NHL Expansion: What Can Seattle Learn from Vegas?

Jay Pryce

Wednesday, May 16, 2018 12:27 PM UTC

Wednesday, May. 16, 2018 12:27 PM UTC

The Vegas Golden Knights are the most successful expansion team in the history of professional sports. Seattle will have the same opportunities to build their NHL franchise. Here’s what they can learn from Vegas.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announced in February that the new Seattle team (starting in 2020) would follow the exact same expansion draft the Vegas Golden Knights underwent prior to the season. This is equally frightening and infuriating news for Western Conference foes. Vegas is in the Western Conference Finals in its inaugural season, an unprecedented feat for any professional sports team. The Golden Knights were +20000 to win the title prior to the season opener, tied with the Avalanche and Canucks for the longest odds on the board.

What can Seattle learn from the Golden Knights? Firstly, to temper expectations. Vegas is currently the most successful first-year expansion team in the history of the four major sports. Since 1960, out of 63 expansion teams in the NHL, MLB, NBA and NFL, it is the one only one to finish with a winning record. A third, in fact, owned the worst record in their league. The 1976-77 Denver Nuggets are the only other franchise to make the playoffs, outside of the 1967-68 NHL season where four of six new expansion teams filled the same division. The NHL’s particular expansion draft was set up to allow for a more competitive inaugural season, but Vegas’ success is unparalleled and out of the ordinary.

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Don’t you love when you’re just minding your own business and you come across one of these nice little reminders?😁#NHLSeattle pic.twitter.com/bufTES8HEz

— NHL Seattle (@NHLSeattle_) May 6, 2018

Seattle has a winning template to follow: pluck the best depth in the league and extract value in teams looking to unload players due to salary cap limitations or bloated contracts. This is how Vegas crafted its success. It designed a particular blueprint for building a franchise and filled their roster with the perfect blend of players and talent. From day one, general manager George McPhee mustered an intense scouting and analytics team, poured through a myriad of mock drafts, and set up an infrastructure leading to instant success. The new NHL expansion draft oozed value and the Golden Knights took advantage. Seattle must do the same.

Here’s how the draft works. Teams can protect eight players and a goalie (or seven forwards, three defensemen and one goalie), all first- and second-year pros are exempt, and personnel must waive any no-movement clauses. This essentially amounts to two lines of forwards and a pair of defensemen. The expansion team can then select one player per franchise to build their roster. This is much friendlier than the old expansion draft rules that allowed teams to protect up to 14 or 15 players. Couple this with the fact the amount of talent spread out through the league is greater than ever before, and its no wonder Vegas is making a deep postseason run.

Vegas also did a masterful job targeting teams looking to rid good players to clear salary cap considerations, a strategy Seattle must follow. Value is abundant in this regard with a blank slate of cap space to work with. The Florida Panthers, for example, gifted the Golden Knights center Jonathan Marchessault on the condition they assume forward Reilly Smith’s contract. The pair combined for 135 points in the regular season while manning the first line. Too often teams dole out much of their cap increase to one or two superstars, which forces them to unload viable secondary talent because of financial obligations. Overall, Vegas worked 10 side deals to fill the ranks, including bringing in star goalie Marc-Andre Fleury from Pittsburgh.

Seattle would be wise to hire a team of sports psychologist as well. Vegas visibly played motivated and hungry all season. They are a team of driven professionals feeling a bit slighted by being place on the unprotected list. “Every guy played real well against his old team, so there probably was a chip on their shoulder, and they wanted to prove people wrong,” Golden Knights defenseman Deryk Engelland recounted in March.

There is one interesting caveat to Seattle’s pending draft: Vegas is the only team that will not have to dangle unprotected players. How? It is one of the best teams in the league. Golden Knights owner Bill Foley struck the particular deal in its original expansion application. This is another lesson Seattle must learn prior to fielding a team. The chances are it will be competitive out of the gates and must protect its budding future.

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