The Theory of Contraction

The Hockey News recently published a magazine with a series of hypothetical debates. While this is primarily something to fill the void as the current lockout continues, the debates to bring up several interesting talking points.

Among the highly-contested issues is whether the NHL should have ever expanded. A surprising majority of hockey writers maintained that the NHL should have remained a 21 team league -- that means no San Jose Sharks, Tampa Bay Lightning, Ottawa Senators, Florida Panthers, Anaheim Mighty Ducks, Minnesota Wild, Columbus Blue Jackets, Atlanta Thrashers, or Nashville Predators. These advocates feel that the talent pool has been diluted to such an extent that chopping off a third of the league is necessary.

Twenty-one-team supporters don't take into account that many players come from the United States and Europe. Considering the league first expanded into San Jose in 1991, that's over a decade of European and American-born talent that moved into the league. Saying that there should only be 21 teams means that players such as Marian Gaborik, Markus Naslund, Peter Forsberg, Ilya Kovalchuk, Chris Drury, Scott Gomez, Brian Rafalski, and Rick Dipietro have not contributed to the league.

These writers do make a point in that the league expanded much too quickly. Canadian players make up roughly half of the NHL, down from around 70% in the early '90s. To make up for that, the league should have expanded by 20%, as well. That would account for 25 teams, but let's round that up to 26 teams just to make things even.

Going by this logic, the Thrashers, Predators, Wild, and Blue Jackets should never have existed. If these franchises never came into being, the NHL landscape could look wildly (no pun intended) different. Let's look at the amount of NHL caliber players each team carries, discounting marginal talent and NHL/AHL borderline players using last season's roster.

Atlanta Thrashers (16 players)

Forwards: Ilya Kovalchuk, Shawn McEachern, Slava Kozlov, Marc Savard, Patrik Stefan, Dany Heatley, Randy Robitaille, Serge Aubin

Defense: Frantisek Kaberle, Andy Sutton, Daniel Tjarnqvist, Ivan Majesky, Chris Tamer

Goal: Pasi Nurminen, Byran Dafoe, Kari Lehtonen

Nashville Predators (16 players)

Forwards: Steve Sullivan, Scott Malker, Martin Erat, David Legwand, Vladimir Orszagh, Scott Hartnell, the late Sergei Zholtok, Greg Johnson, Denis Arkhipov, Rem Murray

Defense: Marek Zidlicky, Kimmo Timonen, Dan Hamhuis, Jason York, Mark Eaton

Goal: Tomas Vokoun

Minnesota Wild (15 players)

Forwards: Alexander Daigle, Andrew Brunette, Marian Gaborik, Antti Laaksonen, Pascal Dupis, Richard Park, Wes Walz, Jason Wiemer, Marc Chouinard

Defense: Filip Kuba, Andrei Zyuzin, Nick Schultz, Willie Mitchell

Goal: Dwayne Roloson, Manny Fernandez

Columbus Blue Jackets (14 players)

Forwards: Rick Nash, David Vyborny, Nikolai Zherdev, Todd Marchant, Trevor Letowski, Andrew Cassels, Manny Malhotra, Alex Svitov

Defense: Anders Eriksson, Jaroslav Spacek, Rostislav Klesla, Luke Richardson, Scott Lachance

Goal: Marc Denis

That's a total of 61 players here that would probably get an NHL job somewhere in the 26-team league. Essentially, most teams would get two more players, while a few would get three. If your team is carrying AHL-caliber players on its fourth line or last defensive pairing, this makes a world of difference.

If your team is one of the lucky ones that get upper level talent -- and if you're going by top two line forwards or top three defensemen, that's about a third of the talent here -- then your team suddenly gets a dramatic shot in the arm. Imagine Rick Nash playing alongside Olli Jokinen in Florida or Chris Pronger pairing with Marek Zidlicky in St. Louis.

Theoretical contraction to 26 teams essentially shifts off the very bottom rung of players and sends them back to the AHL. The adjustment of talent is subtle, but would have an overall positive effect on the league. However, the problems killing hockey these days are overcoaching and inferior officiating.

Would eliminating teams get rid of the neutral zone trap? Hockey writers in support of contraction would like to think so, but the truth of the matter is that the trap is a coaching tactic, not a measure of talent. It helps lesser-talented teams achieve victory, but plenty of talent-laden teams use it, as well.

Obstruction-hooking, clutching, grabbing-is the other primary evil in the NHL. If the refs called the rules instead of turning a blind eye to these minor infractions, speedy players would get more room to skate, forechecking would hit harder, and the pace would be faster. It may not necessarily generate more goals, but there would be increased flow to the game, which translates into excitement and entertainment for the fans.

Comments and Conversation

November 19, 2004

Eric Poole:

Like you, I would have staked out a middle ground between no expansion and the madness the NHL engaged in.

I would have stopped at 24 teams, rather than your suggested 26, but that’s not really a big difference.

Your statement that Marian Gaborik et al wouldn’t have contributed had the league remained at 21 teams doesn’t fit. Those players would have contributed, for existing squads.

In any event, as you said, the problem isn’t the neutral zone trap, it’s that the talent is spread so thin that most teams don’t have enough quality skaters to punish teams for playing the trap.

That, and the chickens*** referees who are too cowardly to call interference, especially late in games.

November 22, 2004

Joseph Butson:

Your very good assumptions about officiating and overcoaching and the re-distribution scenario are thought provoking. But I think they are symptoms of a badly managed league. The NHL management is responsible all of the things you mentioned. They sold the new teams, they reign over the coaches and officials and care about the economics of the game from a strict “upside” perspective. The current regime are more competent than the last but let me add to your suggestions. Fire Bettman and move the NHL head office back to Montreal. Bettman thinks hoc\key is like basketbll and clearly it is not as popular in the south so re-orient it to the North and focus on integration with the excellent leagues in Europe and the North of the US.

What the NHL needs is a new commissioner and it should be a player. Bobby Orr or Wayne Gretzky would do fine. The players, who are going to bear the long term cost of the strike, will settle, eventually but why should they safeguard their game if the owners won’t face facts that their “leader” hasn’t delivered all of what he promised.


November 29, 2004




January 2, 2005


There is no way the league can survive if it has to buyout 6 teams - I doubt the current owners would shell out the money needed to buy back these franchises. I personally would prefer a 24 team league.

January 20, 2005

kevin salmon:

I have to side with the owners on the lockout situation. Sure they are ones that are willingly paying the big salaries, but is also pressure from the players and the fans that are driving them up. There needs to be a more equitable way of spreading what little wealth the league has, especially without a large television contract. There is so much pressure to win. Too many times we have sen small market teams have to trade away budding superstars, because they know they cant afford to resign them at next contract. Its not fair to the fans or the teams. And we all know, that if the owners got together and agreed to keep salaries and increases in hand, then they would soon be being sued by the players union for collusion. There needs to be some sort of cap. A league without big money coming in via TV contracts etc, cant afford to be paying players 10 million a year. I have very little sympathy for the players. They are playing a GAME., and being handsomely rewarded for it. They are living out all hockey players dreams. They can argue that their careers are short on average, but in those few years, they are set for life, and can live very well on what they put away, while the rest of us poor working stiffs file into boring, dead end jobs with the hope of a watch when we are 65..With some smart investing, those guys will never ned to work again. And they still complain….give it a rest.
and while the NHL is shut down, I say let it stay shut down and fix all that is wrong with it. It has become a boring, unwatchable mess. It should be the high speed skill sport it is, but all it has become is an hour of clutching, grabbing and dumping the puck into the zone. The emphasis is no longer scoring to win, it is now making sure the opponent has as few scoring chances as possible. Sure everyone likes to see a shutout now and then, but not every freaking night! Now if you watch hockey, as soon as the first team scores, you might as well shut it of, because from that point on, the team with the lead adopts the attitude of shutting down the opponent completely, rather than trying to score more goals as would be more exciting for the fans. So they clutch, grab, mug and dump. This situation is made worse, and this crap style of play is made easy in the small NHL rinks. Over the years the players have gotten much bigger, the equipment has grown to the size where they look like they are wearing football shoulder pads, the goalie equipment is huge. When the league was at its best was an era when there were around ten players with 50 or more goals. That figure has gone down. The rinks need to be made bigger to properly accomadate the larger players. Watching Olympic hockey on the larger venues has made this obvious. Those games featured much more skating and sustained play. In comparison, watching some NHL games is like watching them play in a phone booth..DULL, DULL, DULL. The best players seldom get the opportunity to be the best players consistently throughout the game. And the fans suffer for it. I am sure there are thousands of other fans that have slowly been turned of by the game. At first it was no longer buying tickets to NHL games, as the tickets were too expensive, and the games too boring. But I still watched all the games on TV, as I remained an NHL fan. Now I dont even watch it on TV anymore, for all the reasons listed in my rant. Dont get me wrong, I’m still a hockey fan. I just am no longer an NHL fan.

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