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Bettman addresses expansion, player development

Commissioner discusses several topics at Sloan Sports Analytics Conference

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / Senior Writer

BOSTON -- NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman spoke Friday at the 2016 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, addressing issues affecting the League and the sport in general.

The session, "1-on-1 with Gary Bettman," covered topics including the ongoing expansion process, the use of analytics in the NHL, the suspension appeal process for Calgary Flames defenseman Dennis Wideman, fighting, and the plan to study the path a prospect takes to the NHL.

Expansion -- While again saying no decision has been made regarding expansion to Las Vegas and/or Quebec City, Commissioner Bettman said the Columbus Blue Jackets and Detroit Red Wings will remain in the Eastern Conference regardless of how the process unfolds. 

"If you're a fan of the Red Wings or Blue Jackets, you should know your club under no circumstances is moving back to the West," Commissioner Bettman said. 

There has been some question regarding the alignment of the NHL if it chooses to expand to Quebec City, another market in the Eastern time zone, because of the fact there are 16 teams in the Eastern Conference and 14 in the Western Conference. The Red Wings and Blue Jackets, each located in the Eastern time zone, played in the Western Conference before the League realigned to its four divisions in two conferences for the start of the 2013-14 season. 

"One of the factors we're going to have to evaluate is, depending on how the owners want to do expansion, if they want to do it at all, how do you do alignment?" Commissioner Bettman said. "That's one of the things we have to talk about." 

Commissioner Bettman said there is no appetite within the League for expansion into a European market as part of its international ventures with the NHL Players' Association that will start with the 2016 World Cup of Hockey in Toronto. 

Analytics in the NHL -- Because he was speaking at a sports analytics conference, it was natural for Commissioner Bettman to be asked about the growing use of statistical analysis in the NHL. 

Nineteen teams have at least one representative at the conference, including 11 with multiple representatives. The Minnesota Wild and Tampa Bay Lightning have four representatives each. 

Commissioner Bettman referenced the NHL's competitive balance as a reason teams view the use of analytics as a way to gain an advantage. 

"Last year we had seven teams that made the [Stanley Cup Playoffs] that didn't the year before," Commissioner Bettman said. "If the playoffs started today, there would be six teams that weren't in the playoffs last year in this year. So our teams are constantly looking for whatever information will give them an edge." 

He also mentioned the possibility of statistical enhancements through the League's partnership with Major League Baseball Advanced Media and SAP. Commissioner Bettman specifically brought up puck and player tracking, which the NHL has tested with outside companies. 

"[It] will have a whole host of uses, whether it's for teams collecting more information for competitive information, whether it's for broadcasters having more information to tell stories, or whether or not it's for our fans being able to look inside the game that's incredibly fast and break it down into components that they're interested in," he said. 

Wideman's appeal process -- Commissioner Bettman said he had no issues with the appeal process and the length of time it took for the Neutral Discipline Arbitrator to rule on Wideman's appeal of his 20-game suspension. 

Wideman's suspension was reduced to 10 games by James Oldham, the NHL/NHLPA Neutral Discipline Arbitrator, on Friday. The NHL said in a statement that it "strenuously disagreed" with the ruling. 

Wideman was suspended for 20 games on Feb. 3 for physical abuse of officials. He first appealed the suspension to Commissioner Bettman under the terms of the collective bargaining agreement. Commissioner Bettman upheld the suspension on Feb. 17, and the NHLPA then issued an appeal to the Neutral Discipline Arbitrator on Wideman's behalf. 

"This dragged out for a whole host of reasons which may not have been necessary, but I'm perfectly comfortable with the process," Commissioner Bettman said, speaking before the arbitrator's ruling was announced. "This process is something that was very important to us and also part to the [CBA] negotiations." 

NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said last month the League offered earlier dates for each appeal to be heard, but said the NHLPA wanted more time to form its case for Wideman. 

Wideman, who is eligible to play for Calgary on Friday against the Arizona Coyotes, missed 19 games, but his fine (loss of salary) will be for the 10-game suspension decided by the arbitrator. 

Fighting -- The number of fights per NHL game are on pace to decline for the third straight season. Commissioner Bettman suggested it's a result of the evolution of the game and how general managers are building their roster. 

There have been 0.57 fighting majors per game this season, down from 0.63 last season and 0.76 in 2013-14, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. There were 0.96 fighting majors per game in 2012-13, up from 0.89 in 2011-12. 

"Most teams have concluded that because the game is so competitive, they want four lines of players who can play, who are skillful," Commissioner Bettman said. "Teams have gotten more concerned with good defense and scoring." 

Commissioner Bettman also referenced the League's rule on mandatory visors, which went into effect at the start of the 2013-14 season, as another reason for the reduction in fights. 

Path to the NHL -- Commissioner Bettman said the League is in the process of meeting with various professional and amateur leagues from around the world to discuss ways to make a prospect's route to the NHL more efficient. 

Commissioner Bettman spoke about the topic in response to a question about Auston Matthews, likely to be the No. 1 pick at the 2016 NHL Draft, playing professionally in Switzerland in his draft season instead of in major junior hockey or in the NCAA. 

"If you were to look at football or basketball, there is a pretty vertical route to the highest level," Commissioner Bettman said, referencing the path from high school to college to the NFL or NBA. "If you look at us, it's a spider web of alternative ways to do it. We've been talking about maybe there is a better, more efficient system that is more predictable for young prospects. I can't say there is any right or wrong way that leads to a development of a player, but there may be a more efficient way." 

He said Pat LaFontaine is spearheading the effort. LaFontaine, a Hockey Hall of Fame member, is the NHL vice president of hockey development and community affairs. 

"Discussions remain preliminary," LaFontaine said. "A group of leaders and stakeholders in our game are exploring many ideas around improving conditions for player development throughout North America. It's been a tremendous process so far." 

The event was held at the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center, and Liam McHugh of NBC Sports was host of the session.

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