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The NHL Contraction Myth

Would fewer NHL teams make for a better game?

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As the NHL ponders how to increase scoring and achieve a more wide-open game, many hockey fans long for the radical solution: contraction.

The popular belief is that the NHL is over-extended. The talent pool is drained dry, leaving rosters padded with players who have no business skating in the NHL. Shutting down a handful of teams will eliminate such slugs. Only the best will remain, ready to show their best. Among those supporting the campaign are former stars like Patrick Roy and Guy Lafleur.

But how would contraction – or the purging of teams by any means – change the NHL?

Roy would eliminate 14 franchises, leaving a 16-team league. Sounds like fun, but he knows it will never happen unless the NHL endures a financial meltdown of inconceivable proportions. In the real world, the best we can expect is the death of maybe half a dozen financially untenable teams. Would that significantly upgrade the quality of hockey on a night-to-night basis?

If more scoring is the sign of a more entertaining game, it’s hard to see how shedding the bottom rung of talent would make a big difference. If so many of today’s fourth-line forwards and depth defensemen are mere NHL pretenders, why aren’t the Joe Sakics and Ilya Kovalchuks of the world skating rings around them? If anything, today's presumed surfeit of mediocre players should mean more offense, not less, while a smaller league would make scoring even harder. If contraction reduces the NHL to its best players, that includes the best defensemen and best checking forwards.

Coaches who prefer stifling defense would not change their ways, because they are not swayed by the quality of available players. Jacques Lemaire brings the same philosophy to the expansion Minnesota Wild that he employed with the Stanley Cup champion New Jersey Devils. Ken Hitchcock, another guru of risk-free hockey, has worked with some of the game’s biggest stars in Dallas and Philadelphia.

But the biggest hole in the contraction argument is its lack of perspective.

In 1966-67, the Boston Bruins had the sixth-best record in the NHL. Not bad, until you realize it was a six-team league. The Bruins won just 17 of 70 games. They were awful.

Someone has to finish last. Regardless of whether last place means 6th, or 16th, or 30th – the bottom team is the worst team, and the worst team never has enough talent. They stink. They are, by definition, poorly managed, and will likely have trouble selling tickets. An NHL of any size will always have a couple of badly run, financially unstable franchises, because some team has to be the worst team in the league.

At least some of those who call for a smaller NHL are pining for a history that never was. The 1970s are a golden age for Montreal or Boston fans. But how did the talent pool look to those watching the Capitals play the Golden Seals? The 1980s go down as hockey’s greatest era for anyone who loves the Islanders or Oilers. But fans of most other teams knew they never had a chance. They just didn’t have the players.

In calling out today’s talent-thin NHL, Guy Lafleur fails to note that he starred in one of pro hockey’s most diluted eras. In 1975-76, when Lafleur won his first scoring title, the NHL and rival World Hockey Association combined to ice 32 teams, all drawing on a talent pool that included almost nobody from Europe or the United States. Going back further, we find that Rocket Richard’s legendary feat of 50 goals in 50 games came in 1944-45, when many established NHL stars were off to war and lineups were filled with kids and minor leaguers. So if the NHL wants to increase scoring, perhaps it should add teams, not subtract them.

Anyone who thinks today's NHL is short on talent should go back and watch some old game tapes. See the pitiful Leafs and Devils of the mid-1980s. See the Canadiens and Bruins toy with the expansion sad sacks of the early 1970s.

If you ever come across game seven of the 1965 Stanley Cup semifinal, watch Chicago's Doug Mohns breeze around Detroit defenseman Warren Godfrey to score a crucial goal. Godfrey looks like a fire hydrant, and this was a guy logging big minutes for a Stanley Cup contender. It's hard to imagine him making the top six on any NHL team today.

Dropping a few franchises would not do the game any harm. It would make the NHL a little easier to follow, and make it a little easier to achieve one useful change: a shorter regular season.

But, like so many other hockey-saving ideas being floated these days, contraction is no magic bullet. It’s an idea that hardly holds up under scrutiny.

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