The NHL in Utah is starting to feel inevitable. That was the sense around the league this week when Ryan Smith publicly released a letter to the NHL formally requesting a team.
As one NHL owner told me, “Entry to the NHL is a calculated process which [commissioner] Gary [Bettman] likes control over.” Bettman and Smith have struck up a relationship over the past several years. When I asked the team owner what Smith’s letter meant, he said: “It’s clear this is someone that Gary trusts and is interested in doing business with.”
I talked to Smith this week, and his passion and energy is undeniable. His pitch to the NHL is simple: His ownership group wants to give more than they take, folding into the sport’s mantra of growing the game. Salt Lake City is an emerging, vibrant market. And Smith will bring a fresh perspective, specifically focusing on innovation.
“I’m still active in the tech world. I’m in my early 40s,” Smith said. “Tech is what’s creating a lot of this in Utah. How we can help from a technology standpoint and bringing communities together, it’s really working. That’s a big piece of this. I’m still very involved in Qualtrics, the company I started. I just announced an incubator. Sports and tech, there’s a lot of commonality on how all of this works. I think it’s super helpful to have active tech folks in the conversations that are helping it drive.”
Most notably: Smith said his ownership group (which owns the Utah Jazz and MLS Real Salt Lake City) could host a team as soon as next season at the Delta Center, which has already hosted some NHL exhibition games. That’s significant as the Arizona Coyotes arena situation is coming to a head. Sources from the NHL and NHLPA have told me the Coyotes need to provide firm answers soon, or the league will lose patience — which it has already exercised a ton of.
Smith said he didn’t care if he inherits a relocated team or starts from scratch with an expansion team. “Our goal is NHL in Utah,” Smith said. “And I’ll leave the rest up to Gary.”
The league may be interested in 33 teams regardless — especially since some owners are predicting an expansion fee well over $1 billion.
Anecdotally, I’ve talked to a few players who viewed Utah as an exciting potential location. Some players have or have friends who vacationed in Park City, just outside of Salt Lake City. They liked that it’s a natural winter sport market. Salt Lake City seems poised to host the 2034 Olympics. Some players have expressed trepidation over even more expansion, but they know it means more money for everyone and more jobs.
Smith said they have already identified multiple sites for a standalone hockey arena — either in downtown Salt Lake City or the surrounding areas. “We do own the Delta Center, so that plays a little in our advantage, because we’re going to own that either way. But we can operate in two arenas; there’s definitely the ability to do that here. We’re rolling. I think we’ve got good options there. Utah is what I would call friendly for business. I think that’s what’s helped us create a tech ecosystem.”
Smith seems ready to pony up the cost of an expansion club. Vegas paid $500 million to become the NHL’s 31st team. Just over two years later, Seattle paid $600 million.
“We know they’re not free,” Smith said of the potential expansion cost. “We’ve gone through the purchasing process of two teams [NBA’s Jazz and MLS’ Real Salt Lake City] in the last two and a half years. So we have a pretty good idea of where things stack. That’s definitely part of our intention and commitment, and we don’t want to go through the process if we’re not serious about it. The stadium is another big part of it as well. To get our group around the table and have everyone say unanimously, ‘We’re in,’ is pretty powerful.”
Smith said he’s not sure how the process for arena funding will play out, whether it would be fully privately funded or lean on some public funds. “We purchased the other arena in a private way. … We’ve been pretty independent up to this point,” Smith said. “But part of the challenge in all of this is lining everything up. Obviously in the short term in landing the team, we don’t have to cross that bridge because we already have everything set up. And support comes in a lot of different ways. Support is helping with the Olympics, partnering with universities and tech incubators and stuff like that. We’d rather go with a contingent of people who want to be around hockey.”
IT’S HARD TO gauge how busy this trade deadline will be. Many front office executives and agents I’ve talked to are tempering expectations. The league’s parity has the Stanley Cup chase wide-open this year, meaning the teams hovering on the bubble may take a more conservative approach. The stagnant salary cap has handcuffed contenders too cash-strapped to make much work.
“Just wait for next year,” one assistant general manager said. “With an extra $5 million, we’ll all be going crazy.”
Only a few teams seem poised to push their chips all-in for this season — Vancouver is the name that consistently came up in this category. As usual, there could be surprises.
I asked one general manager in the Eastern Conference if there was one team that could be bracing for a splash. “Vegas,” he said. “It’s just in their nature.” In their six years of existence, the Golden Knights have been uber aggressive. They go after every big name available. For example, I’m told they made one of the most impressive presentations to Patrick Kane, pitching him as the missing piece to their second Stanley Cup. Vegas has been banged up, though its depth has held up. There’s good news on Jack Eichel, who was supposed to be the team’s All Star before undergoing surgery (lower body, not related to his neck). I’m told the prognosis isn’t as bad as initially feared. He should return before the playoffs.
RANGERS CENTER FILIP CHYTIL is back in New York after three weeks of resetting at home in Czechia. I was told he made strong progress in his recovery from a head injury while training there. The Rangers have been cautious to put any time frame on his return so Chytil doesn’t feel pressure and knowing the sensitivity and unpredictability of head injuries. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see the 25-year-old return sometime in February.
If New York doesn’t have Chytil’s LTIR money, the Rangers really don’t have much wiggle room. I don’t get the sense GM Chris Drury is keen on mortgaging the future to repeat last year’s major trade deadline moves. Instead, it sounds like the team is looking for an extra forward with some jam. The Rangers expressed interest in Corey Perry, before he signed in Edmonton, but I don’t think those talks got very far outside of an initial conversation.
THERE’S BEEN A leaguewide thirst for goaltending this season, and there are not enough goaltenders front offices trust to go around. Teams that are seriously looking for a goalie include Carolina, Colorado, Edmonton, Los Angeles and New Jersey. But who is out there? Petr Mrazek, who worked hard to revive his career in Chicago, just inked a two-year extension. The Blackhawks are rewarding veterans who have been good soldiers during a tough season where they’re designed to miss the playoffs. Not only is Mrazek putting up good numbers, but I’m told he’s been a very positive influence and popular among the younger players on the team.
It also sounds like things have quieted down on the Elvis Merzlikins front. Merzlikins’ agent, Gerry Johansson, never formally requested a trade. He did have a conversation with management where both sides agreed they could call around the league to see if there were other opportunities. But it doesn’t sound like there was a ton of interest right now, and I’m told Merzlikins is in a much better place.
Anaheim GM Pat Verbeek has held firm on a high asking price for John Gibson. It seems Calgary is navigating the Jacob Markstrom situation delicately. He could be available, but management is only approaching him about his no movement clause if it has serious offers. Jake Allen and Kaapo Kahkonen might be depth options. With the scarcity, you can see why so many teams are curious if Marc-Andre Fleury in Minnesota will be open to a trade.