The Expansion Question

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Has game, Canada been compromised?

As part of our five-part series on NHL expansion, we asked ESPN's NHL analysts to give their thoughts on whether expansion has come at the expense of NHL hockey in Canada. Then, they address the issue of talent dilution in the 30-team league.

Now that there are 30 teams, the next step is to get 30 financially solid teams. Gary Bettman has said once they got to 30, they wanted the next five years to go back and solidify all the teams and make sure they are strong franchises, now and in the years to come. He has to do that.

In terms of the product on the ice, expansion has diluted the talent pool, but not to the extent you might think. When there were six teams, Canada -- a country of only 20 million people -- supplied 99 percent of the players on those teams. Now, there are 30 teams, but we've got the whole world supplying players. Ideally, the whole world would supply the talent for only six teams, but that's not the way sports works today. There is still plenty of talent; you saw that in the playoffs this year. There are still a lot of great players on great teams in the NHL.

The current exchange rate is sinking the ship of the small market Canadian teams. The markets in Canada are no smaller than the U.S. markets, but the Canadian markets don't get the economic breaks. The NHL can't throw money at small market teams in Canada just to keep them afloat. The Canadian government should have helped when they had the opportunity to do so. There are cities and ownership groups waiting, with rinks built, for an NHL team. It wouldn't be surprising if Edmonton, Calgary, or perhaps even Ottawa, ended up in Portland before this is over.

It would be silly to say the overall quality of play hasn't been hurt by expansion. Teams with a core group of upper-echelon players continue to lose their best guys or their highly regarded prospects. We have talent from Europe we didn't have before, which certainly helps. But it doesn't negate the fact that if there were only 16 teams in the NHL, the product would be absolutely outstanding.

Putting teams in Minnesota and Columbus doesn't mean the NHL is ignoring the Canadian markets. There's just not much more they can do to help them. The league does have a subsidy plan, but they can't be a subsistence fund. There is no secret formula to the economic landscape for pro hockey in Canada; the salaries have become so cost prohibitive that teams better be able to put a lot of people in the seats to survive. And there is no question the NHL will be successful in Minnesota; it is the greatest hockey state of all the 50 states and it was a crying shame when they didn't have a pro team there. Columbus is a great expansion market because they aren't competing with any other major sport franchises, and they'll draw from many of the out-lying areas in Ohio.

The offense in the NHL is down not because of diluted talent caused by expansion but because of excellence in coaching defensive systems. More countries, including the U.S., Russia, Sweden and the Czech Republic are producing more skilled players than ever before. With the influx of good young talent from all over the world, if there is a slightly diluted talent pool, it will only be a couple of seasons before the skill level catches up to expansion.

The NHL wants to be the same size as the other major sports leagues, and their plan has always included increasing the number of American markets. Minnesota is an obvious choice because of the enormous hockey interest there, and Columbus is a great television market. At the same time, the NHL doesn't want to lose their franchises in Canada. They know profit sharing is going to have to continue in a big way for Canadian teams to exist. The next critical period for Canadian markets will be the upcoming collective bargaining agreement. Until then, the league is in a sort of holding pattern.

When you keep increasing the number of teams, it becomes a challenge to stock all those teams with enough talent. Even though it's been fun to see lots of great players come into the NHL from all over the world, expansion does spread the talent pool a little bit thinner; it's only natural.

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