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Do the Right Thing: Avoid Expansion
By Jim Iovino, Ace Reporter

Eleven different applicants in nine cities are salivating at the thoughts of bringing the best ice hockey in the world to their towns, yet the NHL isn't as keen on taking the fastest game on ice to new marketplaces anytime soon.

A little over a week ago, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announced that league expansion is highly unlikely for the 1997-98 season and that no firm timetable is in place for when the league will add more teams. If Bettman and the NHL Board of Governors are smart, they should put any thoughts of expansion on the back burner and let them simmer for years.

NHL hockey might be the "coolest game on earth," but what fans pay big money to see on the ice today is a watered-down version of hockey filled with marginal talent and marginal action. Since 1991, the NHL has introduced five new teams, with the latest expansion in 1993, bringing the league's total number of teams to 26. And with the addition of each new team, the league's talent pool has been depleted, the style of play has changed and the game itself has evolved into a weak comparison of what it was in the past.

Looking at the leading scorers for each team in the league, it is easy to see how far the talent level in the league has gone down. Fourteen of 26 teams in the NHL do not have a leading scorer who is averaging over a point per game. There are two factors in this. First of all, the number of superstars in the league does not equate with the number of teams. And second, because of the lack of superior talent, a majority of teams in the league try to make up by playing tight-checking or clutch-and-grab hockey. That means low-scoring games, trap defenses, hooking, holding and interference, smothering of the star players' talent and a general decrease in the flow of NHL games.

Stars like Mario Lemieux have become frustrated with the increased clutching and grabbing throughout the league. And as well he should be. The tight-checking style of game has made the average NHL player just as valuable (if not more) as the superstar. Unfortunately, teams that pay the superstars a hell of a lot more money than other teams pay the grinders feel cheated because their stars can't accomplish what they're supposed to go out on the ice and do.

Expansion would not help the cause. Adding more teams to the league would mean more marginal players added to NHL rosters -- players who in all honesty shouldn't be there. Even today there are players on big league rosters who can't excel at the minor league level, but due to the number of roster spots open on teams, and because of high salaries, those players are being used too frequently.

Perhaps the last great season in the NHL was the 1992-93 campaign. The San Jose Sharks organization was already in the league for a season, while the Tampa Bay Lightning and Ottawa Senators joined the NHL for the first time. However, even though all three teams struggled, there still seemed to be enough talent to go around. Leagues such as the IHL were developing some quality players, and the exploitation of leagues in Russia and all across Europe was in full force. While the expansion teams didn't do well on the ice, they didn't impede the progress of the rest of the league in any shape or form, either. Mario Lemieux came back to beat out Pat LaFontaine in an exciting scoring race. Teemu Selanne and Alexander Mogilny each shocked the league by scoring 76 goals. Teams did not win by hooking and holding their opponent, but by playing better hockey.

The next season Anaheim and Florida entered the league, and signs that expansion was taking its toll were everywhere. Existing rosters were depleted in order to satisfy the new teams, but capable replacements weren't available because of all the expansion over the past few seasons. Scoring was down across the board, but it was by no means due to better goaltending. Teams that didn't have great goal scorers reverted to other measures. The quality of hockey decreased throughout the league.

Ever since then, the game hasn't been the same. Because more and more teams cannot spend big money to get or keep the superstars of the game, they are reverting to the clutching and grabbing of teams like the Panthers. More expansion would bring even more mediocrity than there already is in the game. The star players in the league, the ones that bring the fans into the arenas, don't like the stifling defense. And the fans don't enjoy the clutching and grabbing that creates boring, skill-less contests.

So with that said, NHL expansion is a no-no: now and in the immediate future. Until the talent pool of players coming up through the system can be replenished and the quality of hockey is comparable to that of recent seasons, the NHL should be happy with the 26-team league already in place.

If the league ever does decide to expand, the staff of LCS will personally drive to New York and will beat Commissioner Gary Bettman, or the current NHL weasel of choice, viscously about the head and shoulders with nickel-filled socks, to illustrate the league's selling out. We will then shout at the top of our lungs, "Take that, commissioner-boy! How you like them apples? Huh? How you like them apples?" We don't exactly know what that means... but we really hate apples.

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