Debate: What's next for NHL expansion process?

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Scott Burnside and Craig Custance discuss the NHL expansion process and what is next after only two bids were submitted by the application deadline.

BURNSIDE: Greetings, my friend. Hope the summer is treating you well. So, the first deadline in the NHL’s potential expansion process has come and gone and let’s put it this way: There are a lot more questions about how it unfolded than there are actual bids for the league to consider. When the dust cleared Monday afternoon, only Las Vegas, behind Bill Foley, and Montreal-based communications giant Quebecor, the force behind a new arena project and bid in Quebec City, had completed the required paperwork. More importantly, they were the only two that sent along the required funds -- $10 million, $2 million of which is nonrefundable -- to formally be considered for expansion.

No surprise, really, with either bid, and we assume that Vegas is still in line to become the 31st team, likely beginning play in 2017 at the Las Vegas Arena (which we got a chance to tour late last month). What might have been a surprise was the lack of a formal bid from the Seattle area and from Toronto, where there has long been talk of a second team in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).

You visited Seattle last season. Were you surprised, or are we reading too much into the fact that the deadline passed without additional bids submitted? In short, is the process really at an end or does this just mean the process for Seattle or Toronto may take a different route to fruition?

CUSTANCE: That’s the big question as the first phase of the NHL’s expansion process winds down. At one point, there were three groups in the Seattle area believed to be contenders for an expansion team.

The group in Tukwila, Washington, was the one believed to have the best shot because of the progress it had made on an arena, and it hasn't given up efforts despite the passing of the deadline. The challenge there is that we’re talking about two separate projects: a privately funded arena, and an expansion team that’s going to cost at least $500 million. That’s a lot of dough to come up with in a short period of time.

The next date to keep in mind is Aug. 4. That’s when the NHL determines which of the applicant groups move on to Phase 2, where the exchange of information between the NHL and the interested expansion franchise ramps up even more. So, in theory, there’s wiggle room if the NHL eases up on the hard deadline and wants to keep another group around. That’s the league's call.

Ultimately, if the league believes it’s in its best interests to have a team in Seattle or Toronto, I’m not sure it makes a lot of sense to put hard and fast deadlines that could limit its options in those cities.

I agree with you that Las Vegas has all but locked up an expansion spot. The fascinating one to me becomes Quebec City. As the Canadian dollar continues to drop and with the league already East-heavy, should we assume that Quebec has become the front-runner for a second expansion team because of Monday’s deadline?

BURNSIDE: I have to think the NHL can do whatever it wants vis a vis expansion, regardless of what happened or didn’t happen Monday. It’s their show. They make the rules and if they want to change the rules as they go along, who is to stop them? If there’s a chance one of the Seattle groups gets its act together and can prove to the NHL in the coming weeks that there’s a realistic chance of an arena deal getting done, and that it has the financial wherewithal to pony up $500 million for a new team, you have to believe that’s the NHL’s preference vis a vis getting $1 billion in expansion fees and an East/West balance. Plus, it also leaves Quebec City as the perfect landing spot for a team that needs to relocate, which is something many believe has been part of the league’s long-term plans.

Now, having said that, if there isn’t significant movement in the next three weeks or so in Seattle and assuming that the Quebecor bid doesn’t fall apart as the league does its due diligence, how does the league not open the door to Quebec to become Team 32?

So, let me throw it back to you, where is Quebec City on your list now? And if it’s destined to join Las Vegas, do you reshuffle the alignment or make the "new Nordiques" the 16th Western Conference team?

CUSTANCE: I’m definitely not a fan of putting Quebec City in the West. The travel would be absolutely brutal. The developments of the past month have definitely moved Quebec City past Seattle, if I were handicapping cities getting an NHL team, but I’d still bet on relocation ahead of expansion for Quebec. Let’s say Seattle bows out for the time being and you award expansion teams to Las Vegas and Quebec City, what happens if things go sideways in Florida or Carolina or Arizona?

It’s like you tell me, Scott: Always leave yourself an out. Quebec City is getting to the point where it can be a Winnipeg-like turnkey operation if there is a need to relocate a team.

To me, if the league sticks to its hard deadline, the scenario that becomes most likely is the NHL expanding by one team during this process, with that team being Las Vegas. And if I’m Bill Foley, I’m just fine with that because I’d rather be picking an expansion team from a pool of players by myself rather than dividing those available players with another expansion franchise.

Would you be fine with 31 teams?

BURNSIDE: Do I always say that? Good for me if I do. And I have always thought the NHL would be comfortable, at least short term, going with one expansion team in the West. But just as having 16 teams in the East and 14 in the West was never going to be a long-term solution, neither is having 31 teams. Again, the NHL is the master of its own domain on the expansion front, and whether or not it’s fair to Quebec City, there is nothing guaranteeing it an expansion franchise.

I do think the NHL will give the Seattle situation lots of time to either prove itself or totally fade to black before it moves forward with a 32nd team. If it’s "fade to black," then maybe that’s when Quebec City gets its chance. So, in closing, if Seattle is going to get some wiggle room, is there similar wiggle room for a second Toronto team? Or does Monday’s failure to launch suggest a second team in Toronto is doomed for all time? And (forgive me piling on questions here) why doesn’t anyone ever talk about a second team playing at Air Canada Center? The Staples Center in Los Angeles handles three major league sports tenants, we see the NFL operate two teams out of the same stadium in New Jersey. Why not a second, Western Conference team, operating out of Air Canada Center? Just asking.

CUSTANCE: That’s a lot of questions. Of all the expansion possibilities, a second team in Toronto makes the most sense financially. That second franchise would print money and I’m with you, they can both play in the same building. I’d much rather put a second Toronto team in the West than a Quebec City team in the West if we need to balance it.

The NHL has come out with a statement confirming that only Quebec City and Las Vegas got applications in on time and that’s where their attention shifts: "We now intend to focus exclusively on the two expansion applications that have been submitted in accordance with the previously announced process."

If they are true to that exclusivity, Seattle and Toronto are going to have to wait until next time the process opens up -- even if they are the most promising expansion cities.