When the NHL hit the accelerator on expansion some 30 years ago it brought hockey to untapped markets, warm weather destinations and established a footprint throughout all corners of North America.
It also created some pretty terrible teams and wins were hard to come by in places like Tampa Bay, Anaheim, Ottawa, Atlanta and Nashville for several seasons.
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“In the past, we were in the era of expansion teams, so when Atlanta came in, you didn’t necessarily need to be your best and still be able to win the game because the team you’re playing against wasn’t like the Vegas expansion team. They were a true expansion team, and they struggled,” former Washington Capitals goalie Olie Kolzig recalled. “You had Columbus when they came in, you had Minnesota when they came in, so there was a handful of those nights that (you couldn’t) take off but you knew you didn’t have to be your best.”
Things have changed.
The NHL reworked its expansion draft rules in 2017 and Vegas flipped the league on its head by becoming the most successful first-year franchise in NHL history, reaching the Stanley Cup Final in the Golden Knights’ inaugural season.
The same rules are in place, meaning the Seattle Kraken franchise is in the same situation when it drafts its first team next Wednesday. In theory, Seattle general manager Ron Francis can put a competitive team on the ice from the outset, just like Vegas.
If only that was the case years ago.
“Hindsight is always 20/20, but I really think the NHL erred in and how they treated the expansion teams all the way up until Vegas,” said Nashville general manager David Poile, who drafted the first Predators roster in 1998. “Oftentimes, in my opinion, we did not do right by the expansion teams, and we made their trek much more difficult than it needed to be.”
Poile is right. The history of expansion in the NHL is a roller coaster of contractions and relocations, strange partnerships and ultimately very little success in the infancy of most franchises.
Teams often went through several roster iterations before success was achieved. For example, when the New York Islanders started their run of four straight Stanley Cup titles in the 1979-80 season there was only one player — Hall of Fame goalie Billy Smith — still on the roster from their expansion draft in 1972.
“We were dealing with a lot of older guys that probably were at the end of the line,” said Carolina general manager Don Waddell, who was the GM in Atlanta when the Thrashers arrived in 1999. “I think we only had one guy stay past two years with our franchise from the expansion draft, which is not the way you probably would hope to set out with an expansion draft.”
After the expansion rush that began in 1991, no team found success faster than the Florida Panthers, who opened play in 1993 and reached the Stanley Cup Final in 1996. The Panthers featured 10 players from their expansion draft on the roster for the 1996 season, including leading scorer Scott Mellanby, but the lineup had been supplemented through the draft (Rob Niedermayer) and trades (Robert Svehla and Stu Barnes).
Ottawa is another example of an expansion franchise that was thumped early but created a foundation that led to 11 straight playoff berths beginning with the Senators’ fifth season.
At the other end was Tampa Bay, which spent 10 seasons mostly at the bottom of the standings with just one playoff berth. The Lightning are the defending back-to-back champions now, with three titles overall, but it took time and investment to finally get there.
Waddell was long gone from Atlanta by the time the Thrashers made the playoffs in 2007, their only playoff berth before moving to Winnipeg. It took six seasons for Poile and the Predators to make the postseason.
“Almost philosophically we drafted a lot of players that we knew would not be with our team for more than a couple of years,” Poile said.
The NHL went through a lengthy expansion pause but when the Golden Knights arrived, friendlier rules and the guile of the Vegas front office transformed the expectations for any team going forward. Vegas found ways to leverage salary cap issues, pilfered teams with bloated rosters and were willing to take on veterans to be solid from the start.
“After the fact, the word I most used most often to describe the entire process was fascinating,” said Vegas GM Kelly McCrimmon, who was assistant GM to George McPhee during the expansion draft. “It was a fascinating process to be part of.”
It worked, too: Vegas earned 109 points in its first season and 93 in its second — 61.6% of all the possible points the Golden Knights could have earned over its first 164 regular-season games. Of the previous nine expansion teams, none earned more than 83 points (Florida, 1993-94) in either of their first two seasons. Both San Jose and Ottawa failed to top 40 points in either of their first two campaigns.
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Francis knows he needs to find some long-term foundational pieces for Seattle, but everything the franchise does in its first year will be compared to Vegas.
Does Seattle go young and build? Do they absorb salary, cut deals and try to develop a roster that can win from the start? It’s a delicate balance, but whatever approach the Kraken take, those within the NHL believe Seattle being competitive — thanks to the rules in place — is best for the league.
“We came in when the league was paying $75 million for a franchise,” Waddell said. “These guys are paying $650 (million). So they deserve a little better opportunity to build a team.”