Bettman soothes worries over Coyotes, Panthers before Final

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Commissioner Gary Bettman sees few glaring problems with the NHL as the Stanley Cup Final gets underway in a model Sun Belt hockey market, and he is eager to soothe any worries about two of his league’s other warm-weather teams.

Bettman insisted Wednesday night that the Arizona Coyotes and the Florida Panthers are in good shape, downplaying reports of financial troubles for the two struggling franchises.

Bettman gave another cautious nod toward possible expansion to Las Vegas, and he deflected any questions about the possible sale of the Pittsburgh Penguins. He also reiterated his position questioning the links between hockey concussions and chronic brain disease.

Bettman spoke out strongly against reports of problems with the Coyotes’ lease in Glendale, Arizona, calling them “inaccurate” and insisting the franchise isn’t in trouble.

“They have a lease that’s in full force and effect,” Bettman said. “Their obligations are being met currently. The club is not going anywhere, so I don’t know where or why these reports are coming from. … It’s unfortunate that there seems to be some degree of distraction in terms of the coverage of the club, but they’ll deal with it, and time will tell over time that, in fact, they’re doing a good job of building that club in Arizona.”

Bettman also shot down rumors of an impending relocation or bankruptcy for the Panthers, insisting owner Vincent Viola has the downtrodden club on a path to prosperity and success.

The commissioner praised Tampa Bay’s ability to build a successful, contending team in a non-traditional hockey market, and the league is increasingly interested in another warm-weather opportunity. Bettman acknowledged the league is impressed by prospective Las Vegas owner Bill Foley’s season ticket drive, which has received more than 11,500 deposits for an arena still under construction.

“It’s his process,” Bettman said of Foley. “He was the one testing the marketplace, and if he decided he wanted to announce a count, or what level of success he has achieved to this point, that’s up to him. I will report that to the Board of Governors at the meeting in June. … It looks like his drive has had some degree of success, to say the least.”

The NHL hasn’t announced formal expansion plans, but Bettman will speak to the board later this month in Las Vegas, where the league will hand out its postseason awards.

“If, after our discussion in June where I’m going to report where all the expressions of interest stand, including what Las Vegas has been able to accomplish with the ticket drive, if the board has any interest in pursuing it, my recommendation would be then to open a formal expansion process,” Bettman said.

“And even if they greenlight a formal expansion process, it doesn’t mean we’re going to expand,” he added. “It means we’ll go through the steps of looking through things, and if the conclusion at the end of the process could be very well no expansion. So it would just be a question of possibly looking at the expressions of interest and looking at them a little more seriously than we have.”

Bettman had an upbeat message about his league, which has been through a remarkably stable period. The NHL has even issued just one postseason suspension after years of contentious debate about player discipline.

“I think the department of player safety is doing a terrific job,” Bettman said. “I think the players have responded to the initiatives that have been put in place and the rule changes that have been adjusted, so in that regard, without jinxing it, I think it’s been really good.”

Not everything is ideal in Bettman’s world. The salary cap for next season still isn’t set, although it will be around $71 million.

Bettman also isn’t pleased with the new system that allows team to get compensatory draft picks after losing coaches or executives to other teams. He agreed to the rule after years of requests from general managers, but doesn’t like seeing teams receiving compensatory picks for employees who have already been dismissed, such as coaches Dan Bylsma and Todd McLellan.

But those worries were minor compared to Bettman’s overall positivity about the modern NHL.

“The game has never been more exciting, more entertaining or more competitive,” Bettman said. “Our franchises have never been stronger, and our ownership never better.”

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.