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If money is no object, the NHL got it right with Vegas expansion draft

The Vegas Golden Knights paid a steep price – $500 million – to join the NHL, but at least the league is giving its 31st franchise a chance to hit the ground running.

Received a text this morning from a friend who mused, “I wonder how every other expansion team of the last 40 years feels about the consideration that the Vegas Golden Knights have been given in their expansion draft.”

Hey, it’s a fair point. After all, the last time the league went through an expansion process 17 years ago, the Minnesota Wild plucked Artem Anisimov from the Philadelphia Flyers. No, not the Artem Anisimov who has been Patrick Kane's running mate in Chicago the past couple seasons, but rather the Artem Anisimov who was a plodding defenseman drafted by the Flyers six years prior to that expansion.

You look at the previous expansion lists and the whole thing really was a repository for unwanted toys, which is why, for the most part, it took those franchises years and years to even approach being competitive. So to think Vegas has been given a much better hand this time around, and to resent the Golden Knights for it, is completely understandable. We do know that the Golden Knights at least won’t be starting the season with a bunch of players who are trying to prove that everyone was wrong about them. And as most expansion teams have proved over the years, those guys usually end up showing everyone was actually right about them.

But this time around, not even the NHL could be arrogant enough to charge the expansion fee it did – $500 million, none of which it has to split with the players – and not give the Golden Knights a better head start. Even when you put previous expansion fees into today’s dollars, those other teams paid a pittance to join the Board of Governors’ annual croquet match.

To wit, each of the six teams that joined the league in 1967 did so for an expansion fee of $2 million, which is the equivalent of $14.7 million today. And while the pickings were slim, the NHL wisely placed all six expansion teams in the same division for the first three years, thereby guaranteeing one of them would make it to the Stanley Cup final. The NHL was then stuck on $6 million for each of the next three expansions in 1970 ($38 million equivalent), 1972 ($35.2 million equivalent) and 1974 ($31.4 million equivalent).

When the NHL absorbed the four viable teams from the World Hockey Association in 1979, it charged the same $6-million fee, which would be $21.4 million in today’s dollars. By 1991 when the San Jose Sharks joined the club, the fee had shot up to $45 million, which is the equivalent to $81.2 million today. That was also the price in 1992 ($78.8 million equivalent) before going up to $50 million ($85.1 million equivalent) in 1993 and 1998 ($74.8 million). The last two rounds of expansion cost the incoming teams $80 million each, or the equivalent of $117.8 million in 1999 and $114.8 million in 2000.

So of the 21 teams that have joined the NHL, only three of them paid more than 20 percent, when adjusted to today’s dollars, of what Vegas did to join the league. And that’s why the Golden Knights are going to be hitting the ground running once they pick their team and make all their side deals on Wednesday afternoon.

But there’s an even bigger factor at play here. By actually giving the Golden Knights a shot at getting legitimate NHL players, the league has created a buzz around expansion the likes of which it has never seen before. Think about it. In the past year since the Golden Knights were officially accepted, there has been a cottage industry created around speculation over who would and would not be available, around mock expansion drafts and even the speculation over which players would be dealt before the draft so teams would avoid losing them for nothing. Prior to this year, the expansion draft was basically an afterthought and more than half of the players each team chose didn’t even end up playing for them.

It has also created a frenzy around side deals, something the NHL wisely made the decision to promote rather than snuff out. Not only will it allow the Golden Knights to build up a stable of picks and prospects – there is speculation they could have as many as three first-round choices this weekend – but again the league is getting a huge bang when it comes to speculation about those deals. I’m willing to bet the Pittsburgh Penguins weren’t offering the Wild or the Columbus Blue Jackets anything to stay away from Jonas Andersson-Junkka in 2000.

In so many ways, the NHL got this right. Nobody has talked about an expansion team the way we’ve discussed the Golden Knights over the past year. Even with the players they’re getting, the Golden Knights are overpaying for the privilege of playing in the NHL, but at least they’ll have some actual assets to show for in return.



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