On “Talent Dilution”

If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a thousand times: expansion causes something called “talent dilution”, which damages the overall product.  Therefore, expansion is bad for the game and should be avoided.

Now, I’m a longtime hockey fan and a fan of an expansion team.  I’m also not dumb, and I know exactly what is meant when someone bemoans “talent dilution”: it’s simply a nicer way of saying “your team shouldn’t exist” by pretending to be speaking about the best interests of the collective game of hockey.  I could rant for days about exactly what I think about the people who espouse contraction and/or relocation of NHL teams, but it wouldn’t be productive.  Besides, there’s research to do.

First, a note on NHL rosters.  Before the last round of expansion began, a team’s active roster was 25 players; after expansion, it was 23 players.  26 teams times 25 is 650 players; 30 teams times 23 is 690 players.  Four teams were added to the NHL, and only 40 players on the active rosters.

Things have changed in the way that the game has been played as well.  Even in 1998, 1999, and 2000, teams still carried players whose primary job was to pummel opposing players.  In the four seasons between the entry of Columbus and Minnesota (2000-01) and the beginning of the season killing lockout (which was in 2004-05, meaning that the time span here is 2000-01 to 2003-04), there was an average of 736 fights per season.  The fewest number of players who fought in a given season was 321 (in 2002-03), so the average player who fought at all was in over two fights per season.  However, the last two seasons combined (2014-15 and 2015-16) have seen a total of 735 fights.  Fighting today is less than half of what it was during the last expansion cycle.  This also applies to the preseason, which used to feature a ton of fighting as roster afterthoughts looked to make a name for themselves.  2000-01 to 2003-04 saw an average of 132 fights per preseason, compared to a total of 128 in the last two seasons combined.  The preseason has gotten slightly smaller in number of games, but there were 31 total games the last two preseasons that had multiple fights compared to every single preseason from 2000-01 to 2003-04 having 31 or more such games.  (All numbers in this section are from hockeyfights.com/stats/)

Only four players in 2015-16 had 10 fights at all, and the league leader (Cody McLeod) had 12.  The 2000-01 season had 41 players who had 10 fights, led by Andrei Nazarov with 27.  19 of these 41 players had more than 12 fights.  (These numbers are from hockeyfights.com/archives/; you’ll have to go year by year).  And the players who are clustering near the top of the fight list today actually have value; they’re mostly third- or fourth-line players who are able to get 8-12 minutes a night and maybe kill penalties or be on the ice late to protect a lead.  This is a far cry from the old enforcer who would get 4-6 minutes a night and never be on the ice in a crucial situation.

The old enforcers are gone.  Whether that’s because of the salary cap, or because of changes in the way the game is played today, is frankly irrelevant.  There used to be between 20 and 40 players in the league at a given time whose primary skill was fighting; this no longer exists at all.  They’ve been replaced by guys who bring a bit more to the overall game, which has improved the level of play and the caliber of player over time.

However, that’s just looking at things in a very narrow window.  Let’s look bigger picture to the United States.

The NHL and WHA began expanding at almost breakneck speed during the 1970s, which led to a short-term growth of hockey into areas that had previously only had low-level pro teams.  After the merger, the warfare among the minor leagues decimated places that had seen terrific fan support for teams.  It wasn’t until NHL expansion in the 1990s, and the bolstering of the minor league infrastructure to support it, that long-term dividends began to pay off.  Southern California has placed close to two dozen native sons into the NHL just in the last 10 years.  Two of the consensus top four prospects in the 2016 NHL Draft are from Scottsdale, AZ.  Two thirds of the NHL players in Pennsylvania’s long history of hockey made their debut in 2000 or later.  Michigan, a traditional hockey state, has had almost half of NHL players in their history make their debut in 2000 or later.  Almost 40% of Minnesota native NHLers are in the same position.  NHL players are coming from Texas, from Ohio, from Florida, from Arizona, from South Carolina, and from all sorts of places that weren’t producing players 20 years ago.

But perhaps even this cursory look is too narrow.  Let’s look globally.

The resurrection of the Canada Cup, and its rebranding in 1996 as the World Cup of Hockey, featured eight top-level hockey countries putting their best teams on the ice.  The Czech Republic was horrendous during the tournament, but would win Olympic gold in 1998; Germany, which made it into the medal tournament in the World Cup, would be relegated out of the World Championships by 1999.  Switzerland wasn’t even in the World Cup, but they were in the world top eight by 2000.  These are but three examples of how much the caliber of international hockey can shift in a short period of time, regardless of whether a given country is producing NHLers or not.

I did some digging through the IIHF statistics on participation, which is only available online going back to 2007.  And the extent to which countries, particularly ones that aren’t traditionally international powers, have taken up the game even in the last decade is shocking.  The following numbers are growth of hockey among all players within the listed country from 2007 to 2015.  All numbers come from the IIHF Survey of Players.

Among “traditional” hockey countries:

  • Austria has gone from 9,711 in 2007 to 11,754 in 2015 (21% growth)
  • Belarus has gone from 3,150 to 4,851 (54% growth)
  • Canada has gone from 545,363 to 721,504 (32.3% growth)
  • Czech Republic has gone from 95,782 to 109,103 (13.9% growth)
  • Denmark has gone from 4,084 to 4,295 (5.2% growth)
  • Finland has gone from 60,811 to 75,871 (24.8% growth)
  • Hungary has gone from 2,024 to 4,622 (a shocking 128% growth)
  • Latvia has gone from 4,271 to 5,841 (36.8% growth)
  • Lithuania has gone from 657 to 1,403 (113.5% growth)
  • Russia has gone from 82,967 to 99,172 (19.5% growth)
  • Slovakia has gone from 10,167 to 11,518 (13.3% growth)
  • The United States has gone from 450,958 to 533,172 (18.2% growth)

Among these 12 countries, total participation has gone from 1,269,945 players in 2007 to 1,583,106.  This is a total growth of 24.7% just from 2007 to 2015, and does not take the preceding several years into account.  The only country that’s an upstart of sorts is Hungary, which had its first ever draft pick in 1999 (Tamás Gröschl, a 7th-round pick of Edmonton), its second in 2000 (Levente Szuper, a 4th-round pick of Calgary and the first Hungarian native to dress in an NHL game), and its third and most recent in 2002 (János Vas, a 2nd-round pick of Dallas).  I’m also not including other countries with enormous growth like Ukraine or Latvia, nor any of the several other countries who began hockey programs in the last 15 years and have also seen skyrocketing enrollment.  (Side note: did you know Mexico had close to 70% growth from 2007 to 2015?)

Sweden, Switzerland, Norway, and Germany were roughly stagnant during this time period.

Now, you may have noticed that I didn’t break these numbers down further into male and female players, or by over age 20 and 20-and-under players.  The reason for not dividing the latter is because the 2007 numbers are only broken down by “senior” and “juvenile”, and although it’s most likely the case that this splits at age 20, it’s not absolutely guaranteed.  Splitting possibly dissimilar participation numbers would be counterproductive.  And the reason for not splitting between male and female players is simply arbitrary on my part, as a quick glance at the tables of numbers seemed to indicate growth among female players that closely mirrored the overall growth of male players as well.  I’ll mention that the surging participation in girls’ and women’s hockey is an absolute blessing for the sport.

Does talent dilution exist?  As we’ve seen in recent years, with players coming in from overseas professional leagues and going right into the NHL, it does not follow that this opens up roster spots to inferior players at all.  We’ve seen goalies like Sergei Bobrovsky, Antti Niemi, Niklas Backstrom, and Jonas Hiller go right onto an NHL roster from overseas.  We’ve seen forwards like Artemi Panarin and Mats Zuccarello and Ruslan Fedotenko, and defensemen like Brian Rafalski simply sign with an NHL team from Europe and excel very early.  This isn’t even getting into undrafted college players who have done the same like Chris Tanev and Andy Greene and Dan Boyle, or overage undrafted junior players like Tyler Johnson and Mark Giordano and Joel Ward.  Scouting is imperfect, and we all know and acknowledge that the entry draft every year isn’t necessarily a predictor of future NHL success.  First-rounders flame out, seventh-rounders become All-Stars.  The guy who was widely regarded as a steal may be a dud, and the guy widely regarded as a reach may be a terrific pickup.  We acknowledge this regularly as a fact, so why is the presumption that the best 690 players in the world are all in the NHL while everyone outside of it is ranked lower?

The only thing that’s definite about expansion is that adding a new team adds 23 new roster spots to the NHL. That it will inherently follow that they will be filled by 23 inferior players, or 23 players who are not NHL caliber at all, is simply not a logical conclusion.  The staggering growth of hockey worldwide, including (especially) within countries that were already thought to be close to maximum participation as it is, has dramatically increased the world’s talent pool.  This will not be diluted in the slightest by an additional team in the NHL.

Therefore, the argument that expansion should be avoided because of concerns over talent dilution should be rejected.