MANALAPAN, Fla. — NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is confident as ever that the league is in a good place, with no plans to see it expand further in the immediate future.
“We’re not in an expansion mode right now,” said Bettman on Wednesday, after wrapping up the league’s annual GM meetings. “There continues to be a number of people, entities and cities expressing interest in having an NHL franchise where they don’t have one, places like Atlanta, like Houston, like Quebec City. But it’s not really something, at least right now, that’s anywhere close to the front burner for us.”
Rumors have swirled about the NHL exploring new cities that might support a team. Atlanta in particular is a popular projection, partly based on its history with the league. The Atlanta Flames were there from 1972 to 1980 before moving to Calgary, and the Thrashers lasted from 1999 to 2011, when the team relocated to Winnipeg.
Bettman said the league hasn’t studied whether Atlanta could sustain another club but, “to the extent that we’re getting expressions of interest from the general Atlanta region, it’s in locations for arenas that are different than where they’ve been.”
According to Bettman, the NHL’s playoff format is also staying the same. The league transitioned in 2013-14 from a classic 1-8 system to its current wild-card layout — where two teams from the same division play in the first round — and while Bettman acknowledged the method has its critics, he isn’t one of them.
“We think, and I think it is [agreed upon by] the general managers, that what we’ve got works really well,” Bettman said. “If you’ve been tracking it for the last month, there isn’t much difference [in who plays whom] between either format. This is working well, and we aren’t looking to make any changes.”
The league is also on track for the same previously predicted $1 million boost to the salary cap next season. Bettman said that’ll be the case unless the NHL Players’ Association — under new leadership with Marty Walsh stepping in this week — wants to discuss what a further increased cap would mean for their outstanding escrow.
When the most recent CBA was negotiated in 2020, the players owed owners more than $1 billion because of the clubs’ COVID-19 losses; Bettman said Wednesday there is approximately $100 million of escrow outstanding, and once it’s paid off, the cap could go up by around $4 million.
“One thing to keep in mind,” Bettman said, “is if we’re going to raise the cap and the escrow hasn’t been paid off, then we’re going to have to look at raising the escrow rates, which under the CBA extension in 2020 is locked into the last three years of the CBA term at 6%. So, if you’re going to raise the cap prematurely, then we’re going to have to look at the escrow percentage as well. The two are inextricably tied together.”
In other league updates, Bettman confirmed the Ottawa Senators‘ sale remains a “work in progress” with the first round of bidding complete. The second phase of the process — which could take just “a matter of weeks” — will include “winnowing down” the interested parties.
With the news on Tuesday that Diamond Sports Group — which owns regional broadcast networks for 12 NHL teams — filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, Bettman said the league has been assured all its regular-season games will be carried out as planned and that there are “a series of options” at the NHL’s disposal as backup to ensure coverage continues through the final stretch to the playoffs.