NHL Expansion Process…Good Idea or Nevermore?
By Ed Neely
Given the thrashing the Predators (along with most other opponents) at the hands of the Las Vegas Golden Knights, it would be instructive to look at how they have put together such a dominant team in the first year of their existence. It took the Tampa Bay Lightning eleven years to make it to the Promised Land and it took the New York Islanders nine years to bring the Stanley Cup to Long Island. It even took the Philadelphia Flyers five years to take home the hardware. Why are the Knights doing so well so quickly?
The root of success for any team starts with the personnel available to them and this leads us to examine the differences between the expansion draft rules for Las Vegas and those that previous teams have experienced. It is also instructive to look at the differences in league dynamics between the original expansion era NHL teams and those that came after 1967. For the purpose of this discussion, I will exclude all teams that moved from another location or from another league because they don’t fit the definition of a true expansion team.
The NHL doubled in size in the 1967-68 season and the expansion draft that followed set the tone for all future teams leading up to the Golden Knights. For the 1967 expansion draft, the Original Six teams were only able to protect one goaltender and eleven other players from exposure to the draft and expansion teams were able to select two goaltenders and eighteen skaters for their new team. After that, the new teams were required acquire their players from the amateur draft or other free agent means. This meant that the average team could protect their top six forwards and top five defensemen along with their primary starting goaltender. When you consider the fact that the average backup goalie saw little to no playing time during this era, the loss of a backup netminder was not a significant loss to their original team and a negligible gain to their new team in terms of experience between the pipes. These expansion rules all but assured that expansion teams would be comprised of aging veterans or career minor league players unless the new teams had deep enough pockets to either go after decent free agent talent or adopt a paradigm shifting strategy.
The Philadelphia Flyers were able to win the Stanley Cup in their fifth year in the league largely because of their drafting of Bernie Parent from the Boston Bruins, who had been playing behind Hall of Fame goalie Gerry Cheevers. In 1971 the Flyers traded him to Toronto where he studied under Jacques Plant for a year but was left without a contract for the next season. Parent went to the WHA for one season and then came back to the Flyers for the 1973-74 season. Parent managed 30 regular and playoff shutouts over his first two seasons back with the Flyers. The success of the Flyers and the hit to the talent pool of the Original Six teams ensured that future teams would not face the same “favorable” expansion rules.
The rules for the 1070, 1972 and 1974 expansion drafts were far more favorable to existing teams. Existing teams were permitted to protect 15 skaters and a two goaltenders each and if they had lost a goaltender in the previous expansion process, they were permitted to completely exempt the goaltending crew. Each team lost three players, only one of which could be a goalie, and following each pick, the teams could add one additional player to their protected list. Expansion teams chose two goalies and 22 skaters during their draft, but they were getting the 16th, 18th and 20th most valuable player to each team. Not exactly a recipe for competitive teams in their early years. These teams were so noncompetitive that one of them, the California Golden Seals, folded prior to the end of 1970s and was absorbed by the Minnesota North Stars. Two more, the Kansas City Scouts and Atlanta Flames, relocated within their first few seasons.
The next round of expansion started in 1991 with the addition of the San Jose Sharks but the new franchise came to the owners of the Minnesota North Stars were denied permission to relocate the North Stars to the San Francisco Bay Area but were permitted to sell their team and start a new one out west. As part of this process the North Stars were permitted to protect 14 skaters and 2 goalies from their own team, then the new Sharks organization was able to select two goalies and fourteen skaters from the North Stars, and then the rest of the teams took turns scavenging their remaining players. The expansion draft then permitted the remaining teams to protect two goalies and sixteen skaters and the Sharks North Stars were permitted to select one player from each of the other teams.
The 1992 expansion draft permitted teams to exempt two goalies and only 14 skaters from consideration and if they lost a goalie in the 1991 expansion draft, they would not have to expose a goalie. The Sharks were exempted from any expansion draft exposure. The Ottawa Senators and Tampa Bay Lightning were then permitted to select two goalies, seven defensemen and twelve forwards each. The rules permitted a loophole to expose extremely inexperienced goalies and protect all but their worst goaltending assets. The existing teams had to expose at least one goalie played at least one game in the preceding season. This permitted teams to sign guys and insert them into an NHL game and then expose them in the draft. This tactic was how the Blackhawks were able to protect Ed Belfour, Dominik Hasek and Jimmy Waite and expose Ray LeBlanc who only ever played one NHL game.
The 1993 expansion draft was slightly different from the 1991 and 1992 versions, in that the teams, including the Senators and Lightning, were able to protect one netminder, five defensemen and nine forwards (a total of 14 skaters) and each team would lose, at worst a goalie and defenseman, but all would lose two players. The Mighty Ducks of Anaheim and Florida Panthers could select no more than three goalies, eight defensemen and thirteen forwards. After that, the two new teams had to submit protected lists, comprised of one goalie, five defensemen and ten forwards, so that the Sharks, Lightning, and Senators had the right to take two players each from their rosters, though only three players were taken in this mini-draft.
The Nashville Predators had it easier than some other expansion teams when they came into the league because the league likely learned some hard lessons from past drafts. The Preds were able to select one player from each of the other 26 teams but all first and second year pros were exempt from consideration. Teams were able to protect either one goalie, five defensemen and nine forwards or two goalies, three defensemen and seven forwards. At least one forward and one defenseman from each franchise had to have played in the 1997-98 season and each team had to expose one goalie that had ten games in the previous season and 25 games in the past three. The Predators would receive a compensatory pick in the upcoming entry draft for each player they lost to free agency. The Atlanta Thrashers, who entered in 1999, and the Columbus Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild, who came into the league in 2000, experienced the same set of rules except that the Predators and Thrashers were exempt from exposure to the draft.
This brings us to the expansion draft rules faced by the Las Vegas Golden Knights. The Knights were able to select one player from each of the thirty existing teams. Teams could protect one goaltender and a combination of either three defensemen and seven forwards or four forwards plus four defensemen. All players with a no movement clause had to be protected and all first and second year players were exempt and not counted against the protected numbers. Teams were required to expose at least one defenseman and two forwards who each played in at least 40 NHL games in the prior season or 70 in the prior two seasons. The goaltenders that teams made available must have been under contract for this current season or a pending RFA with a contract expiring just prior to the 2017-18.
The results of this expansion draft when compared to those from prior teams have been stark. Prior teams were able to field teams comprised of no better than third line forwards and final pairing defensemen and if they were able to secure greater talent than that, it was for a very short time if any time at all. The Golden Knights have been able to field a team made up of top six forwards and top four defensemen. This has enabled them to avoid many of the growing pains that new teams and new fan bases have endured throughout the rest of the expansion era.
This has been a long route to a few short questions. Do you think this expansion process has been fair to the rest of the league? Is that a good thing or bad thing? Is it better for the Knights to be this good this quickly or would it be better for them cut their teeth the old fashioned way? Finally, what changes, if any, do you think there will be in future expansion drafts (presumably the Seattle Baristas)?