As the push for the NHL playoffs enters the proverbial home stretch, the main complaint about the league's realignment is starting to hit home.
In the Western Conference, only six teams will miss the playoffs, while eight Eastern-Conference clubs will be out of luck. The only remedy to this imbalance is expansion or contraction -- and the NHL isn't going to allow any clubs to fold.
NHL executives rarely speculate about expansion and relocation; there was virtual silence from league officials before the Atlanta Thrashers moved to Winnipeg in 2011.
But last month, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly did entertain questions about expansion. This signalled the league is thinking about enlarging the circuit from 30 to 32 teams, a move that would balance out the conferences.
Here's how the four most-talked-about prospective NHL cities look:
Population: 791,934 (Census Metropolitan Area estimate, 2013)
Pedigree: The WHA and NHL Nordiques played a total of 23 seasons in Quebec City before the franchise moved to Denver in 1995. The Quebec Bulldogs also played one season in the league, in 1919-1920.
Potential fans: Plenty. In 2013, U.S. sports statistician Nate Silver, formerly of the New York Times, estimated there are 530,000 NHL fans in the Quebec City media market, making it the most logical place for league expansion or a franchise relocation.
Venue and ownership: The city and province of Quebec are sharing the $400-million cost of a new 18,500-seat arena that should be completed in 2015. The intention is the venue will host an NHL franchise. Quebecor has already purchased the naming rights.
Rationale: The return of the NHL to Quebec City would be a logical move. But given the regional imbalance in the league -- 16 teams in the east but only 14 in the west -- relocation of a struggling franchise would make more logistical sense than expansion.
Population: 3.55 million (U.S. Census Bureau metropolitan estimate, 2012)
Pedigree: The Seattle Metropolitans played in the Pacific Coast Hockey Association from 1915 to 1924 -- and won a Stanley Cup in 1917. The Metropolitans were also supposed to play in the 1918 cup, but that was cancelled due to the worldwide flu epidemic.
Potential fans: A good amount. Silver pegged the NHL-fan population at 241,000 last year.
Venue and ownership: Seattle hedge-fund manager Chris Hansen has proposed a new arena to serve an NBA franchise. The theory is the NHL could piggyback upon such a move.
In February, Daly called Seattle a "good hockey market" and did not rule out expansion to Washington state. A group of Seattle businesspeople went on a fact-finding mission to Vancouver later that month, reported the Seattle Times, which cited sources claiming two prospective ownership groups have been speaking to the NHL.
Rationale: Another West Coast franchise would help alleviate the NHL's regional imbalance and provide a natural geographic rival for Vancouver.
Population: 2 million (U.S. census bureau metropolitan estimate, 2012)
Pedigree: The Las Vegas Wranglers of the ECHL play in the 7,800-seat Orleans Arena, but are moving to a new, 3,500-seat building next year.
Potential fans: Not many. Silver pegged the NHL's Vegas fan base at 91,000. An NHL franchise in Vegas may have to rely on tourists.
Venue and ownership: Earlier this week, the Globe & Mail's David Shoalts reported two groups are proposing to build NHL-calibre arenas in Las Vegas -- the owners of the L.A. Kings and a Baltimore-based developer called The Cordish Companies.
Rationale: On paper, there isn't any, beyond the interest expressed by well-heeled prospective owners -- and the fact this would be a western club.
Population: 5.96 million (Census Metropolitan Area estimate, 2013)
Pedigree: The professional hockey club now known as the Maple Leafs has operated in Toronto since 1906.
Potential fans: A massive amount. Silver pegged the total number of NHL fans in the Toronto market at 5.1 million. Even if 80 per cent of those people remain loyal to the Leafs, you're still left with a million fans for a second franchise.
Venue and ownership: Promoter Graeme Roustan has tried and failed to secure public money for an NHL-calibre arena in Markham, a northern suburb of Toronto. A major stumbling block is a lack of enthusiasm from the NHL for a second franchise in the city, the National Post reported in December.
Rationale: It's obvious Toronto can support a second NHL franchise. The question is whether Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment would ever be willing to share the market with another club.