203 wins. 361 losses. A winning percentage of .359%.
This is the reality for the modern-day professional sports expansion team since 1998 — the combined record of the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild, the MLB’s Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Rays, the NBA’s Charlotte Bobcats, and the NFL’s Houston Texans, in their respective inaugural seasons.
But there is one glaring exception.
The Vegas Golden Knights entered the NHL in 2017 and jousted their way to becoming not only one of the top teams in hockey but perhaps the best expansion team ever. Posting a record of 51-24-7 in their first season, along with a miraculous playoff run to the Stanley Cup Finals (where they lost to Washington in five), Vegas is a dramatic outlier in terms of what we expect from expansion franchises in their earliest stages.
Of course, there are other stories of success from professional teams in the infancy of their lifespans. After losing 97 games in their first season, the Diamondbacks finished 100–62 the very next year and made the playoffs. Two years later, in 2001, they won a World Series. The Wild made it to the Conference Finals in their third year; however, that season was sandwiched in between four seasons of finishing dead last in their division. In over 20 years of existence, neither Minnesota nor the Blue Jackets have appeared in the Cup Finals.
It only took the New York Mets seven years to win their first World Series, though 1969 came after five of their first seven seasons resulted in triple-digit losses. And hey — the Milwaukee Bucks made the playoffs in just their second season and won a championship in their third. But even they played badly enough in their debut year to be awarded the first overall pick: a guy who then went by the name of Lew Alcindor.
Even for the most successful expansions, losing big precedes winning big. The aforementioned newest teams across the four major sports had a combined 13 playoff appearances in their collective first 60 seasons. The process of building an entirely new team almost always comes with a few growing pains. Almost.
The Golden Knights’ unprecedented start — they’ve at least reached the Conference Finals in three of their four seasons, and boast a combined 173-94-24 regular-season record — seems to have turned that tradition skate-side-up. So, have the NHL expansion rules made it too easy to create a successful team right out of the penalty box? And should they have?
It may be of some concern to hockey fans, considering this off season’s main event.
The Seattle Kraken — no relation to the Yankees’ unreliable slugger — have become the NHL’s official 32nd franchise and will soon enter the most important phase of their team-building process: the expansion draft. On July 21, GM Ron Francis will select one player from 30 NHL teams as they craft a roster that will be ready to take the ice next season. Ironically, Vegas is the only team that will not participate in the expansion draft — a luxury historically afforded to new teams in the early stages of their existence so as to not hinder their ability to “catch up” to the rest of the league. In fact, because of the Knights’ success early on, there were questions as to whether or not their exemption should be rescinded — a notion that was shut down by notorious NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. That decision stings for Seattle, who likely would’ve had one of their better selections coming from Vegas’ stacked roster.
Just four years after the league knighted Vegas, the Kraken will swim — er, slither? — into existence using the same exact expansion rules that their casino-going counterparts did to create their masterpiece of a team. So, should we expect the NHL to birth another immediate contender, or are the Knights still an exception to the rule?
As Vegas’ legend has grown, so has the hate directed at them. Although their harshest detractors would have you believe that the Knights held a fantasy draft instead of an expansion draft, the NHL’s rules for new teams have indeed changed advantageously.
When the NHL introduced the Wild and the Blue Jackets in 2000, the expansion draft rules were far more concerned with protecting existing clubs. Teams could choose either a total of nine forwards, five defensemen, and a goalie, or seven forwards, three defensemen, and two goalies to protect from being shipped off to Newteamland. That first option — in theory — allowed clubs to keep the entirety of their first three forward lines and every starting defenseman except one.
The 2017 expansion draft made the second — and far inferior — option the norm, except that teams could only protect one goaltender. Alternatively, the established franchises could choose to protect eight total skaters and one goalie.
There are some exemptions. For example, first- and second-year professionals and unsigned prospects are not at risk of being selected in the expansion draft. However, teams must protect players with no-trade clauses in their contracts and also must expose at least two forwards, one defenseman, and one goalie under contract who played in the NHL consistently over the past two years.
Best-case scenario for the expansion franchise — teams using the 7-3-1 method could be exposing their fourth-best defenseman while those treading the 8-1 route could do the same to their fifth-best forward. Of course, the exemptions and contractual circumstances (unrestricted free agents need not be protected) could dampen those figures, but the potential still exists. While it’s not a gold mine, the pool of player talent available for new teams is a marked step up from years prior, when the majority of the options were among each team’s worst assets.
Buried under all these ice shavings lies the issue: The old rules allowed general managers to throw a blanket over most of their teams and call it a day, but the updated system forces them to make important personnel decisions.
So yes, the updated rules for new expansion teams have made it easier for them. But easy enough to consistently field the juggernaut that has become the Knights?
George McPhee may have won GM of the Year for the Knights in their first season, but Vegas got a lot of help creating their team. Make no mistake — McPhee is highly intelligent, but the 2017 expansion process showed us that some other GMs around the NHL are … not.
Amid the muck that was the 2017 expansion draft, a whirlwind of side deals between Vegas and various teams went down as frantic franchises around the league essentially bribed their newest colleague to choose an insignificant player from their respective rosters. Call it salary-cap relief, personnel strategy, mitigating losses, or whatever. They’re all poor excuses for the reality of what those trades really were: unforced errors.
For example, the Pittsburgh Penguins gave the Knights a second-round pick in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft to take goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and fit him out with some armor. The Pens happened to be in a goaltending pickle with the younger Matt Murray seemingly having established himself as a franchise netminder despite Fleury’s prowess. Four years later, Murray has been shipped off to Ottawa and Fleury has become invaluable for the Knights; he won the Vezina trophy for being the NHL’s best goaltender last season.
The Blue Jackets, Anaheim Ducks, and Florida Panthers also joined the group skate. Columbus paid Vegas with first- and second-round draft picks to take on the dead-weight contract of David Clarkson (Vegas and Seattle are the first NHL expansion teams to join during the salary-cap era), as well as youngster William Karlsson. Anaheim bribed the Knights with d-man Shea Theodore to lay off their “better” players. Florida inexplicably shipped off a legitimate scoring option in Reilly Smith so that center Jonathan Marchessault could accompany him to Sin City. At the time, Marchessault was a 26-year-old center signed at $750,000 per year who had just come off of a breakout 30-goal season. There was zero reason to leave him unprotected, let alone pay Vegas handsomely to select him.
Theodore became one of the best defensemen in the NHL. Marchessault, Karlsson, and Smith immediately blossomed into one of the best lines in hockey after the entire Knights roster dubbed themselves the “Golden Misfits” — a reference to the fact that none of their former teams wanted them enough to protect them from the expansion draft. Today, the trio has been labeled the “Misfit Line,” as their chemistry, work ethic, and production has prompted head coach Peter DeBoer to call them “the identity of this franchise.”
The cost of acquiring them? One fourth-round pick and a bit of salary-cap space, of which new teams have plenty to burn.
The rest of the modern-day powerhouse roster that Vegas has built in subsequent years came through deals that most expansion teams could only dream of being in position to make after their first season. McPhee dealt away much of his future in prospects Nick Suzuki and Erik Brannstrom to acquire win-now veterans Max Paccioretty and Mark Stone. He also acquired other big-name players, such as Alex Pietrangelo and Alec Martinez.
By the way, those high-quality prospects McPhee utilized in trades to build a consistent contender? The 2017 Entry Draft picks he used to select them were only in his pocket because of the deals he made on expansion night.
However, 11 of the 30 players selected by Vegas never played a game for them. Today, there are only six players left from that original selection roster, which does not include those acquired via draft-night trades such as Theodore and Smith. These are figures that hardly prove the point of Knights detractors, who claim that the new expansion rules are designed to create an instant playoff contender. Nor do they support the assertion that the expansion process is disproportionately unfair to the existing franchises. The remaining core of the current Vegas team was built through the Knights capitalizing on some very bad mistakes by opposing teams, not through a flawed system that forced the likes of Marchessault, Smith, Karlsson, and more to be exposed for selection. Remember, Vegas was actually paid to select those players. General managers (foolishly) identified them as largely expendable, and given the chance would absolutely request a redo.
As for other teams who lost a decent player, only a few come to mind. The only other standouts on that initial Knights roster were wingers James Neal and David Perron, plus defenseman Nate Schmidt — none of whom remain in Vegas today. But those guys were complementary pieces on great teams who could clearly afford the losses; Washington (Schmidt) and St. Louis (Perron, who signed back with the Blues after a year in Vegas) won respective Cups in back-to-back seasons after the expansion draft, while the Preds (Neal) have made the playoffs every year since. So clearly none of the teams who were hit the hardest (without screwing themselves) suffered much of a bruise.
Clearly, it’s not that the expansion draft is too easy for new teams, it’s just that it’s too hard for some NHL general managers to do their jobs correctly. Hindsight is 20/20 — and to be frank, few of the deals made on expansion night looked particularly good for any teams not named Vegas. Still, when the puck drops, all that counts is that the GM has had the foresight to put the best team on the ice. That’s the job.
But is it even that hard to survive the expansion draft? Nope!
Let’s explore how the Islanders and Rangers navigated the process. The Isles sent over a first- and second-round pick and prospect Jake Bischoff plus the sizable contract of Mikhail Grabovski to Vegas. But guess what? The return was that the Knights would pick an irrelevant player in third goaltender Jean-Francois Berube. A large price to pay, for sure, but one that made certain the Isles didn’t lose the since-departed Calvin de Haan and Ryan Strome, or more important, the soon-to-be-consistent 50-point scorer Brock Nelson. That’s how you mitigate your losses.
The Blueshirts, on the other hand, didn’t have many bold moves to make — it just so happened that their valuable assets all fit under the protection umbrella. (Perhaps it made sense that they finished last and next-to-last in their division over the course of the next two seasons.) Anyway, Vegas selected forward Oscar Lindberg. He plays in Russia now.
The two New York teams were moving in completely different directions — the Rangers would shortly begin a rebuilding phase while the Islanders were just one Barry Trotz away from being one of the better clubs in the NHL. Yet, still, they both navigated the expansion well. It’s almost as if when GM’s do their homework, the pains of an expansion draft can mostly be avoided, no matter the standing of the team.
In just a few days, the New York clubs will face that 2017 challenge all over again. Nobody has released their protection list yet, but the latest mock drafts by hockey media point toward Colin Blackwell, Kevin Rooney, and Brett Howden as the most likely Rangers left to be probed by the Kraken’s tentacles, as they mull over which player to steal. For the Islanders, it looks like Keiffer Bellows and Otto Koivula. Useful players, and some young ones with potential, but nothing worth crying over. Each team will only lose one.
Yes, the expansion rules changed to guarantee that higher-quality players will be available to prospective new teams. But no rule forced general managers to mis-evaluate the talent on their roster and then inexplicably bribe Vegas to capitalize on those mistakes. The stupidity of opposing GMs built the powerhouse that is the Golden Knights, not a flawed rulebook. If the right moves were made, Vegas could’ve been dealt a bottom-third roster. And while the potential is evidently there for more, the Kraken will likely be in that bottom-third realm as well. With 2017’s expansion under their belts, GMs (hopefully) will have learned their lesson and will be better prepared for a second coming. A decent team should be born, not an instant Stanley Cup contender.
That is how the expansion should work. What kind of fan wants to see the excitement of a new franchise smothered in misery by losing 60 games per season for half a decade? That’s how laughing stocks are made, not competition. If the ultimate goal is to grow the sport, then true fans should want to see Seattle succeed.
And love ’em or hate ’em, Vegas was an immense story for the sport of hockey. A golden standard for professional expansion teams, we’ll likely never see their success replicated. Enjoy them. Enjoy the history they’re continuing to make. Because every slot machine runs out of luck sooner rather than later.
And quit whining about losing that depth player you curse out every game anyway. ❖