ESPN Network: | | | | NASCAR | | ABCSports | EXPN | FANTASY | INSIDER

The Expansion Question
  Message Board
  NHL Stat Search
  Minor Leagues
  More Sports


Friday, November 3, 2000
Foundation begins with goaltending

Hard as it might be for some to believe, the expansion era of the National Hockey League has now surpassed the number of years the league lived in the supposed golden era of the Original Six.

Year Team (s)
1967 California (Oakland) Seals
L.A. Kings
Minnesota North Stars
Philadelphia Flyers
Pittsburgh Penguins
St. Louis Blues
1970 Buffalo Sabres
Vancouver Canucks
1972 Atlanta Flames
N.Y. Islanders
1974 Kansas City Scouts
Washington Capitals
1979 Edmonton Oilers, Hartford Whalers, Quebec Nordiques, Winnipeg Jets
1991 San Jose Sharks
1992 Ottawa Senators
Tampa Bay Lightning
1993 Anaheim Mighty Ducks
Florida Panthers
1998 Nashville Predators
1999 Atlanta Thrashers
2000 Columbus Blue Jackets
Minnesota Wild

The Original Six had a 25-year run between 1942 and 1967 in which the Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins, Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings and New York Rangers comprised the NHL. Although it is still recalled with grandeur, the league is about to enter its 33rd season since the amazing expansion in 1967-68 that doubled the league from the Original Six to 12 teams. Over these 33 years, the league has added, moved, combined and subtracted franchises to the current total of 30 teams.

There have been disasters along the way, but in general, the NHL has stretched its boundaries from coast-to-coast in both the United States and in Canada. The methods and rules of expansion have been altered to fit the needs of the day, and every new general manager has tried to come up with some plot to make his team evolve ahead of the expected timetable for success.

"Even though there have been different rules from expansion to expansion, there is one formula which I think has always worked," said David Poile, now the general manager of the expansion Nashville Predators, and previously the assistant general manager of the expansion Atlanta Flames franchise in the 1970s.

That formula?

"I think if you will look back," said Poile, "you will see that the teams with the most success, are the teams that got the best goalies."

Well, let's take a look back to that first monster expansion in 1967: Under President Clarence Campbell, the league doubled its size by adding the Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, California (Oakland) Golden Seals, Los Angeles Kings, Minnesota North Stars and St. Louis Blues.

The teams were stocked by an entry draft in which 20 players were taken off the existing rosters of the Original Six. The big advantage of these expansion teams was that they would be grouped in their own "western" division -- and the playoffs would be split between East and West. Thus, one of the expansion teams was guaranteed a spot in the Stanley Cup finals.

"I think that had to affect the way these teams stocked their rosters," said Poile. " I mean, yes, it was an expansion team, but four of the six were going to make the playoffs. That sort of changes your thinking from today, when it's a huge struggle to just qualify for the playoffs as an expansion team."

The Predators, Thrashers, Blue Jackets and Wild have all come to the NHL under the regime of Gary Bettman. Although there are complaints about the level of talent being damaged, the NHL took a long look before deciding to further expand the product.

"I was with the league at the time," said Brian Burke, the Vancouver GM who was a vice president with the NHL when Bettman's plan was formulated. "We had a committee of GMs, a screening committee which included Bob Clarke Harry Sinden, Glen Sather, Lou Lamoriello, Bob Gainey, Craig Patrick and Jack Ferriera.

"When expansion first came up," Burke said, "Bettman called me into his office and told me: 'You have to satisfy me that the talent pool will support this. Before I even entertain the discussion, you have to talk to the GMs and satisfy me that we have the talent to support four new teams.'"

The committee found that since the previous expansion in 1992 (Ottawa and Tampa Bay), there were more Elite League teams in Europe, more NCAA Division I teams, and more Major Junior teams. All of the primary sources of talent for the NHL had expanded their talent base," said Burke.

-- Al Morganti

In addition, the league provided a lopsided schedule in which the expansion teams would play each other 10 times during the season, but face the Original Six only four times. As a result, the Philadelphia Flyers won the western division with 31 victories, but only eight came against the Original six (8-15-1) -- and the defending Stanley Cup champion Toronto Maple Leafs did not make the playoffs with 76 points, more points than any team in the west.

As Poile suggested, the strength of the expansion teams was the goaltending where Hall of Famer Glenn Hall led the Blues to the Stanley Cup finals in the franchise's first season. Among other goalies in the expansion cities were Bernie Parent in Philadelphia, and Terry Sawchuk with the Los Angeles Kings.

The playoff format also allowed for expansion fans to get excited as the Blues emerged from the West in two seven-game series. In the finals, although they were swept, the Blues on the basis of goaltending, took the Canadiens to overtime in two games.

The next expansion occurred in 1970-71 when the league added the Buffalo Sabres and Vancouver Canucks. The Sabres and Canucks joined the East division, and the Chicago Blackhawks were moved from the East (Original Six) to the West.

The story of this expansion was the Entry Draft. As the result of the spin of a wheel, the Sabres won the right to select first, and they chose Gilbert Perreault, while the Canucks chose second and took Dale Tallon.

By this point, the draft was becoming a more important element in the league. Always quirky -- for example, the Montreal Canadiens at one time were simply allowed to take the top prospect out of Quebec -- the draft was now becoming more formal. The days of owning territorial rights ended, and it was becoming more important to draft well. The draft also had gone from a round or two to having more than 100 players drafted.

"The growing importance of the draft was a big change in how expansion teams put together a game plan," said Poile. "I think we all learned our lessons with the Canadiens getting Guy Lafleur. Nobody wanted to make a mistake like that again."

That "mistake" was when, in 1970, left wing Ernie Hicke was sent from Montreal to the California Seals along with the Canadiens first-round pick in 1970 (became Chris Oddleifson). In exchange, California sent Francois Lacombe and their first-round pick in 1971 to the Canadiens. That pick became Lafleur.

"I think that remains the biggest reason why up to this day, no expansion team is very willing to trade a draft pick, a top draft pick. I know from when I was with Atlanta and even now in Nashville, you've got GMs calling all the time to steal those top picks, and you've just go to stick with your plan for the future."

The lure of swapping a pick for a veteran player was also ending because the league was becoming more fluid in terms of scheduling. It was no longer a case of all the new teams in one camp, and the established teams in another. In other words, the "free ride" to the playoffs were over as proven when Chicago quickly won the West and faced Montreal in the Stanley Cup finals.

The next expansion occurred in 1972-73 when the Atlanta Flames were added to the West, and the New York Islanders in the East. Master craftsmen were leading each team as Bill Torrey headed up the Islanders, and Cliff Fletcher the Flames. The Islanders provided a model of winning by drafting. However, as was the case with so many other expansion teams, a key element was accumulated in the original expansion draft when they acquired goalie Billy Smith.

Just as Bernie Parent was taken by the Flyers in the 1967 expansion draft, and then later led the team to Stanley Cups, Smith was going to mature just as the Islander draft picks matured. From 1972 until 1977, the Isles used their first-round picks to select players such as Denis Potvin, Clarke Gillies and Mike Bossy. The reward for struggling early was top picks, and Torrey turned them into champions.

Meanwhile, the Flames were also successful as Fletcher picked two Calder Trophy winners as rookie of the year within Eric Vail (1975) and Willi Plett (1977).

For the next generation, the Isles were used as the model for expansion teams.

Then, in 1975-76, the Washington Capitals and Kansas City Scouts -- a team which later moved to Colorado as the Rockies, and eventually wound up in New Jersey as the Devils -- entered the league.

The oddest "expansion" probably occurred as an absorption when the WHA disbanded in 1979, and the NHL took on Edmonton, Hartford, Quebec and Winnipeg for the 1979-80 season. There were special rules in which an incoming team could keep what amounted to franchise players or priority picks, such as a guy named Wayne Gretzky in Edmonton, Mark Howe in Hartford.

Other than that, each existing team had a protected list of 15 skaters and two veteran goalies.

There was no further "expansion" in the 80s, but teams shifted locations as the Atlanta Flames went to Calgary, and Colorado to New Jersey.

Expansion in the '90s has only further validated the theory on needing a top-notch goalie. The San Jose Sharks began with Arturs Irbe. And when the Ottawa Senators and Tampa Bay Lightning were added in '92-93, each struggled, largely because of goaltending.

The Panthers, entering the league in 1993 under a management team that included Torrey and GM Bob Clarke, got a ride to the Cup finals in just their third season. They took advantage of a rule in which teams could protect only one veteran goalie. As a result, the New York Rangers had to decide between Mike Richter and John Vanbiesbrouck.

After some twisting and churning, the Rangers sent Vanbiesbrouck to Vancouver for future considerations (Doug Lidster), and Vancouver allowed Vanbiesbrouck to get plucked away by the Panthers in the expansion draft.

It was an example of how the rules governing expansion had been relaxed in terms of goalies, and it aided the new team. The same thing happened later in the decade as the Nashville Predators were added in 1998-99, and the Atlanta Thrashers last season, although neither added a netminder with the impact The Beezer had in Florida.

Al Morganti covers the NHL for ESPN.  HELP |  ADVERTISER INFO |  CONTACT US |  TOOLS |  SITE MAP
Copyright ©2000 ESPN Internet Group. Terms of Use and Privacy Policy and Safety Information are applicable to this site. Employment opportunities at