Awaiting Games: The Good And Bad Of Delaying Seattle’s NHL Debut Until 2021-22

Hockey fans in the Pacific Northwest may find the words of Tom Petty stuck in their minds after the National Hockey League’s announcement that a Seattle franchise will join a year later than hoped in 2021-22.

Petty and anyone who’s ever been on-hold with customer service know the waiting is the hardest part. Seattle’s wait for the return of professional hockey just got longer, but the hardest part might be keeping the NHL’s newest fanbase grounded amid Columbia Center-sized expectations and enthusiasm.

The Seattle Hockey Partners will do their best to try to mimic the immediate success seen by the most recent rookie franchise 1,100 miles away in Las Vegas. Now they have more time to try to properly lay the foundation needed to achieve that level of expansion excellence. But even with an extra year the task remains a tall one.

The NHL Seattle group had publicly been pushing for fall 2020 since they first put this plan in motion. Now they find themselves with something that aided them just six months ago: more time.

Tod Leiweke, the President & CEO of NHL Seattle, previously said the league’s decision to delay his presentation to the Board of Governors’ executive committee from June to October 2018 was a blessing. It allowed them to reach an arena agreement with the city, and put together more detailed plans for the training facility and community ice center at Northgate. In Leiweke’s own words:

“There’s a whole bunch of things that are so much farther along than what we might’ve had in June, where we would’ve said ‘Hey, trust us.’ Now, instead of saying ‘trust us,’ we’re going to walk in with all sorts of things in hand.” — Tod Leiweke to Sports Radio KJR, August 28th, 2018.

But in the current situation several more months of work is not a good thing on all fronts. What follows is a look at the good and bad side of waiting an extra year before puck drop at Seattle Center. You’ll quickly realize one of these sections is longer than the other, and for good reason.

Let’s start by ripping off the proverbial band-aid.

The Bad:

A Longer Wait

While there is understandably quite a bit of palpable excitement surrounding Seattle’s newest team, holding off pro hockey’s start for an extra 365 days is a bit of a bummer. The NHL Seattle group had been publicly pushing October 2020 for months as the date this dream would become real at a new rink in the heart of Seattle. So when Commissioner Gary Bettman said the league’s 32nd team would begin a year later than that, it was a (very) minor letdown on an otherwise banner day of the city’s sports fans.

That said, I get the sense that it’s not a true “negative” in the eyes of this fanbase. The issue facing the NHL Seattle group will be maintaining this excitement level among casual observers in the market for the next 30 months or so. It will be easier once we get into the nitty gritty of picking the team’s first players. Before then it will be a challenge, particularly coming off all the positive momentum of Tuesday’s unanimous vote and Wednesday’s ground breaking at (formerly) KeyArena.

I believe the Seattle Hockey Partners are up for that test, and it will be fascinating to see how they go about acing it.

More Time For Other Teams To Plan

This, to me, is tied for the biggest downside to a 2021-22 debut. It’s already been widely discussed in the hockey world that the NHL’s other 30 teams will likely both panic and give up much less to a Seattle franchise at the expansion draft than they did to Vegas. The sense is: “Why give up multiple assets to protect one guy?” It also likely means we see fewer side deals in Seattle’s case, and those trades were what built the foundation of the Knights’ run to the Stanley Cup Final.

We’ve known for months what the rules will be, and that Seattle will have the exact same set of regulations as the Golden Knights. Giving every single team an extra year (2018-19, 2019-20, and 2020-21) to evaluate their guys and prepare their protection list plans will make it tougher on Seattle.

Another challenge? Vegas.

Since the Knights will not be in danger of losing anyone to the Seattle TBDs, they have a couple of advantages. First: they could position themselves as an alternate dealing partner than Seattle. This would give other GMs the option of, theoretically, sending a player they don’t want to lose for nothing to Vegas in exchange for draft picks and/or prospects who are ineligible for the Seattle expansion draft. The thought process being: “Better to get something rather than nothing for a player, right?”

The second advantage is the ability to offer contracts with no-movement clauses (NMCs) to current and future Knights without current fear of expansion repercussions. Vegas already has a built-in advantage (as will Seattle) with free agents due to the lack of a state income tax. The ability to offer that, plus the security of a no-movement clause could be a tempting combination that persuades players to go to Sin City.

To be fair: those Vegas edges would’ve been a factor if Seattle joined in 2020 as well. But the extra time buys Knights GM George McPhee, and other teams, more time to plan and try to take advantage.

Bottom line: all of those factors mean the job of Seattle’s GM just got even more daunting.

Longer Window For Potential Hires To Go Elsewhere

The other large issue with another year off the ice comes down to potential hires and targets for key jobs in the Seattle organization. The further away that franchise is from beginning play, the more candidates can question whether they want to wait 2.5+ seasons for a job.

Hockey fans can hope and dream that Steve Yzerman, the former general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning, will come to Seattle. He worked for Tod Leiweke while the latter was in Tampa. Yzerman stepped down from his GM job with the Lightning in order to spend more time with his family, who live in the Detroit area. However Yzerman is viewed as one of best people at that job in the league. If he wants to go somewhere, he will get a gig.

There are also quite a few reports that Joel Quenneville, a long-time teammate of NHL Seattle adviser Dave Tippett, is ready to get back into coaching weeks after getting fired by the Chicago Blackhawks. Coach Q has Stanley Cup rings, and is regarded as one of (if not the) best coaches in hockey. He will be in demand, particularly since NHL head coaches have the shortest typical lifespan among their counterparts in the rest of the “Big Four” major sports.

Like Yzerman, it will come down to when Quenneville wants to take a job. As for the “where,” those same reports claim Q doesn’t want to be part of a rebuild. He (reportedly) wants to be on a contender. Would he want to wait more than two years to be part of a team that may or may not be among the league’s elite? Only he knows the answer to that.

The Good

A Longer Wait

No, that’s not a typo.

While it’s generally not enjoyable to have to wait a while for something fun (vacation, holidays, etc.), once you actually reach that long dreamed about day/event/destination — it makes the whole experience more enjoyable. It’s the pot of gold waiting for you at the end of the long, winding rainbow.

In the eyes of both the NHL and the Seattle ownership, that longer wait means they have more time to make sure everything is done right instead of rushing everything just to get it done.

Breathing Room For Arena, Training Center Work

To find proof of that “Do it right, don’t rush it” approach, you have to look no further than the now $800 million project to gut and rebuild KeyArena. The commissioner called a fall 2020 opening of Seattle’s new arena “speculative at best, unlikely at worst.” Despite months of insistences from NHL Seattle and the Oak View Group that the arena would be finished in time for the 2020-21 season, the league just did not buy it. So it’s on to “Plan C.”

Tod Leiweke told reporters in Georgia that the plan now is for the upgraded arena to be finished by March or April of 2021. That would be in time for the start of the Seattle Storm’s, but at least five or six months later than NHL Seattle and OVG’s publicly repeated deadline of October 2020.

“While the team might be starting in 2021 in the fall, we anticipate the building opening sometime in the first quarter, perhaps March, April, but this additional time we’re going to put to good use, as David [Bonderman] has said, we’re going to refine technology.

“There might be some opportunities to do further enhancement of design. But one thing we’ll certainly do is be super responsible in how we construct this building and being good neighbors.

“And we really pride ourselves on the work we’ve done there. But as the viaduct comes down, this is a chance to work around that and not feel the pressure of a seven-day, perhaps, 24-hour-a-day schedule. So we’ll make really good use of every day.” — Tod Leiweke at NHL Board of Governors meeting Dec. 4th, 2018

Yet Leiweke also revealed they were concerned the planned training facility & community ice center at Northgate may not have been finished for a training camp before the 2020 season began.

When you factor in those two statements, as well as both Bettman’s and the NHL’s history with expansion teams & their arenas, it’s no surprise the league chose the “safe” route of pushing the entire thing back one year. (Though notably going unsaid in Georgia was the possibility of a lockout in the fall of 2020).

Considering the magnificent debut of the NHL’s most recent expansion team (Vegas), the NHL will want to do everything it can to show off its latest and greatest team. If you specifically look at how the commissioner has handled expansion franchises, you’ll notice that 60% of them (three out of five) played their first NHL regular season game at home, in a new arena. The other two had home openers after just two games, each.

I’m willing to bet part of the deal to push Seattle to 2021-22 includes a provision that the new club’s first game will be at home. Maybe it just-so-happens to be against the team that resides 143 miles up I-5 in British Columbia. That would sure be an opening night spectacle.

Extra Preparation Time For The Expansion Draft

If you need more evidence that more time works both ways, well here you are.

As noted above: Seattle’s GM will likely have a more difficult time creating leverage to take advantage of the other teams in the league at the expansion draft. So what’s the best way to counter that? Use the months of extra days to build a staff, scout and strategize a plan of attack.

Before the announcement, Tippett previously said multiple times the plan was to hire a GM in the spring or around the 2019 NHL Entry Draft. When asked if the extra year wait would push that timeline back, Tod Leiweke did not rule out hiring a GM two years out. Here’s his full answer.

“I think a great part of the ownership group is we’re extremely competitive. And we’re here to win and we want to win. So we’re going to look at these timelines and see how this might be put to our advantage.

“Certainly, we’ll be able to lay eyes on players for an additional season. There is certainly one model where you could bring on staff earlier, and I think ownership’s proven they’re willing to make [the] investment.

“So we’re going to make the best use of this time. And I think, ultimately, we can say to our fans this is a good thing. Not only will the building be on time, but we’re going to be really sharp on the hockey side of things as well.” — Tod Leiweke at NHL Board of Governors meetings, Dec. 4th, 2018

More Young, Exciting Talent Eligible For Selection

The other enticing part of having the expansion draft one year later is the thought that enticing young players could be poached to join the NHL’s newest team.

If the draft was in June of 2020, then players the likes of former Everett Silvertip Carter Hart (Philadelphia), as well as Swedish sensations Elias Pettersson (Vancouver) and Rasmus Dahlin (Buffalo) would not be eligible. Now? All three of their respective clubs likely would need to put them on protected lists to keep Seattle from claiming them.

The super specifics that vary player-to-player based on birthdays can be found here. But theoretically this seems like a thrilling possibility.

However, the extra year also means that current teams will be one year further along in contracts to veteran players. In some cases, it means quite a few players who had to be protected in 2020 will not need to be in 2021.

Quite a few teams will have vital protection slots “open up” for those exciting young guns as a result. Each team, including Seattle, will have more time to watch and study these players to get clearer pictures of their games. It’s a balancing act to keep in mind as we go forward.

More Time To Evaluate Potential Hires

Another case where it’s the opposite side of the same coin.

Having roughly 2.5 seasons before Seattle enters the frozen fray that is the NHL offers Tippett and Leiweke the chance to talk with each other and people around the game. They can perform due diligence and then some on potential general managers, and possible coaches. One of those positions is more crucial to fill than the other, since whoever the GM is will need to oversee the scouting operations and come up with a plan of action for “winning” the expansion draft.

If the Seattle Hockey Partners have to wait until after the 2018-19 season, and ensuing entry draft, in order to hire their guy — they can. If their dream GM is available and ready to roll starting at Christmas, then that works too. They have time.

But not all hires are equally import. The most crucial right now is the GM, since they will decide who the bench boss will be.

If Seattle wanted to follow the Vegas model to the letter, then they would wait to hire an architect until July of 2020 — 15 months before they begin play. McPhee, Vegas’ GM and a friend of Leiweke’s dating back to their time together in Vancouver, hired his head coach Gerard Gallant six months before opening puck drop. However it’s not always like that. In Nashville’s case, their first (and only) GM David Poile hired Barry Trotz as head coach one month after Poile got the gig. Poile wanted Trotz to be there so they could go about scouting players together with the goal of seeing who would potentially fit Trotz’s system.

All of this is to say: they can afford to wait on both of these (and other) important hires, particularly if there’s nobody that truly wows them in the interview and background process. But the clock is ticking, and there’s a lot of work to be done.

No Fear Of Lockout-Shortened Start

As much as the commissioner and the NHL said the arena timeline was their chief concern with pushing Seattle’s start back a year, it also avoids a key complication that would’ve greatly ruined the reception for the league’s newest time.

I’m not going to spend much time breaking down the threat of the lockout right now. But any mention of the collective bargaining agreement (CBA), labor issues, or the word “lockout” were all missing from the NHL’s grand announcement on Seattle.

If Seattle had started as-hoped-for in the fall of 2020, then they would have legitimate reason to worry about labor strife. It would impact their schedule, players, coaches, building, season ticket-holders, fans and more.

Currently they’re (mostly) in the clear, since it would not impact Seattle aside from losing games to evaluate NHL players ahead of the expansion draft the following summer.

Takeaways

Obviously there are more “good” things about delaying Seattle’s ice age a year than “bad.” That’s for good reason, and it’s a sign that despite the extra wait there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic.

However when I look at the combination of the two, there’s one thing I would like to see the Seattle Hockey Partners do to take advantage of these extra 12 months. Hire a GM early.

To be clear: I’m not advocating for them to hire the first person who calls or emails in their resume, or to rush to fill the job by the end of the year. But I do believe that sticking with their previous timeline of hiring a general manager in the spring or summer of 2019 is the way to go.

All 31 other teams have an extra year to plot ways to minimize the damage you cause them in the expansion draft. The best way to combat that advantage is to actively use that time coming up with ways to use the rules and other teams’ situations to your advantage.

That all starts with whoever is the puppet master pulling the strings on the hockey side of things. Currently the only person on that hockey operations side is Tippett, and he’s already said he’s not right for the job.

Q: If you’re not the head coach, where do you see yourself in the hierarchy of [a Seattle NHL] franchise?

Tippett: “We’ll see. It’s just… I’ve been lucky to touch a lot of different parts of the game, [including] as an adviser, in a lot of those different roles. We’ll see how it goes. General manager, I think, is somebody that’s had to have done that job at the NHL level before. I really think that’s important in an expansion team. But there’s a lot of things that go on between a coach and management, and all the things that kind of come in between — between travel, schedules and facilities — and somebody bonding all of those things together is kind of where I fit right now. But we’ll see where it goes.” — Tippett to KJR, September 4th

We’d be naive to think that Tippett, Leiweke and the rest of the Seattle Hockey Partners have not reached out to a single person about possible hockey ops jobs before the franchise was granted. They may not have done so officially, or publicly, but there are plenty of backchannels for gauging interest. It’s just like free agency. There’s a reason players and teams manage to announce long, complicated mega contracts literally seconds after those talks are supposed to “begin” at the start of July 1st.

Now that Seattle officially has a team on its way, it’ll be fascinating to see how and who they approach for the GM job.

Loose Pucks

  • Tod Leiweke said in Georgia that the gutting and rebuilding of Seattle Center Arena (KeyArena) likely will not be finished until March or April of 2021. If you wonder how that compares to the time it took to build every current NHL arena, then this is your cheat sheet. The TL;DR is: it’s right in the middle of the pack. Average.

new arena table

  • A few people have asked me why the same group that said the arena would be done by October 2020 now says it will take 5-6 more months. Commissioner Gary Bettman pushed back on the idea that this was a “relaxed” schedule, but while there are several factors it boils down to “Don’t rush it. Do it right.” Leiweke said they no longer need to race to get everything done, work 24/7 for the next 22 months while navigating the ripple effects of the viaduct closure/demolition. Bettman added it creates breathing room for construction, weather, and steel delivery delays. Both Leiweke and David Bonderman said they will use the extra days to refine the technology that will be in the arena. I’m curious to find out what exactly that means and looks like.
  • The owners were informed at the Board of Governors meeting that the estimated salary cap for next year is $83 million, a $3.5 million increase over the current level for the 2018-19 season. That cap (and resulting floor) number will be something to keep an eye on the next few seasons as we it will influence how teams act before the Seattle expansion draft.
  •  Interesting chat with Seattle Hockey Partners COO Victor de Bonis on this week’s ESPN On Ice podcast.
  • With de Bonis and Tod Leiweke’s longtime connections to Vancouver and the Canucks, I wonder how hard they look at reuniting Mike Gillis and Laurence Gilman in Seattle’s front office. That pairing as GM and Assistant GM, respectively, helped turn the Canucks into back-to-back President’s Trophy winners and Stanley Cup Finalists. In addition: both Gillis and Gilman are apparently close with de Bonis. Hmmmmm.
  • Two really intriguing things in this week’s 31 Thoughts blog from Elliotte Friedman of Hockey Night in Canada: 1) The league and its owners discussed shortening the length of intermissions from 18 to 15 minutes. 2) Despite Bettman’s earlier insistence that there’s no support for expanding the NHL playoffs, there appear to be quite a few teams on board with the idea.
  • Read that may force you to think differently: Ryan Stimson’s breakdown of a behind-the-net power play formation. Wish more NHL teams (*cough* the Flyers *cough*) did more stuff below the goal line offensively.
  • Observation I heard that now has me closely watching one player: “Erik Karlsson is getting beat wide. A lot. His ability to change directions just looks off.”

Top photo credit: KOMO News.

If you have any questions or feedback: leave a comment, send me an email at the address on the bottom of the page or hit me up on Twitter (@ScottMalone91).

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