The NHL has a lot of experience with expansion so there are plenty of cautionary examples to make sure Vegas doesn’t make the same mistakes as some of its predecessors.
Dear Vegas Golden Knights,
Welcome to the NHL. We’ve known you were coming for a while now, and you still don’t have any actual players. But as of Tuesday, you finally have a name and a logo. It’s a big step for you. This all feels real now.
Now, don’t screw it up.
Well, don’t screw it up any more. You’re already off to a rough start with that whole video fiasco. Just try not to make it any worse.
Sorry if that sounds harsh, but this is the NHL. Our track record with expansion teams has been, shall we say, hit and miss. But the good news is that means there are plenty of cautionary examples we can point to over the past few decades to help you out. So today, let’s dig into the history books and come up with five key pieces of advice for the NHL’s newest member, based on those that have gone before.
1. Double-check that you’ve got the money
While the Knights have been formally granted a team, they haven’t technically made their final payment to the league. That comes early next year, and should be a formality. After all, what kind of expansion team would agree to join the NHL before it knew it had its finances sorted out?
Well, about that. As it turns out, the league has a history of expansion teams failing to come up with the cash they’d promised. It happened back in 1952, when the Original Six era NHL agreed to add a seventh team. That was supposed to be the Cleveland Barons, who’d move up from the AHL. They just needed to come up with the money, reported at the time to be about half a million dollars. They never did, the NHL rescinded its offer, and the NHL didn’t expand for real for another 15 years.
History repeated itself in 1974, when the NHL awarded a team to Seattle for the 1976-77 season. But the ownership group spent the next year missing payment deadlines, and by the 1975 offseason the league had had enough. They pulled the plug, and we’re still talking about Seattle expansion over four decades later.
So be careful, Golden Knights. Not that anyone’s ever made any bad decisions with their cash in Las Vegas, but remember: The NHL loves its expansion teams… right up until they miss a payment or two.
2. Pay attention to small details
Las Vegas already has a management group in place, and there’s no doubt they’re hard at work preparing for their first off-season. Let’s run through a few tips. Do your homework on the expansion draft. Do plenty of amateur scouting for the entry draft. And if the league starts trying to make major decisions with a borrowed roulette wheel, have someone double-check the results.
That last one may seem oddly specific, but it came up in 1970 when the Sabres and Canucks joined the fold. The league needed a way to determine which team would get the first overall pick in that year’s draft, one that featured blue chip prospect Gilbert Perreault. Sure, they could have flipped a coin or drawn lots, but that would have been too easy. Instead, the NHL opted for a wheel.
Yes, the league decided that the best way to determine the owner of the top pick would be to have Clarence Campbell spin a giant novelty wheel. They found one that had 13 spots, and assigned the Canucks the numbers 1 through 6 and the Sabres 8 through 13. (The number 7 wasn’t assigned because the wheel had an odd number of spaces, because again, none of this was really thought through all that well.)
When Campbell spun the wheel, he announced that it had landed on the number 1 and the Canucks had won. Only later did Sabres coach Punch Imlach realize that Campbell had misread the wheel, which had actually stopped on number 11. The results were reversed, the Sabres got the top pick, and Perreault went on to a Hall of Fame career in Buffalo.
3. Maybe double-check that expansion list
The expansion draft is probably the most exciting day of the year for a brand new team. You get to pick your first players, establish an identity, and begin the long road toward building a contender.
So, uh, maybe make sure you know the rules. And have a list of players you’re allowed to take. And also – and this one is important – have somebody update the list as you go.
The Ottawa Senators struggled with some of those points when they had their chance to draft back in 1992. As the story goes, they apparently arrived at the draft with all of their player notes stored on a laptop computer. But the battery was dead, and nobody had thought to bring replacement or a power cord.
That led to plenty of confusion, and was part of the reason why the Senators spent much of the draft trying to pick players who weren’t eligible. Twice, they tried to make selections from teams that had already lost the maximum number of players. Later, they also tried to take a guy who wasn’t even on the eligible players list in the first place.
One bit of good news: The Senators didn’t draft any dead guys. That’s become a bit of an NHL urban legend, but it never happened; sports fans are mixing up their memories of the Ottawa Rough Riders of the CFL. As bad as their expansion draft went, the Senators day didn’t included any deaths. Well, other than a laptop battery.
4. Don’t get too clever with those expansion draft deals
One of the cool things about being an expansion team is that you’ll get approached with all sorts of trade offers – even before you have any actual players. That’s because other teams will be worried about who you might take in the expansion draft, and will offer you side deals to keep you away from certain names.
Sometimes these deals work out great. For example, there’s the infamous Not Mike Craig transaction between the expansion San Jose Sharks and the Minnesota North Stars. That was a complicated situation, one that also involved a partial split of the North Stars franchise, a dispersal draft, and a weird double expansion draft in which Minnesota was picking players even though they weren’t an expansion team. It was weird.
But as part of the whole thing, the North Stars wanted to hold onto Craig, a top prospect who’d played half an NHL season. So they sent the Sharks a first and second rounder in exchange for not calling Craig’s name. That was a nice haul in its own right, but it set off a ridiculous two-decade long series of transactions that netted the Sharks players like Sandis Ozolinsh, Owen Nolan, Joe Thornton, Dan Boyle and many others. That’s good, Vegas. Do that if you can.
Then again, those sorts of deals don’t always work out so well. In 2000, those same Sharks had a prospect of their own they wanted to protect. So they paid off that year’s two expansion teams to leave him alone. It wasn’t anywhere near as expensive – the Sharks gave Jan Calhoun, a ninth and a conditional pick to the Blue Jackets, and Andy Sutton, a third and a seventh to the Wild. The two expansion cousins took the offers, and left the kid’s name off their draft lists.
That prospect? Goalie Evgeni Nabokov, who’d win the Calder as rookie of the year the next season and go on to post five top-five Vezina seasons over the next decade. Hindsight is 20/20, but he probably would have helped the Blue Jackets more than a ninth-round pick.
5. Take your celebrations where you can get them
Finally, we’ll close with some honesty. Golden Knights, you’re probably not going to be very good.
At least not at first. And that’s OK – you’re all about the long-term at this point. But those first few seasons can be pretty rough, and you’ll want to take advantage of any opportunity to enjoy yourself a bit.
We can learn that lesson form the 1974-75 Capitals, a team that stands as quite literally the worst of all-time. They finished 8-67-5, good for 21 points, the worst points percentage ever recorded. And they opened the season by losing 37 straight road games.
The streak finally ended on March 28, 1975, when the Capitals went into Oakland and beat the California Golden Seals. And when it was over, the Caps celebrated by passing a garbage can from player-to-player, Stanley Cup style.
It may have been the saddest celebration in hockey history. But hey, when you’re an expansion team, you take what you can get.
So there you have it, Golden Knights. Garbage cans, laptop batteries and roulette wheels. Master those key points, and the rest of your expansion journey should be easy.
Sean McIndoe has been writing about the NHL since 2008, most recently for ESPN and Grantland. He spends most of his time making jokes on twitter, where you may know him as @downgoesbrown. He appears weekly on TheHockeyNews.com.