Did you know that the National Hockey League is expanding to Las Vegas? Yeah, well, everyone else did, too. As first reported by Adrian Dater — and the worst-kept secret in hockey — the Las Vegas (*cough*) Black Knights (*cough*) are coming to hockey in 2017. Fighting through the glitz and glamour (and some criticisms) about this new franchise, what exactly does it all mean, though, when it relates to the San Jose Sharks?
The Black Knights will join the Sharks as a member of the Pacific division. (This would ordinarily seem pretty obvious, if it were not for the absurdity of the Winnipeg Jets playing in the former Southeast division for two seasons.) Although one would think that playing an additional team in their region would offer the Sharks the affordability to lessen their travel time spent each season, that will actually be a minimal case. The new Vegas team will cut back the number of games played against most of the other interdivision opponents. The Sharks will continue to play non-divisional and non-conference teams at their current rate. However, depending on future scheduling, it could allow an opportunity for more localized road trips through Glendale (Arizona), Anaheim, and/or Los Angeles. It will also shave off about 3,600 miles round-trip with one fewer trek through western Canada. While the Sharks will still remain one of the perennial league leaders/losers in the number of miles traveled, they may finally not be the leader.
As a franchise that saw significant issues this season with attendance, the Sharks will welcome the chance to host the Black Knights. Everyone gets excited to see a brand new team come into their barn. If attendance continues to be a worry for the next couple of years, this would be a chance to add a few sellouts back into their stock, at least short-term.
Sharks fans should not expect that games against Las Vegas will be a cake-walk either. Unlike previous expansion incarnations, the Vegas team is expected to be competitive right away. Whether that actually comes to fruition remains to be seen. What we do know, though, is that NHL teams will have to expose some form of capable forwards and defensemen to be claimed in the expansion draft, based on the “games played” requirements announced Wednesday. Gone are the days where the Sharks could expose Al Iafrate, who could hardly walk by the time his playing career was over, as their best player to be claimed. Add this to the recognition that there are more quality goalies in the NHL than there are teams. The Black Knights will have a decent goalie and at least an NHL-caliber roster. Playing against Las Vegas should not be a “stat-padding” night when gunning for a divisional title.
Looking at the list of obvious “essentials” that the Sharks would protect for the expansion draft, based on the current roster, Team Teal would likely retain Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, Tomas Hertl, Chris Tierney, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Justin Braun, and Martin Jones. Joel Ward also likely would be protected. That leaves only slots for two forwards and one defenseman remaining. Joe Thornton and Brent Burns are pretty logical candidates, but are impending unrestricted free agents next offseason. It raises a new question — Could the Sharks possibly hold off on signing Thornton and Burns to extensions until after the expansion draft, leave them exposed, and work out a deal with Las Vegas management to not claim them? It would allow the Sharks room to protect a young player like Mirco Mueller, who may not have wowed anyone this season, but is still a recent first-round draft pick that the Sharks would not enjoy losing for nothing. The Sharks could then conceivably re-sign both stars shortly afterward without an issue. Shady? Maybe. Legal? Absolutely. The Sharks have done this in the past, working out deals with the Minnesota Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets to not claim Evgeni Nabokov in 2000, and one with the Nashville Predators in 1998 to leave Tony Granato untouched.
Not Just Vegas
Flying under the radar is the fact that with the new Las Vegas team coming to the NHL, it also means expansion for the American Hockey League. The Sharks’ AHL affiliate, the San Jose Barracuda, will be closely watching just where this 31st team will be located. It is logical to assume that with the league’s westward movement, it would be placed in the same division with the Barracuda.
Salt Lake City, Reno, and Fresno, CA appear to be the front-runners for the expansion franchise, although it has also been rumored that the Black Knights could actually take a page out of the Sharks’ book and place their affiliate in Las Vegas, itself. Houston would seem to be a perfect host, if not for the ridiculous leasing demands that Houston Rockets’ owner Les Alexander instituted at the city’s only arena.
Changes to the AHL’s Pacific division have already begun for the upcoming season with inclusion of the Arizona Coyotes’ new AHL franchise, the Tucson Roadrunners. The official announcement last Saturday of the second-worst-kept secret in hockey gives the Barracuda a new divisional rival right away.
It is quite common in minor professional sports leagues that schedules will often be overloaded with divisional matchups. Working with a smaller budget than major leagues, it helps considerably cut back on travel expenses. Unfortunately, remember how stale it got seeing the Sharks and Anaheim Ducks play each other 16 times in the 2008-09 season (from preseason thru playoffs)? This scenario has certainly has been an issue in the AHL, particularly in the Pacific Division, where the Barracuda played 54 of their 82 total games against just four teams (Stockton, Ontario, San Diego, Bakersfield). Adding the Roadrunners and the new Black Knights’ affiliate will make games against other opponents a bit more meaningful, while keeping interdivisional travel intact. Adding importance to certain matchups help the Barracuda draw in a few more, desperately needed, fans.
From top-to-bottom, hockey’s newest franchises will have a big impact on the Sharks. Team management will definitely have their work cut out as they plan out this offseason, the upcoming season, and beyond. The more that business operations and fans will have to consider these new teams, particularly Las Vegas, the more that benefits those teams as they start out. The NHL and AHL are gambling on a winner. The Sharks should gain from this as well, as long as their cards are the right ones played.