Player-owner Mario Lemieux didn't try to sugarcoat the deal. His cash-strapped Penguins essentially sold their leading goal scorer, Alexei Kovalev, to the Rangers last week for $4 million and four low-priced players, and no, Lemieux admitted, this was not about putting Pittsburgh in a better position for a playoff run. The Rangers' money and the shedding of Kovalev's $4.6 million salary would keep the team out of bankruptcy, Lemieux explained, and the Penguins would now try to get by with a defense-first philosophy. Offensive stars such as Kovalev and Jaromir Jagr—who was dealt to the Capitals for three prospects in 2001—cost too much for the Penguins; guys who can play a little D come cheaper. For Pittsburgh, it's the end of an era.
Another era needs to end as well: the 30-team one. The growth spurt of the 1990s, which added nine NHL franchises in nine years, briefly filled the league's coffers with expansion fees (each new club paid $70 million to get in) and resulted in short-term success in new markets such as Anaheim, Atlanta and Nashville. But as the novelty has worn off in those cities, so have the profits. The gap between the hockey strongholds ( New York, Toronto, Detroit) and the fair-weather friends has widened to a chasm, and teams are falling in. The Sabres and the Senators declared bankruptcy this season. More than a dozen others say they're losing money. And salary-dump trades like the Kovalev deal have become so routine that NHL vice president Bill Daly calls them "a fact of life in this league."
In the overexpanded NHL, 12 clubs draw less than 85% of capacity, and 15 have seen a drop in ticket sales from last year. That's crippling for a league that divides a relatively meager $120 million annual TV contract with ESPN/ABC 30 ways. Yet somehow commissioner Gary Bettman keeps a straight face while insisting, "These are all good markets."
Bettman would be better off acknowledging the league's woes and working on a solution that would euthanize at least four teams. With players competing for fewer jobs, and fewer clubs bidding on free agents, smaller-market teams could lower their overhead, and the concentration of talent would lead to more excitement on the ice. In 1990-91, the last year of the NHL's Original 21, teams averaged 6.91 goals per game. This year it's 5.30. "There might be more talent out there than ever," says one general manager, "but it's so spread out." The NHL is finding out that too much of something is even worse than too little.