (and its reputation) and keep the best young athletes, not hope for the opportunity to simply draft them at 18 because you’ve lost enough games to have good balls in the abacus!

Oh yes, I wouldn’t go out of my way to make geography fit in the divisions either. Everything will be decided on the basis of team performance. You want to play in the best league in the world, be my guest. And play against the other 15 to 17 teams in the division!

Since there would be more kilometers to travel between the different cities, series of games like in baseball or like during the NHL’s COVID season would be conceivable. It wouldn’t overwork the athletes, and it wouldn’t make the greens of the world react too much.

I’m pretty sure that such a system, which would offer meaningful games to quite a few people and heighten the fans’ emotions/passions, has already made Gary Bettman salivate. The problem is that Bettman doesn’t decide anything; it’s the governors/owners who have the final say. And I can see 17 or more owners being afraid of such a system, which could relegate them to a second-rate league.

Montreal would continue to support its club – fans have done so for the past three years, despite disappointing play on the ice – but cities like Anaheim, Columbus, San Jose and others probably wouldn’t have the necessary patience. And the owners of these teams know it!

Unfortunately, the current system is likely to remain in place… but if one day the NHL and its owners have a little courage, they’ll seriously consider the scenario I’ve just described.

Imagine next year a first league with the 16 teams that made the playoffs this year, and a second league with the others. And a process to migrate teams from one league to the other. It would be crazy!

In the meantime, I’ll continue to watch the Canadiens play in the best league in the world, despite a disappointing performance… while following the top-level European soccer circuits.

Like the Premier League right now! Who will win the title? Arsenal or Manchester City?

But above all, who will be relegated and who will be promoted?

In brief

– It makes sense.

– No surprises here.

– Ah, the playoffs!

– Yikes.

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