PEBBLE BEACH, California—There have been good NHL expansion teams, and there have been dreadful ones.
The Buffalo Sabres joined the league in 1970 and were able to draft superstar Gil Perreault with their first ever draft selection to anchor the exciting French Connection. They made the playoffs in their third season and the Stanley Cup final in their fifth.
The Edmonton Oilers were permitted to retain the services of Wayne Gretzky when the WHA merged with the NHL in 1979, made the playoffs in their very first season and went all the way to the Cup final in their fourth.
The Florida Panthers, meanwhile, did better than both, making it to the Cup final in their third season.
Interestingly, all these years later, all three franchises remain in their original markets, although the Panthers are struggling.
Other expansion efforts, meanwhile, were much less successful.
The Washington Capitals won eight games in their inaugural season (1974-75) and didn’t make the post-season until their ninth year in the league. The Kansas City Scouts joined the league at the same time, won 15 games in their first season and moved to Denver after their second.
In the 1967 expansion, all six new teams were allowed to play in their own division, but the Oakland Seals were still awful and won only 15 games. That club moved to Cleveland in 1976.
More recently, the Atlanta Thrashers won only 14 games in their first season, took seven years to make the playoffs and were Winnipeg-bound after 11 years of operation.
So as the NHL contemplates expanding for a 10th time, including discussions at this week’s board of governors meetings that aren’t expected to produce an official expansion announcement, it’s worth wondering what kind of expansion the NHL will be looking for this time.
Quebec City and Las Vegas are the two applicants, and NHL history suggests the better the new teams are allowed to be out of the gate, the better chance they’ll have of long-term success. For example, while the Gretzky-led Oilers were very good and have lasted in Alberta, the other three teams added through the ’79 merger (Winnipeg, Quebec City and Hartford) were decidedly worse and all eventually failed.
By contrast, the Minnesota Wild made the playoffs by their third season, and they’ve turned out to be the strongest of the four teams added in the ’98 expansion.
Clearly, the rules for the expansion draft has much to do with the success of new teams, although the quality of ownership and the organization may have more, and how well those clubs do accumulating prospects through the entry draft.
Assuming both Quebec City and Vegas are eventually added, these will be the first new clubs to join the league in the salary cap era, which will add a complication to the formula by which the 30 existing clubs stock the new teams.
You can bet those 30 clubs will want to give up the fewest assets they can in the expansion draft, while foisting as many bad players and bad contracts on the new teams as possible.
Back in 1967 when the league doubled in size to 12 teams, each of the six existing clubs were only allowed to protect one goalie and 11 skaters. Three years later, the teams weren’t nearly as generous, and were allowed to protect two goalies and 15 skaters, yet the Sabres still were able to thrive very quickly.
With the last four expansion teams added starting in 1998, existing teams were able to protect either one goalie and 14 skaters or two goalies and 10 skaters. This time around, whenever it occurs, the NHL would do well to help the new teams become competitive as soon as possible if it wants to avoid headaches down the line, and $500 million per team should buy something more than washed up vets and a seat at the table.
Quebec already lost a team once, and Las Vegas has many doubters in terms of its long-term viability. Saddling those cities with awful teams won’t help those markets thrive.
Perhaps existing teams should be given incentives to make more players available for expansion drafts, like perhaps by giving them compensatory picks in future entry drafts. Or perhaps the new teams should also be able to select one recently drafted player from each existing team, with first rounders exempt.
Just ideas. Let the discussions begin.
BAD TO WORSE IN PITTSBURGH
A loss to the struggling Anaheim Ducks Sunday night dropped the Penguins out of a playoff position in the Eastern Conference, not at all where this club thought it would be when it traded a first round pick and prospects to Toronto at the draft for scoring winger Phil Kessel.
Pittsburgh, remarkably, is scoring only 2.31 goals per game despite the fact Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have been available for every game this season. Malkin has 25 points in 26 games, while Crosby has just 18 points and is minus-9 on the season.
Kessel has nine goals, slightly better than the pace he had last year when he potted 25 goals for the Leafs. Star defenceman Kris Letang, meanwhile, is minus-14 on the season and missed his second straight game on Sunday night to an undisclosed injury.
The team is on the market but hasn’t been sold, and there are all kinds of rumours about the job security of head coach Mike Johnston, and possibly GM Jim Rutherford as well. The only good news is that first rounder sent to the Leafs is draft lottery protected; If the Penguins miss the playoffs this year, their 2016 first turns into a 2017 first rounder. If the Penguins miss the playoffs next year as well, the pick becomes a second rounder in ’18.
NO RUSH TO REPLACE COLLINS
While the resignation of chief marketing officer John Collins two weeks ago was widely seen as a huge loss for the NHL, the league is in no hurry to name a replacement.
In fact, all the people who were reporting to Collins will now report to commissioner Gary Bettman at least for the next few months, and Bettman will review all the options, including restructuring the marketing department entirely.
NEW REPLAY CONTROVERSY
The nine-minute delay in determining that there was inconclusive evidence to disallow the winning overtime goal for the Winnipeg Jets against the Washington Capitals on Saturday on a possible offside violation sparked new controversy over the use of video review on these kinds of calls.
The problem on Saturday was that the league is relying on television feeds to relay to officials at ice level to review on small tablet devices, and as the delay went on and on after the Jets appeared to have won the game, different angles kept coming in, muddying the waters.
Help may be on the way in this regard. As reported on Hockey Night in Canada Dec. 5, the league is planning to install two types of cameras in New York area rinks over the coming weeks on a trial basis to see if they would aid in such calls. One would be an overhead camera, while another would be installed in the boards at the blue-line.
Of course, installing these cameras in all 30 rinks would be a major expenditure for the league, which may have opened a Pandora’s box by allowing video review of offsides and goalie interference calls this season.
The league may also look at changing the offside rule. Rather than a player having to have at least a toe on the ice on the blue-line when the puck crosses the line, the standard would be the player could not be completely across the inside plane of the blueline before the puck.
WEAK PACIFIC HURTING JETS PLAYOFF HOPES
As of Dec. 7, the Winnipeg Jets are in eighth place in the Western Conference and have more points than five teams in the Pacific Division, but would miss the playoffs if the season ended today.
Based on the standings as of Dec. 7, the Arizona Coyotes would make the playoffs ahead of the Jets despite having one less point as the disparity between the Pacific and Central divisions is becoming more and more apparent.
You can hear the grinding of teeth in Manitoba already.
LEAFS MAY FINALLY LAND SWEDISH BROTHERS
It was July, 2009 when Brian Burke, then running the Leafs, landed in Sweden to find, much to his disappointment, that the Sedin twins had re-signed with the Vancouver Canucks.
Burke had ostensibly gone overseas to sign free agent goalie Jonas Gustavsson. But part of his plan was to try to steal the free agent twins away from the Canucks. He was foiled by a pre-emptive strike from Vancouver GM Mike Gillis.
Next summer, however, the Leafs could very well finally get their Swedish brother act.
They won’t be twins, but with William Nylander already Leaf property, it seems, barring a massive improvement over the next 50 games, that there’s a very good chance the Leafs will have Alexander Nylander available to them if they want him next June in Buffalo.
Now, if they get the first overall selection, they’ll be taking Zurich Lions centre Auston Matthews. After that, the next four picks are likely to be, in no particular order, Finnish wingers Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi, Sarnia blueliner Jakob Chychrun and Matthew Tkachuk of the London Knights. Then comes a group of players still jostling for position, of which Alex Nylander, a high-scoring winger with Mississauga, is one.
If the Leafs end up with a top five pick, they could definitely unite the brother act if they like Nylander better than the other youngsters. If they draft somewhere between No. 5 and No. 10, he could well still be there. We’ll all get a preview of what this brother act could look like later this month, as both have been picked for the Swedish world junior team.
END OF AN ERA IN HAMILTON
If you grew up in Hamilton like I did, you knew the name Kenesky’s.
It was a hockey shop in the downtown core that was legendary, particularly for making goalie pads worn by the best goalies in the world during the 1960s and ‘70s.
Once owned by Emil “Pops” Kenesky, it will close later this month after 100 years in operation. Times change. But this is hockey history sadly waving farewell.
CROSS-BORDER CITIZENSHIP DRAMA
Canada’s national junior team received some bad news Saturday night when Providence College defenceman Jake Walman, a St. Louis draftee, suffered an injury that will keep him out of the selection camp when it begins Thursday. He is not expected back before Christmas.
Walman was one of 11 defencemen named to the selection camp roster.
Walman, who has dual citizenship, actually wanted to play for the U.S., but didn’t fulfill the requirement of having played two years south of the border. Chychrun, who was also named to the Canadian roster and has dual citizenship, chose to play for Canada, and could because he played a year in the Greater Toronto Hockey League before joining the OHL Sarnia Sting last year.
This is becoming a more frequent issue for Canada and the Americans, particularly as children of former Canadians who played NHL hockey and then settled in the U.S. are more frequently showing up as top prospects with dual citizenship.
Windsor centre Logan Brown, the son of former NHL blue-liner Jeff Brown, can play for either country, and hasn’t committed yet.
Cal Foote, son of Adam, is currently receiving rave reviews on the defence of the Kelowna Rockets, and his younger brother, Nolan, could also be headed to the Okanagan. They already get to choose whether they want to play in the OHL because their dad did, or the WHL, because they grew up playing the Denver area. And they’ll be able to choose between the U.S. and Canada at some point down the line.
RICHARDS COULD DRAW INTEREST SOON
As reported by Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman, former L.A. Kings centre Mike Richards has a court date this week, and there’s the possibility based on a wide variety of scenarios that his case could move along quite quickly.
If that were to happen, Richards would have to meet with the top NHL brass, and could be suspended. Jarret Stoll of the Rangers wasn’t, however, after his run-in with drug enforcement last summer.
If Richards could get past that hurdle, expect a number of NHL teams to be interested in signing him. Don’t forget, while his declining play was an issue, his biggest problem staying in the NHL before his legal problems was his contract, now no longer an issue.
JUNIOR SQUAD WAITING ON NHL KIDS
Team Canada is still hoping to land three players from the NHL for the world juniors, a group that includes Vancouver winger Jake Virtanen, Canucks centre Jared McCann and St. Louis centre Robbie Fabbri.
With Brandon Sutter out with an injury, McCann now looks like a definite non-starter. Virtanen might be available, but he’s hurt. Fabbri has been with the Blues all season and played 12:07 and 13:54 for Ken Hitchcock in two weekend games.
He seems a longshot, too, but Blues GM Doug Armstrong apparently hasn’t shut the door yet.
The Canadian team has until Dec. 19th to add one or more of these players.