The Vegas Golden Knights are the greatest expansion team we’ve ever seen. That point isn’t really up for debate anymore — by earning 109 points during the season and then sweeping their way to the second round of the playoffs, the Knights have already surpassed anything any other newcomer had ever accomplished. Forget the NHL — they’re the best expansion story in pro-sports history.
So today, as the Knights prepare to open their second-round series against the Sharks, let’s see how they stack up against the rest of the NHL’s expansion teams. As in, all of them.
We’re going to put this year’s Golden Knights up against a roster made up of the best picks of all the other NHL expansion teams of the modern era combined. That’s 25 teams, if you’re keeping track, assembled through a dozen different drafts dating back to 1967.
First, a few ground rules. We’ll count the four WHA teams from the convoluted 1979 process as part of our pool, but only the players who were part of the actual expansion draft, not the dispersal or reclamation portions — sorry, Wayne Gretzky and his personal-services contract can’t suit up for our team. We’re also looking at only the first year after the player was picked (since that’s all we have to go on for the Knights), so players like Bernie Parent and Billy Smith that blossomed into stars years later won’t help us. And we’re only counting players who were chosen in the expansion draft, not any first-year draft picks or trade acquisitions.
That last bit gives the Knights a slight advantage, since they had the benefit of adding players like Reilly Smith and Shea Theodore from trades, but we’ll allow it given they’re otherwise outnumbered 25-to-1 here. The Knights may be the most successful expansion team ever, but surely the best of the rest of the league’s history can unite to take them down.
Or can they? Let’s figure it out.
Starter: John Vanbiesbrouck (Panthers)
This one isn’t an especially tough call. Vanbiesbrouck had already won a Vezina in New York, but with only one spot to protect a goalie and a younger Mike Richter on the roster the Rangers couldn’t keep both. He was phenomenal in the Panthers’ first season, finishing as a finalist for both the Hart and Vezina while leading the team to within a point of the playoffs.
Backups: Glenn Hall (Blues) and Guy Hebert (Ducks)
Goaltender is historically the deepest position for expansion teams to choose from, so there’s no surprise that we have plenty of strong choices available. Heck, arguably the greatest goalie of all time was once exposed in the same expansion draft that saw Vanbiesbrouck and Hebert snapped up — but Dominik Hasek went unclaimed, one year before winning his first Vezina.
Still, we could have also gone with names like Terry Sawchuk, Doug Favell or Tomas Vokoun, among others. (But not Darren Puppa — he didn’t join the Lightning until their second season.)
The Knights: Marc-Andre Fleury‘s season rivals Vanbiesbrouck’s as the best ever recorded by an expansion goaltender. But while the rest of the Knight’s goalies filled in admirably early in the year when Fleury was hurt, they don’t match up to Hall and Hebert.
Edge: The all-expansion squad wins on the basis of depth, although it’s closer than it should be.
First pair: Filip Kuba (Wild), Noel Picard (Blues)
Picard may be best known for his role in a very famous photograph, but he was a dependable defensive defenceman who gives us some veteran leadership. We’ll pair him with Kuba, a well-rounded player who anchored the Wild’s blue line in their early days.
Second pair: Brad Shaw (Senators), Bill Houlder (Mighty Ducks)
Houlder had scored a total of five goals in parts of six NHL seasons before arriving in Anaheim, where he exploded for a career-high 14 in year one. Shaw managed 41 points for a terrible Senators team and we’re going to need some offence, so we’ll overlook the fact that he was also a -47.
By the way, if you’re a Sens fan wondering where Norm MacIver is, he wasn’t actually an expansion pick; he came over later in the waiver draft. The “expansion-picks only” rule also costs us players like Doug Wilson (trade), Mark Howe (protected WHA spot) and Dale Tallon (draft pick).
Third pair: Leo Boivin (Penguins), Shawn Chambers (Lightning)
Our all-expansion blue line is basically a mess — once you get past the first few picks, you’re down to dozens of similar journeymen types. If you want to swap in someone like Lyle Odelein, Gordie Roberts, Yannick Tremblay, Rob Ramage or Gord Murphy, be our guest. We’ll go with Boivin, since he at least lets us claim our team has a Hall of Famer on defence, and Chambers, since we still feel sorry for him over the whole NHLPA ’93 thing.
The Knights: They got 41 points from Colin Miller, well-rounded play from Nate Schmidt and (eventually) Shea Theodore, tough minutes from Brayden McNabb and veteran presence from Deryk Engelland. The team loaded up on defencemen at the expansion draft, and while the whole “hold the rest of the league for ransom on the trade market” strategy never really panned out, it resulted in a dependable-if-not-spectacular unit, especially once Theodore was called up.
Edge: I think we have to call it even. That seems crazy — again, this is one team against 25 — but there’s a good case to be made that Schmidt and Theodore are the two best expansion-draft blue line picks ever, and the Knights have them both.
In related news, man the NHL made it tough to find defencemen in those old expansion drafts. Sorry, everyone. They say you can’t put a price on a serviceable blue line, but in the NHL’s eyes apparently it’s $500 million.
First line: Brian Bradley (Lightning), Scott Mellanby (Panthers), Geoff Sanderson (Blue Jackets)
Bradley is the big star here; his 42-goal season was the standard for out-of-nowhere expansion success stories until the Knights came along. Sanderson managed 30 goals for the Blue Jackets, while Mellanby chipped in 30 of his own and gives us a solid power forward.
Second line: Phil Goyette (Sabres), Wayne Maki (Canucks), Bobby Leiter (Flames)
We’re cheating just a little bit here, since both Leiter and Goyette were centres, but you do what you have to do. This trio gives us a second line made up entirely of 60-point players, which is pretty solid. Granted, this was 60 points in the early ’70s, but we’ll still take it.
Third line: Eddie Joyal (Kings), Andy Bathgate (Penguins), Wayne Connelly (North Stars)
Again, our picks-only rule costs us a few solid players here, including 50-point campaigns from Atlanta’s Andrew Brunette and Columbus’s Espen Knutsen and a whole bunch of WHA guys who weren’t actually part of the main expansion draft, including big seasons from Blaine Stoughton, Mike Rogers and Real Cloutier.
So instead, we wind up with three reasonably good picks from the original 1967 expansion class. Bathgate even gives us a Hall of Famer, although he was in his 16th and (and next-to-last) season by the time he arrived in Pittsburgh.
Fourth line: Simon Nolet (Scouts), Sylvain Turgeon (Senators), Terry Yake (Ducks)
Our fourth line consists of a guy whose team lasted two years, a guy whose younger brother was way better, and a guy whose name was mispronounced “teriyaki” by new fans. Let’s just say they won’t see a ton of ice time.
As far as depth goes, we’ll try to find roster spots for Bobby Hull (to sell a few jerseys) and Gary Dornhoefer, just in case any Knights start running around. We’ll also grab Chris Kontos, but only dress him for the first game.
The Knights: William Karlsson‘s season supplants Bradley as the best by any expansion forward ever, and with Jonathan Audy-Marchessault‘s 70 points in tow that gives the Knights the advantage as far as top lines go. James Neal and Erik Haula make the second line close to a draw while David Perron‘s 66 points outscores anyone on the other third line. Our all-expansion squad makes up some ground based on depth, but not as much as it seems once you start adjusting the numbers for era.
Edge: I really think Vegas might take this one.
And the winner is: It’s almost too close to call. The all-expansion squad has a slight edge in goal and maybe on the blue line, if you’re feeling generous. They’d also be able to roll four lines better than the Knights could. But Vegas keeps it awfully close in goal and on defence, and the top line is more dangerous than anything the all-expansion roster can throw at them.
In a seven-game series, I think this one goes the distance. I was going to give a slight edge to the all-expansion team because they’d have a young Scotty Bowman as coach, but he spent the first few games in St. Louis as an assistant so I’m not sure he counts. Factor in team cohesion, intangibles and the best expansion crowd ever, and there’s a really good case to be made that the Knights win this thing.
Think about how ridiculous that is — the Vegas Golden Knights’ first season could stand toe-to-toe with the very best of every other NHL expansion team. We all know that the draft rules were tilted in the Knights’ favour more than previous expansion teams, most of whom were left to pick through scraps. But still, we just threw 25 teams and 50 years’ worth of history at Vegas. And it wasn’t enough.
Well, at least until Seattle shows up to give them a run for their money. Let’s just pencil that matchup in for the 2021 Western Conference final so we can figure it out for real.