Seattle was officially awarded the 32nd NHL franchise last week, the culmination of a years-long process that absolutely everyone knew was leading to exactly this outcome. The announcement came one year to the day after Seattle voted to upgrade KeyArena, at which point the NHL’s decision became a mere formality.
Why was Seattle’s bid such a foregone conclusion, and can the team be an instant contender like the Vegas Golden Knights? The answer to both questions boils down to money: Seattle was a lock because the NHL has no viable alternatives left, and the salary cap ensures that actually talented players will be available to Seattle, as they were to Vegas in 2017.
The team will begin play in the 2021–22 season under an ownership group that includes Jerry Fucking Bruckheimer. Casual fans’ first question—what will they call themselves?—has a shortlist in the form of 13 trademark applications filed by the Oak View Groups legal team. With the exception of Sockeyes (local color!) and Totems (resurrecting a long-time Seattle WHL franchise name, but it’s probably a good time to declare Native American-themed names canceled), all of the options being considered are either generic or stupid.
While fans mock up uniforms and logos in Illustrator, far more important questions await the NHL in light of the Golden Knights experience. VGK players are, by earlier agreement, exempt from this expansion draft. It’s hard to imagine that established teams, especially struggling major-market ones, want to create another team that is a contender from day one. But the salary cap has fundamentally changed what an expansion draft is. In the past it was a simpler question of who was protected and who was exposed. Now that takes a back seat to side deals cut among GMs.
The process offers the front offices of existing teams a golden opportunity to rid themselves of the ghosts of free agency past. Given that most NHL players don’t first become UFAs until they are around 28—just in time to get overpaid for their declining years—every team has at least a couple of appalling deals on the books. Vegas GM George McPhee, starting from a clean salary cap slate, was willing to take other teams’ bad contracts—at a steep price. Several teams paid it. Columbus, for example, was so desperate to rid itself of David Clarkson’s contract that it offered a young guy with scoring potential named William Karlsson as an incentive. He scored more goals last season than any NHL player not named Ovechkin or Laine.
Anaheim gave VGK Shea Theodore to take Clayton Stoner. Florida arranged the (still baffling) twin-dumping of Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith. The Islanders gave Vegas a first- and a second-round pick to take on Mikhail Grabovski’s dead weight. (To clear cap space for John Tavares. Ouch.) And unbelievably, the Penguins bribed the Knights with a second-round pick to take Marc-Andre Fleury. You know, the guy they wanted all along and who immediately became the cornerstone of the franchise.
Seattle’s expansion draft will be held under the same rules as Vegas’s, and this will happen again. Pittsburgh didn’t care how much Fleury helped VGK contend. They simply wanted to be free of his contract to clear the decks for Matt Murray. Which would be worth more valuable to a team like the Blackhawks: trying to hamstring Seattle or unloading the $6.875 million it owes Brent Seabrook annually until the heat death of the universe? Create a team from scratch, with no existing contracts, and contenders with cap crunches will line up every time. No combination of rules will stop creative front offices in Seattle and elsewhere from this kind of dealing.
Roster aside, the birth of a Seattle team affects the future landscape of the NHL. It is unlikely that the league will expand beyond 32 teams any time soon, but relocation is probably inevitable. For now, only Gary Bettman’s intransigence is keeping moribund Sun Belt franchises like Arizona and Florida in place. Those teams are like the fart-stuffed recliner that you won’t be able to throw away until Grandpa dies. Harsh? Reports claim the Coyotes have lost nearly two hundred million dollars in the past six years. Befouled furniture is too kind a metaphor. When Bettman departs and the league can finally stop pouring money into his vanity projects, where will the Coyotes (or any other team seeking relocation) go?
Seattle competed against only itself for this expansion slot. The sole issue was if Oak View could raise the capital both to pay the expansion fee ($650 million) and renovate KeyArena ($600 million). Last spring, the team needed only 12 minutes to reach its self-appointed goal 10,000 season ticket deposits. (It had taken Vegas about six weeks to hit that mark.) At that point there were no further questions.
In 2015, Vegas wasn’t the only city in the hunt; there was also a strong bid from Quebec City. Winnipeg (which received the failing Atlanta Thrashers in 2011) proved that Canadian markets can compensate for comparatively small populations with their exuberance for hockey. QC also had the newly built, 18,000-seat Centre Vidéotron to show off, courtesy of French-language media colossus Quebecor.
Quebec City was probably being penciled in as the 32nd franchise, but the bid was sunk by insurmountable obstacles: the weak Canadian dollar (all NHL business is conducted in U.S. dollars), the lack of obvious corporate sponsors beyond Quebecor in a tiny market, and the Montreal Canadiens’ insistence on being paid a handsome fee (upwards of $100 million, according to rumor) for encroaching upon their territory. A similar demand by Toronto has hamstrung efforts to bring a franchise to nearby Hamilton.
Quebec City submitted no bid this time. That big, expensive arena can’t be without a major tenant forever, though.
With Canada’s few big cities exhausted—places like Halifax and Saskatoon are about the size of Joliet, Ill.—what options remain? Seattle was the last remaining obvious choice. Kansas City failed once as an NHL market and there doesn’t seem to be the same civic will as when KC came close to getting the Penguins a generation ago. With two (perhaps three, counting Carolina) Southern U.S. teams already on shaky ground, places like Houston, Orlando, or Atlanta will be non-starters for a while.
Other U.S. candidates are too close to existing franchises (Baltimore, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Hartford, Memphis) or too risky (Omaha, KC, OKC). Portland may merit a look—if Seattle thrives.
An intriguing option is expanding overseas to a hockey hotbed like Sweden or Finland. Deputy commissioner Bill Daly recently called European expansion “inevitable” while also stressing that it is not going to happen in the “short or medium term.” The NHL, a generally cautious league (notwithstanding its gamble on introducing pro sports to Las Vegas two years ahead of the NFL), will probably wait to see how the NFL’s inexorable London Jaguars experiment goes.
So, three years ahead of Seattle even taking the ice, we can say with confidence a few things about that team and the league it’ll enter. The product in Seattle is likely to be good; like Vegas, they will be in a strong position to build a quality team quickly thanks to eager GMs with salary cap woes around the league, though there’s still the question of having to hit on nearly every deal, the way McPhee and Vegas did. The fan base should be large and engaged, given the way Seattle embraced the Sounders and how the city’s lack of an NBA team makes it ripe for a winter sport. And we can say about as confidently as possible that this will be the last true expansion team for a long while, for the same reason there was a total absence of drama or competition throughout this process: When considering the alternatives to Seattle, there are none.