As we enter into the new calendar year we find the NHL scratching its head. The Edmonton Oilers, who were Stanley Cup favorites this season, sit 6 games below .500 and appear to be making no real progress towards a playoff berth.
The Colorado Avalanche who finished dead last in the 2016-17 NHL season have just won their 7th straight game and have already surpassed their point total from last season and we’re only half way through January.
However, at the top of the list when it comes to surprises would have to be the overwhelmingly successful Vegas Golden Knights. To quickly put their inaugural season into perspective, the NHL record for most wins in an inaugural season belongs to the Florida Panthers at 33. Halfway through January the Golden Knights already have 29 wins.
The Golden Knights are an expansion franchise and with most expansion franchises before they begin their first season, it is expected that they won’t be too good. A large percentage of expansion teams in all professional sports are not successful their first year of competition.
This is usually due to a brand-new roster of unwanted players combined with a coaching staff that has just been hired and a front office that is most likely new to all of this or doesn’t really know what to expect. If they don’t know what to expect they can only react to things after they’ve already occurred and sometimes that means that your season is over before it has begun.
Being involved in an expansion franchise is tricky business as there is no way of telling what will happen in the future and the whole world seems to be against you.
The San Jose Sharks won 17 out of 80 games their first year of competition. The Washington Capitals went 8-67-5 in their first year. Arguably the worst expansion team of all time, the 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, went 0-14 in their first season.
There are different ideas of what successful means but for an expansion franchise that success is not usually based on the on-ice performance but more how the team is perceived in their new city by the people of that city.
In the process of becoming an expansion franchise, they sold out of season tickets within 19 months. They ended up capping it at 16,000 and their quota was only 10,000.
The Golden Knights seem to be winning in both aspects of the game. So far, the Golden Knights have maintained an average of 103% capacity which is incredibly successful for a first- year team.
Let’s investigate why the Golden Knights are so talented and understand why this isn’t just luck or some crazy miracle straight from a Hollywood script. A good place to begin would be at the expansion draft.
First, teams had two options when it came to deciding how they were going to protect their roster as the Golden Knights were given the ability to pick one player from each team.
Teams could protect 7 forwards, 3 defensemen and 1 goaltender or they could protect 8 skaters which meant any combination of forwards and defenseman just as long as the total remained at 8.
Within those basic protection rules, the clubs had to protect any players that currently had a “No Move Clause” in their contract unless that NMC was waived by that player. These players that were required to be protected and counted against a team’s protected total just as a regular player would.
Also, any first or second year players, including unsigned draft selections, were exempt from being selected by the Golden Knights.
Now that we’ve been refreshed on what rules the Vegas Golden Knights had to deal with, let’s look at expansion drafts of the past.
In the expansion draft of 2000 when the Columbus Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild were added to the league, the rules that these two teams had to follow were a bit different.
Each team, like the 2017 expansion draft, had a choice between which form of protection they wanted to apply to their roster. The existing NHL teams could either protect 9 forwards, 5 defensemen and 1 goaltender or 7 forwards, 3 defensemen and 2 goaltenders.
Both the Blue Jackets and Wild didn’t have as large of a field to pick from as not only did the other teams have the ability to protect more players on their roster, but there also were only 26 other teams to pick from at the time. (The Atlanta Thrashers and Nashville Predators got to protect their entire roster as they had only been in the league for 1 and 2 seasons respectively.)
On top of that, there were two teams picking players. The Blue Jackets and Wild had to rotate when it came to selecting players to their team. The Golden Knights had no other expansion team to deal with.
This doesn’t mean that the Golden Knights are the only expansion team to pick alone. The 1999 Atlanta Thrashers were an expansion team and found themselves in a competition-free zone when it came to the selection of their new roster.
However, when you put the rules that the Thrashers had to keep in mind next to the rules that the Golden Knights were limited by, there seems to be some inconsistencies.
If you remember from earlier in the article the 2017 expansion draft saw each team protect 7 forwards, 3 defensemen and 1 goaltender or they could protect 8 skaters which meant any combination of forwards and defenseman just as long as the total remained at 8.
In the 1999 expansion draft, each team got to protect 9 forwards, 5 defensemen and 1 goaltender or 7 forwards, 3 defensemen and 2 goaltenders. In total, the teams were allowed to protect 15 or 12 from their total roster of 26 depending on whether or not they chose to protect their second goaltender.
In 2017, teams only got to protect 11 or 9 players from their roster of 26 depending on the combination of skaters that they wanted to protect.
This slight change in the expansion draft rules essentially allowed the Golden Knights to select a watered down All-Star team. More or less, the existing 30 teams in the NHL only got to protect their top two lines of forwards with their top defensive pairing.
This generalization of what the other 30 teams got to protect is heavily dependent on what form of protection the teams chose and what trade deals were made before the draft but this generalization remains somewhat accurate.
These players are no slouches and it appears as if they were painted that way due to the fact that their previous team chose not to protect them. In contrast, just about every team in the NHL wasn’t able to protect a certain player that was valuable to that organization. Many teams lost a very talented player in the expansion draft.
Just ask the Florida Panthers, Anaheim Ducks, Nashville Predators, Pittsburgh Penguins, St. Louis Blues, etc.
Due to past NHL expansion teams being average at best, it seems as if no one really gave the Golden Knights a chance at being successful in their first year even though the dynamic of their newly formed roster was like nothing the NHL or any league for that matter has ever seen before.
This dominance coming from the desert shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone around the NHL. The Golden Knights are extremely good due to a lack of restriction when it came to who they could select from their competing teams.
Whether you are rooting for the Vegas Golden Knights or not, it is clear that the NHL messed up on this expansion draft as no expansion team should be this good in their first year. When an expansion team surpasses the skill of 90 percent of the NHL just through one draft, there’s something wrong.
On the positive side, this new team is absolutely terrific for the growth of hockey. The Golden Knights prove every single home game that hockey is a universal sport and can be enjoyed by anyone. Yes, even those who live in places where it doesn’t snow in the winter.
Their success is exciting but should not be attributed to luck. It will be interesting to see what the Vegas Golden Knights accomplish in the future.