Friday, November 3, 2000
Foundation begins with goaltending
By Al Morganti
Special to ESPN.com
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.
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
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
"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
"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
EXPANSION AT A GLANCE
California (Oakland) Seals
Minnesota North Stars
St. Louis Blues
Kansas City Scouts
Edmonton Oilers, Hartford Whalers, Quebec Nordiques, Winnipeg Jets
San Jose Sharks
Tampa Bay Lightning
Anaheim Mighty Ducks
Columbus Blue Jackets
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 "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
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
For the next generation, the Isles were used as the model for
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
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.
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
"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