Contracting the NHL, either as a whimsical fantasy or as a real-life solution to its unique financial plight, is not exactly a new idea. Ever since the NHL expanded to a series of non-traditional markets to broaden its North American “footprint,” the game of the True North Strong And Free has had mixed success in the U.S. Sunbelt, both at the box office and in the accounting department.
In fact, one of the primary reasons why the NHL and the players association cannot come to terms on a new collective bargaining agreement right now is the problematic issue of what do to with the six-to-10 franchises that bleed red ink on an annual basis.
The players believe the problem can be addressed by enhancing the existing revenue-sharing system, which would (from their perspective) have the added benefit of preserving jobs in every one of those struggling markets. But a second, far more draconian solution is equally plausible, one which would be supported by anyone who believes the existing NHL talent pool is spread far too thinly across 30 teams:
Just shrink the NHL to a more manageable size by dumping cities that cannot support their teams, without massive handouts from the league’s richest franchises.
Consider what a smaller NHL looked like on the ice, even a single generation ago.
In 1991, in the 21-team era, the Pittsburgh Penguins won a Stanley Cup with six current Hall of Famers on the roster (Mario Lemieux, Paul Coffey, Ron Francis, Joe Mullen, Larry Murphy and Bryan Trottier), along with one future Hall Of Famer (Jaromir Jagr), a two-time 50-goal scorer (Kevin Stevens) and a couple of other players that still have an outside chance at making the HHOF grade (Tom Barrasso, Mark Recchi).
At the start of their dynasty, the 1984 Edmonton Oilers boasted five players that would go on to becoming leading playoff scorers of all time (Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Glenn Anderson and Coffey). They too are in the Hall of Fame.
Playing in an 18-team league, the 1977 Montreal Canadiens lost just eight out of 80 regular-season games, with a line-up that boasted Ken Dryden, the Big Three on D (Larry Robinson, Serge Savard, Guy Lapointe), plus Guy Lafleur, Jacques Lemaire, Bob Gainey and Steve Shutt. Eight more HHOF members.
The point is simply this:
Somewhere between the time the NHL launched its first expansion (from six to 12 teams for the start of the 1967-68 season) and its current incarnation, with 30 franchises scattered all across North America, the NHL went from too few teams to too many.
The European invasion enhanced the overall player pool, as did the ever- increasing U.S. contribution to the player population.
Still, in the current era, where NHL payrolls are governed by a salary cap, and the talent pool is spread to 30 outposts around Canada and the United States, the likelihood that you could ever put together a team of Edmonton’s stature in the Gretzky era - or Pittsburgh’s in the Lemieux era - is laughable.
The salary cap would prevent it; because salary caps are designed to bring parity to the league. Even when a team happened to catch a sweet spot in its roster cycle - as the Penguins did when they brought Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal all together at the same time - the limitations at the lower end of the roster eventually catch up to you.
But what if Social Darwinism ever came to the NHL and forced all the minnows in Gary Bettman’s pond to fend for themselves?
Without revenue-sharing to prop them up, you’d soon be down to 24 teams, maybe fewer. And what if you took it a step further? What if you grafted the present-day talent pool onto a 12-team NHL? How would that look? Which players would make the cut? Which would be exiled to the minors?
It got us thinking and then it got us to act. The plan was to pull together a dozen bright minds from the Globe staff and the blogosphere and ask them to participate in a contraction draft.