For soccer fans, the concept of relegation is a fun, creative way to make late-season games between bad teams exciting.
For most non-soccer fans in North America, relegation probably sounds stupid. You have a bad season and you’re kicked out of the league? Buffalo Sabres fans, that have seen multiple last place finishes in the last decade, certainly wouldn’t want it.
With the newly named Seattle Kraken entering the NHL as the league’s 32nd team, the question should be asked, how big can the National Hockey League in other sports leagues get? It will be hard for the NHL, like any business, to say no to a $650 million check. That’s what the Kraken are paying for entry into the league.
In 1990, there were 21 teams in the NHL. Now there are 32. That’s an expansion rate of roughly one new team every three years. At the same rate, the NHL would reach 40 teams in the next 20 years.
Who could be next?
Kansas City used to have the Scouts and has expressed interest in the recent past in adding an NHL team. Oklahoma City was very close to getting a team in the 1990s. There was a time someone tried to move the Arizona Coyotes to Hamilton, Ontario. Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen once reportedly made an offer to buy the Buffalo Sabres, to move them to Portland, Oregon.
Saskatoon, Saskatchewan has an NHL level arena. Markham, Ontario proposed building an NHL arena in 2011. Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melynk once floated the idea of moving the team to Houston. Throw in former NHL markets like Quebec City, Cleveland, and Hartford, not even mentioning European possibilities, it is not hard to find cities to put NHL teams in.
Getting to 40 teams is completely realistic over time.
How does relegation fit in?
For the sake of conversation, let’s say the NHL gets to 40 teams at some point in the future. That’s a big number to have for just one league. Having two leagues of 20 sounds a whole lot better.
Compared to the English Premier League in soccer, the Premier League has 20 teams at the top league and 24 teams in it’s second league, the EFL Championship. Each year, the bottom-three teams in the Premier League are relegated/demoted, with the top-three teams in the Championship being promoted.
Such a system would never work between the NHL and the American Hockey League due to the current farm system teams have, as well as the difference in arena and facility quality from one league to the other.
What I’m proposing is essentially have an NHL A league and an NHL B league. Everyone has top-level facilities and arenas, everyone can trade with each other, and everyone is still in the NHL.
Yes, the Sabres would have been in the NHL B league for almost all of the last decade, but they also would’ve been playing important games that meant something down the stretch, fighting to stay in or get to the A league.
If you want to have even more fun, the NHL would do what the Bundesliga in Germany does. The top-two from the lower league get promoted and the bottom two in the top league get relegated. The difference here is a series to be in the top league.
Imagine the Sabres finish third from the bottom in the NHL A, while the Detroit Red Wings finish third best in the NHL B. Now Detroit and Buffalo will play in a series for a place in NHL A. That’s essentially what the Bundesliga does.
Throwing in an idea of my own, I’d like to see the regular season champion of the NHL B get entry into the Stanley Cup playoffs, the rest of which would be NHL A teams.
A nice little cherry on top is relegation would kill any chance of tanking for the rest of time. A cherry on top for the NHL, or the reason business-wise they’d want to do it, would be a possible $6-10 billion in expansion fees.
There are obvious hurdles that would need to be figured out. What would you do with the NFL Draft? How would trades work between leagues? How many teams make the Stanley Cup Playoffs? Would you kill the AHL with two NHL leagues? Would the Sabres and Toronto Maple Leafs set the league office on fire if they tried to add two teams in their markets?
Relegation is a drastic change to the fabric of North American sports that we have not seen even tested. As someone who loves European soccer, especially the Premier League, I see the potential that it could bring.
I doubt we will see it tried any time soon, but hopefully one day a major sports league, maybe even the NHL, will have the stomach to give it a shot.