Lighting the Lamp, with Rick Ackerman
Minnesota rambles into town tonight to take on the Blues with divisional bragging rights on the line. Led by a Big Four of wingers Zach Parise and Jason Pominville, center Mikko Koivu and defenseman Ryan Suter (with a combined salary cap hit of $26.3M), the Wild has more points (34) than any team in the Eastern Conference, although they are ranked seventh in the West. They don't score a lot of goal, currently 20th in the NHL with 2.54 goals per game, yet they don't have to due to a stingy defense, sixth best in the NHL at 2.17 goals against per game, and the superior play of goaltender Josh Harding (injured in the pre-game skate Saturday in Winnipeg), who has won 12 of 18 games with a 1.48 GAA (best in the league) and .941 SP (sixth best). However, that doesn't mean much to the Blues, who won all three games last season (two in Minnesota), outscoring the Wild 11 to five.
The Wild are no relation to the NHL team that began play in Minneapolis in 1967, the green-clad Minnesota North Stars, who are now the green-clad Dallas Stars. The Wild were birthed in 1997 as an expansion team and began play in 2000 in St. Paul. Minnesota would not qualify for the playoffs until 2003, making it to the conference finals before bowing out to Anaheim. The Wild then floundered until the 2007-08 season, winning a divisional title, yet the club lost to Colorado in the first round of the playoffs and would not return to post-season play until the lockout-shortened 2013 season, this time losing to Chicago in the opening round. That prompted the Wild owners to offer long-term contracts worth over $200M each to Parise and Suter and obtain Pominville in a trade with Buffalo. So far, Minnesota is on track to challenge for the divisional lead and qualify for the playoffs in a very strong Western Conference.
Minnesota has also established an excellent home game attendance record since beginning play in the NHL. Only during the 2011-12 season did the franchise fail to average over 18,000 fans per game. From 2002 until 2010, every home game was sold out. Last season, Minnesota averaged 225 fans a game over capacity and this season is also over capacity, averaging over 18,000 fans per game. The Wild are one of five NHL teams averaging over-capacity so far this year; the others being Chicago, Philadelphia, Toronto and Pittsburgh. Ten others are operating at capacity, including Montreal, Detroit, Calgary, Vancouver, Washington, Los Angeles, the Rangers, Boston, San Jose and Winnipeg. That's half the league averaging at least 17,500 per game and 100% capacity. Six more are in the 90% bracket averaging at least 16,500, including Edmonton, Buffalo, Tampa Bay, Ottawa, Nashville and Colorado. St. Louis averages 16,662, yet that is only 87% capacity. Dallas, Anaheim and Carolina all average above 15,000 in the 80% bracket, not bad, yet rather unbecoming for cities with really good teams like Colorado and Anaheim.
That means only five NHL teams are struggling at the box office, averaging 14,000 fans per game or less. Of those, only New Jersey is an established team in an established market. Relative newcomer Columbus averages right around 14,000, 77% of capacity, not surprising in a town dominated by college football and basketball. Despite decent attendance over the years, Florida's fan count is down to 81% this year, mostly due to a mediocre team searching for an identity in a non-traditional market. The Islanders attendance decline over the years finally prompted a change, and the team will move to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn next year. They're averaging around 13,000 fans per game at the old, antiquated Nassau County Coliseum, 81% capacity. However, the real problem for the NHL continues to be the Phoenix Coyotes, drawing an average of 12,500 fans per game, only 73% capacity at the rink in Glendale, despite being one of the best teams in the league. If the club continues to hemorrhage money, it is only a matter of time before relocation takes place, most likely to Seattle, unless NHL management decides to put an expansion franchise there first.
The NHL currently has a major problem with four unbalanced divisions, leading to an unbalanced schedule. Two divisions in the Eastern Conference have eight teams each, while the Western Conference has two divisions with only seven teams each. Likely expansion to 32 teams would therefore would have to see two teams added to the West, one in each division. However, two of the most likely candidates for expansion are Quebec City and the Toronto metro area, both in the eastern part of the continent. Seattle would be a good expansion choice, yet, as already mentioned, might be much better suited for the Coyotes' relocation. So, if the NHL were to add Quebec and Toronto in expansion, what two teams would have to move west? Look at a map, and the two most western teams in the Eastern Conference just happen to be Columbus and Detroit, both of whom were just realigned from West to East for this current season. Could anyone reasonably expect them to move back? Yikes, what a predicament!
Visiting Minnesota is on a roll, winning nine of the last 11 games and picking up 19 of 22 possible points. A win over the Blues would put them atop the division, tied with Chicago, one point ahead of St. Louis. Two points for the Note tonight means first place in both the conference and division. Expect a hard, tough game.