I type these words as the last day of summer fades into autumn-culled darkness. I have just watched Cuba Gooding, Jr., take his top off in the middle of a Blackhawks’ preseason game. And everyone’s favorite ‘Hawks parody account has returned to Twitter.
I'm reflect and soul searchingness these summer on mineself and what I'm say…and finding no problems. We are carrying on as usually.
— MarianHossaSay (@MarianHossaSay) September 23, 2014
Guess that all means it’s time to start writing about the NHL again. I’m going to start this (pre)season with a few thoughts on the Midwest. Because I live here.
Welcome Back, Chicago
When we last left our hometown team, Michal Handzus capped off a rough game by losing an offensive zone draw after the Kings iced the puck. Less than a minute later, Alec Martinez sent the Blackhawks packing for the season.
Since then, Chicago has enthusiastically re-committed to Toews and Kane with stacks of cash and even more laughable car commercials. We’ve said goodbye to hard-working (Handzus) and lovable (Bollig) skaters who weren’t very good at the end of the season (Versteeg & his contract are still around, though). Saad and Smith look to improve upon great seasons, and we eagerly await the potential of kids like Morin, Teuvo, and Raanta.
That last sentence may ultimately determine whether Chicago will return to the Stanley Cup finals. NHL teams are starting to look past the notion of the Neanderthal fourth line made up of ‘tough guys’ who can ‘be physical’ but can barely ‘play hockey’. In a league with a cap, and with teams like the Kings rolling four skilled lines, the enforcer role seems like a waste of money and skates.
Can Joel Quenneville resist the urge to suit up a replacement Bollig? Will the line of Kruger / Morin / Smith provide the kind of minutes that will put us over the top? Will we see more celebrity “Shoot the Puck” contestants go half monty when they score?
Wherefore Art Thou, Johansen?
Why did it have to be you, Ryan Johansen? Sure, there has to be at least one contentious contract negotiation every off-season, but why did it have to be you? The Columbus Blue Jackets are the NHL’s feel-good team, the plucky can-do teams of scrappers from southeast Ohio. After many years of being the New York Rangers’ minor league affiliate masquerading as an NHL team, Columbus used 2013-14 to stamp its place as an up-and-coming postseason regular.
I mean, they’ve made brilliant front-office decisions, assembled a solid team of that you underestimate at your peril, and built a dedicated fan base from Youngstown to Toledo. Good goalie, decent blue line, and a first line anchored by a potential breakout center–
Or, more accurately, potentially anchored by a potential breakout center. Johansen is a restricted free agent, which means he still doesn’t have a contract with any team, much less the Blue Jackets. And the center’s agent is reportedly using Stamkos, Toews, and Kane as the measuring stick for Johansen. As in, his contract should measure up close to theirs.
Oh, Ryan Johansen, wherefore art thou represented by a man who is to make an ass of thee?
Granted, the Blue Jackets’ front office is probably guilty of trying to get the center on a deal that’ll be very team-friendly if/when the cap jumps. But we want our happy and all-American team that we can cheer for because, gosh darn it, they give it their all and are just swell. Since the Minnesota Wild have moved past that stage to the point of being a reliable contender, Columbus is all we have left for plucky underdogs. Won’t somebody think of the hockey writers in need of a feel-good feature piece?
Wild for the Wild!
Speaking of Minnesota, fellow Addisonian and baseball nut Travis J. Cook has declared himself a fan of the Wild. In order to help him out, I hereby link him to the biggest Wild news of late: their goalie situation may no longer be completely hopeless, and who should be on the other wing with Jason Pominville.
If any of our readers are allergic to high-falutin’ mathematics in hockey, I apologize for the use of advanced stats in that last link. Somehow, there are still hockey writers left who: a) will utilize advanced hockey stats, and b) haven’t been hired by NHL teams. (I actually want to cheer for the Oilers a little bit, just because they hired Tyler Dellow.)
Why Not Wisconsin?
One of the biggest stories across the NHL, aside from fancy-stats bloggers getting picked up by hockey teams, is the talk of expansion. This story began a couple seasons back with the NHL’s re-alignment. Downplay it all you want, Gary Bettman, but creating unbalanced conferences makes little sense outside of expanding the league to 32 teams. You broke up the Chicago-Detroit rivalry and created an uneven playing field for Eastern teams trying make the playoffs, just so the Red Wings and Blue Jackets could play more games in a more convenient time zone? We’re not buying it.
This talk was whipped into a loud chorus this summer when several outlets reported that the NHL was not only planning to expand soon, but by adding or moving teams into FOUR new cities: Seattle, Quebec City, Las Vegas, and a second franchise in Toronto. Holy expansion draft, Bettman!
The NHL quickly tried to tamp down this story, with little success. It (finally) did admit that, maybe a little, they thought about expansion, but it wasn’t happening soon. That may be covering their asses, but that’s also probably because the drama in the NBA (Sacramento Kings non-relocation, sale of the L.A. Clippers) has caused a few road bumps for the seemingly imminent new NHL team in Seattle.
Speculation is fun, and everyone seems to agree that:
- Seattle is going to happen sooner or later,
- Quebec City is a no-brainer (in fact, why did they move the Nordiques?),
- Toronto could totally have two teams (but the Leafs will demand a ransom),
- and Las Vegas… wait, Las Vegas?
Yes, the NHL is reportedly flirting with the painted lady of the American desert. No top-tier sports team resides there, and it’s not a traditional hockey market, so it’s the kind of terrible idea that Bettman will want to triumph over. Even if there were another top-tier sports team in a non-hockey city, it can work (San Jose, Dallas), but often doesn’t work (Carolina, Nashville, Florida, Phoenix, Atlanta). Last year, Nate Silver calculated Las Vegas as only slightly worse a decision than founding an NHL team in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
I agree that Las Vegas is a risky and questionable choice, but looking at Silver’s methodology, not exactly for the same reason. Silver uses a metric of Google searches per capita of “NHL” to determine a city’s potential fanbase. The result is that 4% of Milwaukee residents are NHL fans, which is only a slightly larger headcount than the 5% of Las Vegas citizens who are NHL fans. Thus, in his estimation, both locations are terrible ideas, Milwaukee only slightly less so.
Here’s why I disagree: Wisconsin doesn’t have an NHL team. Milwaukee NHL fans are likely going to cheer for Chicago, Minnesota, or maybe Nashville (due to minor league team connections). Wisconsinites aren’t exactly enthused with the idea of cheering for states that are our regional rivals. But what if Silver had instead tried to gauge hockey fandom instead of merely NHL fandom? Bob Uecker has been hawking the Milwaukee Admirals (a successful AHL team) for years, and Milwaukee loves anything Bob Uecker does. Let’s not forget that the state is home to a long-successful NCAA hockey team (and more than one, if you include the upper peninsula of Michigan), and that the House of Suter holds court near Madison.
I believe it’s more accurate to think that the support for NHL in Milwaukee will be at similar levels as in Columbus, Ohio. According to Silver’s methodology, 8% of that city’s population is made up of NHL fans — and they’ve had an NHL team for 15 years. Granted, Silver also thought that the Blue Jackets should be relocated, but I think his calculations might look different for Columbus if they were taken now as opposed to then (May 2013). Interestingly enough, he posits that, for U.S. cities, nearby Cleveland might be one of the better choices for an NHL team.
And here’s the other reason I disagree with Silver’s methodology: He’s not taking regional fandom into account. Cleveland likely has a higher percentage of NHL fans (6%) than other cities without a team because it’s in Ohio. And Ohio has an NHL team. And you should not underestimate the loyalty of sports fans to their state, regardless of what city they live in. If Milwaukee had an NHL team, not only would it increase the percentage of NHL fans in the city, it would draw fans from all over the region — up past Green Bay into the upper peninsula, over past Madison and maybe even into Iowa, and down into the northern suburbs of Chicago. (Seriously, there are a lot of Wisconsin sports fans in the northern suburban boonies.)
Just like Chicago and St. Louis draw fans from downstate Illinois, and Minnesota draws them from the hockey-loving Dakotas, Milwaukee would pull significant regional fan bases beyond its city limits. Las Vegas, on the other hand, does not have a regional market it can tap into. To the west is the Inland Empire of southern California, and you aren’t going to pull many fans away from the Kings or Ducks. Don’t look to northern California, either — the Sharks have that tied up. What about south and east? Well, if there was a fan base there, the Coyotes would have it (and that’s a big “if”). If you look north and east, you may have hockey fans in Utah… if they weren’t already snatched up by the nearby Avalanche.
Las Vegas is a dead zone for trying to attract regional fanbases, which is probably why no other major league has a team there. Milwaukee on the other hand has two major franchises, and a nearby NFL team in the same state. And it just so happens that Milwaukee’s NBA team has new ownership who’ve committed to building a new arena — a combination that is the wet dream of NHL execs.
Of course, I’m biased. If Milwaukee were to get an expansion or relocated NHL team, I would be ecstatic. I would have to apologize to my fellow Blackhawks friends, because that new franchise would be my team from the day it was announced. It won’t happen, so I guess I’ll have to keep cheering for Chicago. With Toews and Kane locked up for many years, I’m okay with either fate.