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.
That is to say, we reduced the NHL from its current 30-team incarnation to just 12 teams, so that it could mirror the size of the league in the post-1967 expansion era.
The rules were simple. No salary cap. No spending restrictions. The idea was to draft a team that could win a Stanley Cup in 2012-13, and not a fantasy hockey pool loaded with one-way offensive players either. Just as in the real world, the teams needed scorers, checkers, face-off men, minute-munching defencemen and quality goaltending.
The point of the exercise was to ponder how much better the overall NHL product might be if the riff raff disappeared.
A 12-team league might more closely resemble what happens during an Olympic hockey tournament, where the level of hockey is highly entertaining.
So which 12 teams made the cut? Tough call.
There were multiple possibilities. Two six-team divisions, one in Canada, one in the United States. Or you could base it strictly upon on financial factors - market size, valuations, revenue streams. Forbes Magazine annually assesses the dollar value of the present-day franchises on multiple fronts.
The model that made the most sense was splitting the league into Canadian and American conferences, which would feature 11 of the 12 highest revenue teams, plus the Edmonton Oilers (who were edged out by the Los Angeles Kings) on Forbes’ list.
So in the U.S. Conference: The New York Rangers, the Detroit Red Wings, the Boston Bruins, the Chicago Blackhawks, the Philadelphia Flyers and the Pittsburgh Penguins.
In the Canadian Conference: the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Montreal Canadiens, the Vancouver Canucks, the Calgary Flames, the Edmonton Oilers and the Ottawa Senators.
Now, if you wanted to blue sky the exercise to reflect markets where hockey matters the most, then the so-far-imaginary, but long-anticipated second team in Toronto (or Markham, Ont.) would likely fit the bill ahead of two-dozen others currently in the league.
The ideal world would then be an 18-team NHL, composed of two nine-team conferences, one in Canada, one in the United States.
If you added Markham, Ont. and Quebec to the seven existing Canadian teams, and then added the Los Angeles Kings, the Washington Capitals and the Minnesota Wild to the six U.S. teams that made the contraction draft cut, you’d likely guarantee that every team would make a profit or come close to breaking even on a reliable annual basis.
Moreover, if every team could make it on its own, without needing to dip into a revenue-sharing pool, then you would eliminate one of the biggest sticking points in the current lockout stalemate - how to prop up all the teams in non-traditional markets that need a helping hand to survive the NHL’s current economic model.
In fact, you could likely do away with the salary cap under that scenario and simply let market forces prevail - or alternatively put a limited drag on spending with a payroll (or luxury) tax.
Sports tends to be cyclical. For long-term stability, you want markets that are strong enough to survive the down times. Currently, the Edmonton Oilers make an interesting case study because they are in a pitched fight over financing for a new arena, arguing that their current home, Rexall Place, produces inadequate ancillary revenues to operate profitably in the current system.
However, the Oilers have been an NHL bottom-feeder for the past three years (30th, 30th, and 29th) and have missed the playoffs for six consecutive years. In all that time, support for the franchise, in one of the smallest markets in the NHL, has remained strong. So Edmonton makes the cut, because it has proven that it can weather the downtimes that generally occur for every team eventually.
If you lopped off anywhere from 200 to 400 jobs from the bottom of NHL rosters, you could create an interesting competition for playing positions at the edges of the line-up. The gap between the first and 50th best players in the league is far wider than the gap between the 400th and the 600th best player, where there generally isn’t much to distinguish one from the other.
Salaries might reflect star power. In the same way that George Clooney can get $10 million or more per movie but an extra might need to work for scale, that’s how free-market economics would operate in a pared-down NHL as well. Sidney Crosby would still earn top dollar, as would Steven Stamkos, Zdeno Chara and players in that top-tier category.
Below them, someone like the steady Willie Mitchell would keep his job, but maybe not Torrey Mitchell or John Mitchell.
What’s fair after all? People buy tickets to watch Crosby and Alex Ovechkin play. By rights, they should reap the benefits of their celebrity and their drawing power. People generally don’t pay to watch millionaire shot-blockers or penalty-killers or seven-minute-per-night fourth liners, so their salaries may end up dropping.
According to Forbes, the three top-earning teams in the league (Toronto, the Rangers and Montreal) posted an aggregate operating profit greater than the rest of the league combined in 2010-11, the most recent year in which figures are available. And at the bottom end, six teams (the Phoenix Coyotes, the New York Islanders, the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Anaheim Ducks and the San Jose Sharks) combined to lose $70.9 million in the same span. If you eliminated just six of the red-ink splotches, you’ve essentially eliminated the problem.
Since the first expansion, the NHL has, at different times, been a 12-, a 14-, a 16-, an 18-, a 17-, a 21-, a 22-, a 24-, a 26-, a 27-, a 28- and now a 30-team entity. At different times, it had as few as two Canadian teams and as many as eight.
Over the years and the shifting sands of NHL membership, one lesson has become clear: Sometimes, in the hockey business, bigger isn’t always better. Expanding too far too fast can lead to trouble.
Lean and efficient is preferable, especially for businesses that try to find niche operations such as the NHL, that relies heavily on a deeply ingrained love of a game, to separate customers from their hard-earned dollars.
The players association has been pretty outspoken about one point during the current labor dispute with the league - that they would like to find an elusive long-term solution to their differences, so owners stop locking them out every eight years or so.
Except for the necessary collateral damage - player jobs lost, the unhappiness expressed by hardcore fans in markets that saw their team disappear - it is hard to imagine why some form of contraction wouldn’t be the answer for a lot of what ails the NHL.