The Vegas Golden Knights are a Cinderella story, complete with jealous step-sisters. As soon as the Golden Knights embarked on their historic playoff run, both hockey fans and media from around the NHL began complaining about the unfair advantages bestowed upon Vegas by their fairy godmother, Gary Bettman.
After all, isn’t it unfair that the Golden Knights were given stallions to pull their pumpkin carriage of a team, even if those same stallions had been previously dismissed as mere mice?
While the Golden Knights were gifted some great players, the fairy godmother in question was Dale Tallon, not Gary Bettman. As for the rest of their roster, no one gave the Golden Knights a chance to reach within spitting distance of the playoffs at the beginning of the season. If the Golden Knights had been gifted a powerhouse roster that would dominate the rest of the league, you would have expected it to be readily apparent much sooner.
The truth is, no one is entirely certain how the Golden Knights have performed this well, though an otherwordly playoff performance from Marc-Andre Fleury has certainly helped.
Hmmm. Vegas is good, but perhaps some of their flaws are being masked by their goalie who has saved them an extra SEVENTEEN goals against this post season. https://t.co/14SyueIISI— Gregory Balloch (@GregBalloch) May 21, 2018
Of course, any team that wanted Fleury could have tried to trade for him from the Pittsburgh Penguins, who made it quite clear that he was available. Apparently no one offered up enough in a trade package, with the Calgary Flames coming closest. So the Penguins hung on to Fleury and he played a crucial role in their Stanley Cup run, starting in the first two rounds when Matt Murray got injured.
Now Fleury has taken another team to the Stanley Cup Finals and Drizella and Anastasia are not happy about it.
The expansion draft rules for the Golden Knights were definitely more favourable than for past expansion teams. That’s undeniable. Teams could protect, at most, eleven players from getting selected, not including players with fewer than three professional seasons.
Back in 2000, when the Minnesota Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets entered the league, teams could protect up to 15 players. That’s not even including the Atlanta Thrashers and Nashville Predators, who were exempt from the expansion draft altogether. With two teams in the draft, that left slim pickings.
Teams could protect the same number of players in 1998 and 1999, when the Predators and Thrashers joined the league. The rules were also the same in 1993, when the Anaheim Mighty Ducks and Florida Panthers came into existence. In 1992, teams could protect 16 players from being picked by the Ottawa Senators and Tampa Bay Lightning and, in 1991, 18 players from the San Jose Sharks.
So yes, the Golden Knights got a better deal than any of those expansion teams. Keep in mind, however, the players they had available were still deemed, at best, the eighth best forward, fourth best defenceman, or second best goaltender by the teams from whom they picked. They weren’t supposed to be getting star players.
More importantly, the argument — that the Golden Knights got more favourable expansion draft rules than past expansion teams — rests on the assumption that there was nothing wrong with past expansion drafts. That assumption is just plain false.
Here’s the thing: past expansion teams got a raw deal. People joke about the Golden Knights roster being made up of scraps and castoffs, but that was what past expansion teams had to deal with.
At best, past expansion teams could end up with a decent goaltender to play behind their ragtag team. They had to take chances on prospects that hadn’t worked out for their original team, or aging point producers well past their prime. Sometimes they ended up with fourth-line enforcers stepping into a top-six role.
None of them experienced success in their first year.
The Sharks led the league in losses in their first two seasons, winning just 28 games total in those two years. In their second year, they tied with the expansion Senators with 24 points. They did manage to make the playoffs in their third year, however.
The Senators managed just ten wins in their inaugural season. After winning their first ever game, they didn’t win again until their 23rd game. They managed one tie in that stretch, losing 20 games. They didn’t make the playoffs in their first four seasons.
The Lightning were better than the Senators in 1992-93, but still finished last in the Norris Division with 23 wins and 53 points. They made the playoffs just once in their first ten seasons.
The Mighty Ducks were comparatively successful in their first season, finishing ninth in the Western Conference, even if they were still 11 points out of a playoff spot. Of course, they then crashed down to last in the West in their second season, winning just 16 games. They made the playoffs twice in their first nine seasons.
The Panthers were similar to the Ducks, finishing ninth in the East, largely thanks to superb goaltending from John Vanbiesbrouck. In their third season, Vanbiesbrouck carried them all the way to the Stanley Cup Final, where they lost to the Colorado Avalanche. That was their peak, however: as Vanbiesbrouck’s play fell off, the Panthers fell off with him. They haven’t made it out of the first round since.
The Predators were second last in the Western Conference in their first season, ahead of only (sigh) the 1998-99 Vancouver Canucks. They missed the playoffs for five straight seasons.
The Thrashers were particularly dismal. They won just 14 games in their first season, finishing dead last in the NHL with 39 points. In their eleven seasons in Atlanta, they made the playoffs just once and didn’t win a game. The lack of success, combined with a host of other factors, led to hockey crashing and burning in Atlanta for a second time.
The Wild finished last in the Northwest Division in their first two seasons, before making the playoffs on the back of Jacques Lemaire’s deadly boring trap system. They made it to the Conference Finals in their third year, before missing the playoffs the next two seasons.
The Blue Jackets finished last in the Central Division in each of their first three seasons and missed the playoffs in their first seven seasons. They still have yet to ever make it out of the first round of the playoffs.
None of these expansion teams made the playoffs. Most of them didn’t even come close. The earliest any of these teams made the playoffs was in their third season, and most finished outside the playoff picture for many years.
Some of you might look at that and think it’s okay. That’s what should happen to an expansion team. An expansion team should be terrible.
Why should an expansion team automatically be a bad team? Why is it that we expect an expansion team to miss the playoffs? Why shouldn’t an expansion team be given a fighting chance to be successful?
If you want to expand a sports league into new markets, you should want those markets to experience some success right away. You should want the fans in those markets to get a taste for playoff hockey and want more. If you want the NHL as a league to be successful, you need to bring in new fans, and a successful expansion team brings in new fans.
The Senators struggled to put a team together out of the expansion draft. Their best player during the season was Norm MacIver, who they claimed off waivers. How do you think fans of the Senators felt watching their team win just 10 games all season? Did that make them excited to keep coming back to support the team? Did they want to buy season tickets and come back for another year?
Would more favourable expansion draft rules have saved the Atlanta Thrashers? Possibly. The best players they got in the expansion draft were guys like Petr Buzek and Yannick Tremblay. They had to build their team almost entirely via trades and free agency.
The expansion draft rules for past teams were far too draconian, ultimately giving each of those teams a mediocre-at-best roster that couldn’t compete with the rest of the NHL. By loosening the expansion draft rules for the Golden Knights, they weren’t given them an unfair advantage, but correcting a mistake.
The Golden Knights were given the opportunity to build a competitive team. Thanks to some help from other General Managers, they managed to build a Stanley Cup contender. Some people clearly have a problem with that, but I once again have to ask why?
How many years does an expansion team have to be bad before they’re allowed to compete for the Stanley Cup? Should every expansion team have rules prohibiting them from making the playoffs for their first two seasons? How bad would the Golden Knights have to be for you to be satisfied?
Past expansion teams weren’t given a fighting chance; the Golden Knights were. That’s a good thing. They took that fighting chance and knocked out the best teams in the Western Conference.
The Golden Knights are the best story in the NHL this season. Don’t be a jealous step-sister and enjoy the ride.