Bill Foley's dream was to bring an NHL team to Las Vegas. Now that he’s done it, he’s chasing another mammoth task: bringing a Stanley Cup there. And fast. Before a crowd of thousands in attendance at the official unveiling of the team name and logo, Foley set the timeline for a Cup at six years. It seems his goal for the Golden Knights has accelerated a bit considering back in 2014 he told ESPN’s Scott Burnside his “dream plan” was “hoisting a Stanley Cup within eight years.”
The reason for Foley’s optimism probably has something to do with the NHL’s expansion rules this time around. NHL teams will have the option of protecting either seven forwards, three defensemen and one goaltender or eight skaters and one goaltender, with Vegas picking exactly one player from each existing team. Compare that to the rules set out in 2000, where teams could protect nine forwards, five defensemen, and a goalie or seven forwards, three defensemen, and two goalies. There are other regulations, but Vegas will have much more to choose from.
And it’s a good thing, too, because most past NHL expansion franchises were exceptionally bad from the get-go and took much longer to become relevant as a result. Under the old rules, Foley’s goal of eight years would’ve been a pipe dream, let alone six.
Since 1990, there have been nine NHL expansion teams, and very few saw any sustained success in their first decade. Yes, decade. Since their inceptions, only two of them, Tampa Bay and Anaheim, have a Stanley Cup and there are only six other Stanley Cup appearances (San Jose, Tampa Bay, Ottawa, Anaheim, Florida, Nashville) between the lot of them. All these teams have been around at least 15 seasons, some more than 20, yet the nine teams have only eight Cup final berths and two wins. Those two wins came 12 and 13 years after puck drop, twice as long as Foley is hoping for Vegas.
That’s the nature of a 30-team league. Winning it all is extremely difficult. Even if you’ve built a great team, even if you’ve built the best team, the odds aren’t in your favor to win because there are many other great teams ready to take you down.
Even if Vegas starts off with a much better foundation than the other expansion teams had, winning the Cup in six seasons is still a very tall order. Finding any form of immediate success might not be too easy, either. Most of the past expansion teams weren’t just terrible to start; they were pretty bad for years.
The best-case scenario would be the Florida Panthers. They made the playoffs for the first time in their third season (as did the Sharks and Wild) and somehow made it all the way to the Cup final that year before getting swept by the Colorado Avalanche. That run was also a bit of a fluke, as it only turned into two more short playoff berths over the next four seasons followed by a decade-long drought.
The rest of the teams took a bit longer to reach the playoffs – and keep in mind the playoffs were a lot easier to make before there were 30 teams. Ottawa needed five seasons but turned into a powerhouse in Year 7. Anaheim made it in its fourth year but just three of its first 11. Tampa Bay needed four but didn’t make it again until its 11th season. Nashville needed six seasons and was a first-round minnow for four straight campaigns. Atlanta needed seven seasons, and the franchise, now in Winnipeg, has just two berths in 17 seasons. It’s a similar story in Columbus, which needed eight seasons to get there and also only has three berths in its 16 years.
All that paints a very ugly picture of how tough it is to succeed as an expansion squad. No team made the playoffs in its first two seasons, and it isn’t until Year 7 that history shows you have a 50/50 shot at the playoffs. Of the 86 seasons in their first 10 years (four were lost to the lockout), an expansion team made the playoffs in just 28 of them.
By goal differential (adjusted for era), not one season of the first 10 for these expansion teams was above zero on average, with the highest being minus-16. There were only 24 seasons total above zero.
Some of these teams ended up being very good in their first decades. Minnesota was a solid hockey club, even if the playoffs were hit-and-miss. Nashville found its groove eventually, even if it didn’t make it past the first round. Ottawa had an incredible regular season team in the late ’90s, even if it ended up choking in the playoffs. And the Sharks were consistent playoff regulars by Year 7, even if it took 18 more after that to finally reach the final.
But for every decent team, there’s also a Columbus, Atlanta or Tampa Bay, wallowing in futility for a nearly a decade or more. If there weren’t big changes to the expansion rules, Vegas may have suffered a similar fate. But even the best-case scenario, a decent hockey club in six years, isn’t what Foley is hoping for. He wants the league’s best in that time frame.
Commissioner Gary Bettman wants the Golden Knights to be much more competitive from the start, too. That much is clear by the new regulations. He’s seen for himself how difficult it’s been for new teams to be competitive. But while the new rules will surely help, success is no guarantee. That all falls on the front office to make good decisions. Even if the Golden Knights do all that and find themselves with a good team, the next step toward a Cup will be an even bigger one – one many existing teams already struggle with.
Vegas won’t suffer the same pitfalls as other expansion clubs, so don’t expect it to miss the playoffs in each of its first six seasons. Just don’t expect a Stanley Cup.
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