By Rob Ficiur
This week the NHL’s expansion Vegas Golden Knights acquired real NHL players. Vegas choose one player from each of the 30 other NHL teams. The rules of this expansion draft were designed to create a Vegas team that could be competitive in its first season. Traditionally expansion teams have been expected to struggle as bottom feeders for a few years as they acquire the NHL talent that will make them a competitive team. How did Vegas (and the NHL) do at creating a competitive team?
1. Protected Roster
In 1967 the NHL expanded from six teams to twelve teams over one off season. In that year existing NHL clubs were allowed to protect one goalie and eleven skaters. From the remaining players the six expansion teams chose a roster of NHL players. In simple numbers, NHL teams were allowed to protect about 50% of their players before the draft.
In 2017, each NHL team could protect one goalie and up to seven skaters. In simple numbers that mean today’s NHL teams were allowed to protect about 25% of their roster.
The Vegas NHL team was able to choose from a team’s middle tier players. Each NHL team could only lose one player – where as in the 1967 draft teams could lose 20 players from their NHL or minor league roster. On paper Vegas should be ahead of any previous NHL expansion team because it could pick deeper into the other team’s roster.
In the 2000 the NHL added two more teams; the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Minnesota Wild. The goalie rules for the 2000 expansion were quite different than the 2017 rules.
In 2000, if an NHL team wanted to protect two goalies they had to leave exposed a third goalie who played at least 10 NHL games the previous season or 25 games in the previous two seasons. Knowing that teams would work around this, the ruling stated that this third goalie had to have played at least 31 minutes of any game for it to count towards the draft. That year Minnesota’s top goalie was Manny Fernandez; a 26 year old who had played 11 previous NHL games. Columbus’s number one goalie was33 year old Ron Tugnutt – a veteran of 370 previous NHL games. The backups for these expansion teams were Mark Denis a 23 year old with 29 NHL games and Jamie McLellan a 29 year old with 138 NHL games. These were all NHL goalies – but nowhere near stars.
In 2017 each NHL team could protect one goalie. The Golden Knights look to have better goal tending than any previous expansion team. Leading the team will be 32-year-old Marc-Andre Fleury. The veteran of 691 NHL games has three Stanley Cup victories to his credit. The most recent victory coming last month; so Vegas is not getting an aging net minder who once knew how to stop a puck. Fleury won big games this year. As a backup, they will probably have 24 year old Calvin Pickard. Pickard has played 86 NHL games with the lowly Colorado Avalanche. An expansion team might look good to this goalie. Vegas should be better in goal than any previous expansion team.
3. Draft Picks
In the 1970 draft, the expansion Buffalo Sabres and Vancouver Canucks got the first two draft picks. A flip of the coin allowed Buffalo to get hall of famer Gilbert Perrault, while Vancouver got steady defenseman Dale Talon. In the 1970’s the NHL allowed the expansion teams the top draft picks. In 2000, the two new expansion teams got picks three and four. At that spot, they would get a good player – but existing NHL teams did not want to lose elite prospect to an expansion team.
While Vegas did not get the first overall pick – they traded their way to have three first round and two second round selections. The protection list rules of 2017 allowed Vegas to made deals with other teams. Vegas chose not to select certain unprotected players for draft picks. While the team did not leave with a Gilbert Perrault, they did get draft picks that will help build a team in the not too distant future. Vegas had more draft picks than any previous expansion team.
4. Not so great on the ice
The previous three points suggest that Vegas is (or should be) in a position to be more successful than any previous NHL expansion team. In the nine previous years of expansion since 1970, one of the expansion teams finished last five times. The previous fifteen NHL expansion teams have averaged a .323 winning percentage their first year of play. That would translate into 53 points in the 2018 NHL. At that rate Vegas would be second last in the league. The most successful expansion team was the 1993 Florida Panthers who had 83 points in 84 games. Vegas has to be successful on the ice to be a long-term winner in Las Vegas. The pieces are in place – or at least on paper – for Vegas to be the more successful expansion team ever.