The picks are in, and we’re just a few hours away from the big unveiling. The Vegas Golden Knights have officially filled out their first roster, and we’ll find out what it looks like as part of Wednesday night’s NHL awards show.
When the protected lists were announced on Sunday, much of the attention was on the goaltenders. From expected names like Marc-Andre Fleury to surprises like Roberto Luongo and Petr Mrazek to more speculative possibilities like Philipp Grubauer and Antti Raanta, there are plenty of intriguing options available for Vegas in goal.
Here’s hoping they don’t blow it.
Goalies are always the trickiest picks when it comes to expansion. The position is notoriously hard to project, and teams can usually only protect one or (occasionally) two. That’s allowed new teams to hit on strong picks like Billy Smith, John Vanbiesbrouck and Bernie Parent over the years.
But they’ve also whiffed on a few future stars. And those missed opportunities can change the course of a franchise, or even NHL history. So today, let’s look back on five of the best goaltenders to ever be exposed in an expansion draft, and why the incoming teams failed to take advantage.
(As always, Historical Hockey Blog is an invaluable resource for information about expansion draft protected lists.)
Rogie Vachon (1967)
When the NHL doubled in size, spelling the end of the Original Six era, the existing teams were initially allowed to protect just one goaltender. Once they lost a player at the position, they were allowed to protect another.
For some teams, there was an obvious choice for which goalie to protect. But the Canadiens found themselves in a dilemma, because for once they didn’t have a dominant star in his prime. They spent the 1966-67 season splitting starts between 37-year-old legend Gump Worsley, dependable veteran Charlie Hodge, and rookie Rogie Vachon. Worsley was headed to the Hall of Fame, but Hodge had earned more playing time and Vachon had taken over for most of their playoff run.
In the end, the Habs protected Worsley, leaving Hodge and Vachon available. When it came time for the Golden Seals to make their first selection, they turned to Montreal’s crowded crease. But they went with Hodge, who lasted just three years in California – just one of those as the starter – before being lost in the 1970 expansion draft. The Canadiens immediately added Vachon to their protected list, and the rest is history.
Was it a miss by the Seals, or part of what was rumored to be some under-the-table dealings by the Canadiens to protect additional players? Nobody seems to know for sure. But Vachon teamed with Worsley to win the Vezina the following season, and took over as the full-time starter after Worsley retired. Vachon went on to play in the NHL for 16 seasons, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame last year.
Olaf Kolzig (1993)
Kolzig was Washington’s first-round pick in the 1989 draft. But four years later, he’d appeared in just three NHL games, and the Caps had a crowded crease featuring veteran Don Beaupre and apparent heir apparent Rick Tabaracci.
The Caps ended up protecting Tabaracci, exposing Kolzig (as well as a young Byron Dafoe). But neither the Mighty Ducks or Panthers bit, instead settling on Washington forwards Mike Hough and Trevor Halverson.
Kolzig needed four more years to finally become a full-time starter, but once he did he held the job for a decade, becoming the Capitals franchise leader in just about every goaltending category and winning a Vezina along the way. And Dafoe eventually went on to become a Vezina finalist himself.
That’s tough to miss out on, but if it’s any consolation, Kolzig and Dafoe aren’t even close to being the biggest missed opportunities of the 1993 draft. More on that in a bit.
Dwayne Roloson (1998, 1999 and 2000)
Roloson was exposed in three straight expansion drafts, and it’s not hard to see why. After going undrafted, he hadn’t made it to the NHL until he was already 27 years old, and didn’t have all that much success once he got there. So he was a pretty easy choice for exposure, first by the Flames in 1998 and later by the Sabres in both 1999 and 2000.
Not surprisingly, he was passed over all three times. By 2000, he was a 30-year-old free agent with 27 NHL wins under his belt in four seasons of backup duty. He didn’t appear in the NHL at all during the 2000-01 season, spending the year in the minors. But in 2001, he signed on with the Wild, where he split time with Manny Fernandez. By 2003-04, he led the league in save percentage while finishing in the top ten in Vezina voting for the second straight year. And after the lockout and a trade deadline move to Edmonton, he stood on his head to lead to the Oilers to the Stanley Cup final before an injury that may have cost the team a championship.
Roloson remained in the league until 2012, when he was still starting part-time for the Lightning at the age of 42. Not bad at all for a guy who seemed like a longshot to ever be much of an NHLer, and who probably didn’t get so much as a second look in all of those expansion drafts.
Evgeni Nabokov (2000)
There’s been a lot of talk about whether the Knights have struck side deals with various NHL teams to leave certain players alone. If so, here’s hoping it works out better for them than it did for the Wild and Blue Jackets in 2000.
That year, the Sharks decided to protect Steve Shields, which meant Evgeni Nabokov was exposed. The Russian rookie had only played 11 NHL games, but the Sharks viewed him as a potential goalie of the future and didn’t want to lose him. That meant they’d have to cut a deal with both Columbus and Minnesota to get them to pass on him.
So they did, sending Jan Caloun and a ninth-round pick to the Blue Jackets and Andy Sutton, a third and a seventh to the Wild. In both deals, the Sharks received “future considerations”, which turned out to be a promise not to pick Nabokov.
In hindsight, the expansion cousins probably should have turned down the deal. Nabokov became the Sharks’ full-time starter the very next season, winning the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year. He held that job until 2010, finishing in the top five of Vezina voting five times along the way.
Seeing a goalie you passed on establish himself as a star the very next year has to hurt. But at least the Wild and Blue Jackets got something in exchange, even if it wasn’t very much. And at least they didn’t see the goalie that got away go on to become, quite possibly, the very best in the history of the league. Not every expansion team can say the same, as we’re about to see.
Dominik Hasek (1993)
Yes, this really did happen.
Hasek’s unexpected rise from eccentric but ineffective backup to The Dominator has been well-documented. But what’s often forgotten is that he could have been a Panther or a Mighty Duck.
By 1993, Hasek had been in the league for three years, but hadn’t secured a starting job and boasted a career save percentage of under .900. At 28 years old, there was little indication of what may be to come.
So when the Sabres had to choose between Hasek and the future Hall of Famer they’d just traded a 50-goal scorer and a first-round pick for, they went the obvious route and protected Grant Fuhr. With plenty of goalies available – the NHL had changed the rules to limit teams to protecting just one goaltender after allowing two in 1992 – they didn’t even bother cutting any side deals to make sure Hasek stayed safe.
It paid off, as neither Florida or Anaheim picked him. The next year, he took over after Fuhr was hurt and dominated the league, winning the Vezina in his first season as starter. He won six of the next eight in all, mixing in two Hart Trophies along the way, establishing himself as one of the best to ever play the position.
How does history change if the Ducks or Panthers gamble on Hasek instead of playing it safe with, say, Glenn Healey or Mark Fitzpatrick? We’ll never know, and it’s probably not a thought that many Sabres fans want to even contemplate. (For what it’s worth, Ducks’ GM Jack Ferreira later said that Hasek wasn’t even on their radar.)
Is another candidate for “best ever” honors hiding somewhere in plain sight for this year’s draft? It’s unlikely, but you never know. For the Golden Knights’ sake, here’s hoping they haven’t already passed him up.
Sean McIndoe has been writing about the NHL since 2008; you may know him from Twitter as @downgoesbrown. His e-book, The 100 Greatest Players in NHL History, is available now. He appears weekly on TheHockeyNews.com.
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