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Kovacevic: Expansion logical only for NHL

| Monday, March 11, 2013, 12:28 a.m.

The NFL has 32 franchises. It wants to get back into Los Angeles, even to pioneer its way overseas to London. But it's got no wish to expand. Better to move the Rams, Jaguars, Panthers or Vikings, pending stadium issues.

Major League Baseball has 30 franchises. It would love to see the Rays skip Tampa Bay, but they've got an iron-clad lease, and there really isn't another city — Charlotte? Portland? — leaping up and down to build a ballpark. The concept of expansion is barely breathed.

The NBA has 30 franchises, too, and they move so much the league should adopt U-Haul as its chief sponsor. Commissioner David Stern will toss out the odd expansion reference — he even laughably listed Pittsburgh as a candidate last month — but it's all for leverage, all show.

The NHL?

Well, the league isn't saying so, but it has every intention of growing from 30 to 32 franchises. Within a couple years, no less.

Sounds nuts, right?

Why should hockey, the clear No. 4 U.S. sport in revenues, ratings and recognition, be the one to match the Big Brother NFL's franchise count of 32 when even the NFL wants no more?

Funny, but based on conversations with NHL and team executives in recent weeks, I'm actually convinced it's a no-brainer.

Let's start with this: What's the harm from the hockey standpoint?

Back when the league was adding the Panthers, Mighty Ducks, Predators and Blue Jackets, complaints were common that the quality of play suffered, that there weren't enough skilled forwards and defensemen. But the global pool is now far deeper. USA Hockey youth registrations have soared since the Florida/Anaheim expansion in 1993, from 300,000 to 500,000. The sport has similarly taken off in Europe. We barely bat an eyelash when a Slovenian raises the Stanley Cup (Anze Kopitar) or an Austrian tops the scoring list (Thomas Vanek).

Sidney Crosby — who's really into this topic, by the way — has no problem with expansion.

“It's only two more teams. I don't see it as that big an issue,” the captain said. “The league's found a way to stay competitive with 30. It can do 32.”

Ray Shero couldn't be described as wild about it. No GM could.

“I was talking with Lou Lamoriello the other night just about top-six forwards and how hard they've become to find. And that's now,” Shero said, referring to his counterpart with the Devils. “But it could be done, adding a couple teams. Sure.”

Good enough for me.

OK, now the benefits:

• Foster real growth.

The NHL succeeds in markets where it has a franchise, fails in markets where it doesn't. That formula's been in place ever since Peter Puck gave up trying to educate the masses. Hockey never has translated well to TV, even in the high-definition era, but it often outdraws the NBA at the gate.

Logical conclusion: Get into more markets.

• Help realignment.

The NHL and its players' union agreed this week to a new four-division realignment for 2013-14 — which I love from the Pittsburgh standpoint, by the way, especially the inclusion of nearby Columbus — but the deal extends no further. The union wants to revisit the matter soon because it doesn't like having eight teams in two of the divisions, seven in the other two.

Logical conclusion: Add two teams. The union will find the format fair, even if the alignment takes another tinker, plus it gets 46 more dues-paying members.

• Get healthier.

The most valuable lesson the NHL learned from leaving Atlanta to return to Winnipeg is that profitability and stability aren't mere luxuries. If all the league does is farm out guinea-pig franchises in hopes of growing, an unfortunate percentage of those choices will come back to bite. For every Tampa Bay, there's a Phoenix.

The Jets are making money. They sell out every game at crazy prices, they've created a new TSN Jets network in Canada, and they're the only team to top the Penguins in merchandise sales last season.

Logical conclusion: Encore for Quebec?

Let's check back with Crosby.

“Quebec City is the one that sticks out for sure,” he said. “I've played in Quebec. I know the city, and I know how much passion they have for hockey. And obviously, with having a team there before and the rivalry with Montreal, I think it would be awesome.”

That reference was to the late, still-lamented Quebec Nordiques, who moved to Colorado in 1995.

OK, where else to expand?

“I know Seattle's come up, and that would be interesting, being close to Vancouver,” Crosby continued. “Toronto's always talked about having a second team. There are options.”

As usual, he's on target.

Quebec, Seattle and Toronto — actually a new arena being built just north of that city in Markham, Ontario — are the three I've heard from executives, as well. If two are added by expansion, a third might be filled by moving the Coyotes.

The easy choice is Quebec. In addition to Crosby's reasons and a new arena that will be based in part on Consol Energy Center, it would be wonderful to have another team in French Canada. Seattle has excellent potential, too.

Doesn't mean the NHL should flee the South. One city I'd love to see have a team is Houston, because of its size, its proximity to now-isolated Dallas and its history with Gordie Howe's old Aeros.

For now, though, fewer square pegs and more Winnipegs sounds about right.

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