Talent pool-dilution is such a dangerous begs-the-question argument. Seems an easy argument on its face. 22 teams = 184 fewer scrubs.
But leagues & sports don't grow in a vacuum. How much does the sport suffer from drawing fewer athletes to develop the skills?
A bigger, more popular league creates athletes that might otherwise play other sports. Obviously, balance is the key.
An idea I've thought about in the past immediately came to mind, something I'm calling the 20/20/20 plan. A 20-team NHL, a 20-team IHL at the "AAAA" level, and a 20-team AHL.
I've always thought of this idea in the terms of growing the game of hockey or testing potential markets. The thought is that you can't judge a market's potential based on its support of a developmental league such as the AHL. Since I disagree with the idea of growing the game with your highest league, the question was along the lines of, what if you lopped off some NHL markets that aren't quite ready, combined them with the bigger AHL markets that seem to not fit that league's footprint, and built a league somewhere between the two.
Yes, this is pretty much what the original IHL tried to do in the 1990s, and they failed miserably. The way I see it, they tried to compete with the NHL, this would be a collaboration.
Right now, the NHL uses the AHL for two things: Prepping their prospects and stashing veterans in case they're needed for a call-up. Under this idea, the new IHL would take the vets while the AHL becomes a more pure developmental league. That's the idea, at least, I really don't know how feasible it is.
A league of vets just not good enough to crack the NHL full time gives a pretty high quality game. High enough that it could be a better judge of new markets and teach new fans about the game. And because the NHL in this scenario is smaller, some of those guys are actually good enough to be in the current NHL.
I don't see a need for formal relegation in this scenario and I don't think the North American sports marketplace works that way, but there might be an artificial form of it anyway. NHL market fails, team moves to IHL market that has proven itself, maybe the IHL's displaced team goes to the abandoned market, something that doesn't happen as much now because there's more difference between the leagues and the markets in the league than there would be in this case.
How does this tie back into what J.J. was talking about?
The 20/20/20 plan is balanced as such because it specifically keeps the same number of teams in the top levels of the game. Maybe 24/24/24 would work better, I don't know.
I had never considered the impact of fewer NHL teams on the development of the game overall, though, just on the development of individual markets. Would a 20-team NHL mean fewer kids playing hockey overall? Would still having 60 teams in the space that the NHL and AHL occupy, even if 20 of them were in a different league than they currently are, mean no change?
I don't have an answer but I think it helps prove how the right answer to how to organize teams - whether as a league, division, or otherwise - can depend on more factors than you might think.
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