Feature: Remembering the birth of the Predators, Thrashers, Wild, and Blue Jackets

The National Hockey League underwent a massive period of growth during the 1990s. At the 1989 Board of Governors meeting, the league put forward the goal to expand from 21 clubs to 28 by the turn of the century.

In the early 90s, the league added the San Jose Sharks, Ottawa Senators, Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers, and Mighty Ducks of Anaheim to the family. It also saw the movement of the Minnesota North Stars to Dallas, the Quebec Nordiques to Colorado, Winnipeg Jets to Phoenix, and Hartford Whalers to North Carolina.

The facelift was completed in 1997. The NHL awarded franchises to Nashville, Atlanta, St. Paul, and Columbus, meaning the goal of 28 teams would be surpassed. Not all four franchises would come into the league at the same time, though. The Nashville Predators got to come into the league first because their arena was already built. After that, the Atlanta Thrashers would join in 1999 and the Minnesota Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets would follow in 2000.

Earlier, I looked at the expansion teams of the early 90s, what worked for them and what didn’t. Now, let’s look back on Nashville, Atlanta, Minnesota, and Columbus, four teams who have seen massively different results and what the Vegas Golden Knights can learn from them as they navigate through their expansion process.

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Nashville Predators

(1998 Expansion Draft)

The Expansion Draft was a learning process for the league just as much as it was for the individual franchises. In 1991 and 1992, the league totally guttered San Jose, Tampa Bay, and Ottawa with Expansion Draft rules that massively favoured the existing clubs. In 1993, seeing the three newbie teams struggle mightily, things were changed for Florida and Anaheim.

Seeing the quick success of the Mighty Ducks and Panthers and the importance of immediately being able to field a decent team in a new market, it was determined Nashville, Atlanta, Minnesota, and Columbus would be given a similar set of Expansion Draft rules. Teams in 1993 were able to protect one goalie, five defencemen, and nine forwards. In 1998, there was a slight change, in that teams could protect a second goalie, but they would only be able to then protect three defencemen and seven forwards.

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  • Nashville’s choices at the Expansion Draft.
  • The Predators agreed not to take a goaltender from the Flames in exchange for Jim Dowd. They selected Joel Bouchard from Calgary.
  • The Predators agreed not to take Chris Terreri from the Blackhawks in exchange for Sergei Krivokrasov. They selected Greg Johnson from Chicago.
  • The Predators agreed not to take Garry Galley from the Kings in exchange for Kimmo Timonen and Jan Vopat. They selected Frederic Chabot from Los Angeles.
  • The Predators agreed not to take Peter Popovic from the Canadiens in exchange for Sebastien Bordeleau. They selected Tomas Vokoun from Montreal.
  • The Predators agreed not to take Paul Coffey from the Flyers in exchange for Dominic Roussel and Jeff Staples. They selected Craig Darby from Philadelphia.
  • The Predators agreed not to take Tony Granato from the Sharks in exchange for Ville Peltonen. They selected Al Iafrate from San Jose.
  • The Predators agreed not to take Jamie McLennan from the Blues in exchange for Darren Turcotte. They selected Blair Atcheynum from St. Louis.
  • Traded Mike Sullivan (selected from Boston) to Phoenix for a 1999 seventh round pick.
  • Traded Tony Hrkac (selected from Pittsburgh) to Dallas for future considerations.
  • Traded Doug Brown (selected from Detroit) to Detroit for Petr Sykora (not the good one), a 1999 third round pick, and a conditional 1999 pick.
  • Traded Jim Dowd and Mikhail Shtalenkov to Edmonton for Drake Berehowsky, Greg de Vries, and Eric Fichaud.
  • Traded Greg de Vries to Colorado for a 1999 third round pick.
  • Traded Dominic Roussel to Anaheim for Chris Mason and Marc Moro.

“When you’re given 26 selections, it was never our goal to take 26 good NHL players,” Nashville’s general manager David Poile said back at the Expansion Draft in 1998. “There’ll be some players that may not make it to Nashville. There are some that are signed for minor-league purposes. There is a lot that goes into making up our team. Today was just a starting point.”

Poile did a lot of wheeling and dealing at the Expansion Draft. He made seven different deals with teams to not select certain players in exchange for another player. With that, Poile was able to not only fill his roster and farm system, but have a bunch of bullets to fire off in exchange for draft picks.

Speaking of draft picks, Poile made some interesting selections, grabbing Uwe Krupp from Colorado and Mike Richter from New York who were both unrestricted free agents. Obviously neither was going to sign with Nashville, but Poile was able to get a compensatory draft pick for them when they “left” the team in free agency. All told, Poile ended up with 15 picks in 1999, six of which were in the first two rounds, and 12 picks in 2000.

Nashville didn’t make the playoffs for their first five seasons in the league, but they were respectable. They used those first five years to add a lot of talent through the draft, though they never really completely tanked like some of their early 90s expansion cousins did. They added David Legwand, Scott Hartnell, Dan Hamhuis, Scottie Upshall, and Ryan Suter with top-10 picks in their first six years, but also hit home runs with some later picks during their early years, like Karlis Skrastins (ninth round), Martin Erat (seventh round), Shea Weber and Kevin Klein (second round).

As expected, the Predators didn’t get many good players out of the Expansion Draft, but they did manage to assemble a small core that would stick with the team for quite a few years. Tomas Vokoun, taken from Montreal, was a star goalie in Nashville for eight years, Greg Johnson and Scott Walker gave the team gritty, two-way players down the middle for years, and Kimmo Timonen, acquired in a deal not to take somebody else, quickly emerged as a top defenceman. When Nashville made its first playoff appearance in 2003-04, Vokoun, Walker, Johnson, and Timonen were all key players on the team.

With that solid core of veteran players acquired right off the hop coupled with an insane amount of ammunition at the draft, Nashville was able to turn themselves into a successful franchise quite quickly. After those first five years of building, they’ve made the playoffs in 11 of 13 seasons, reaching their first-ever Stanley Cup Final this spring. 

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Atlanta Thrashers

(1999 Expansion Draft)

After the Predators came into the league in 1998, it was Atlanta’s turn the next year. Everything went wrong for the Thrashers franchise. Of this group, they’re certainly the example of how not to do things. All of that starts at the Expansion Draft.

The rules for the Thrashers’ Expansion Draft were virtually identical to the year before. There was only one small difference, which involved a team being exempt from losing a goalie in 1999 if they had lost one in 1998.

  • Atlanta’s choices at the Expansion Draft.
  • The Thrashers agreed not to take somebody from the Sabres in exchange for Sean Sylvester. Atlanta selected Darryl Shannon from Buffalo.
  • The Thrashers agreed not to take somebody from the Flames in exchange for Andreas Karlsson. Atlanta selected Ed Ward from Calgary.
  • The Thrashers agreed not to take somebody from the Red Wings in exchange for Ulf Samuelsson. Atlanta selected Norm Maracle from Detroit.
  • The Thrashers agreed not to take somebody from the Devils in exchange for Sergei Vyshedkevich. Atlanta selected Kevin Dean from New Jersey.
  • The Thrashers agreed not to take somebody from the Coyotes in exchange for Scott Langkow. Atlanta selected Mike Stapleton from Phoenix.
  • The Thrashers acquired Damian Rhodes from Ottawa for future considerations.
  • The Thrashers traded Trevor Kidd to Florida for Gord Murphy, Daniel Tjarnqvist, Herberts Vasiljevs, and a 1999 sixth round pick.
  • The Thrashers traded Peter Ferraro to Boston for Randy Robitaille. Traded Robitaille to Nashville for Danny Lambert.
  • The Thrashers traded Jamie Pushor to Dallas for Jason Botterill and cash.
  • The Thrashers traded Andrew Brunette to Nashville in exchange for a 2000 conditional pick.
  • The Thrashers traded the 1999 second overall pick (Daniel Sedin) and a 2000 conditional third round pick to Vancouver for the 1999 first overall pick (Patrick Stefan).

“I always said the first area we were going to look at is NHL experience,” Thrashers general manager Don Waddell said after the Expansion Draft. “But it was smart for us to open it up to youngsters with potential. It was very tough being in Detroit and seeing what Igor (Larionov) brings to a hockey team. If we were making a run for a (Stanley) Cup, maybe, but not as an expansion team.”

That quote perfectly summarizes how Atlanta’s strategy out of the gate was all over the grid. But before we get into that, let’s compare what Waddell did at the Expansion Draft to Poile the year earlier.

Waddell’s expansion strategy was pretty different from Poile’s right off the hop. While Nashville selected the maximum five goalies, two of whom were kept with the team and three who were used to acquire draft assets, Atlanta only selected three, acquiring their perceived starter, Damian Rhodes, in a trade with Ottawa. Also, Poile drafted three soon-to-be free agents in order to get draft pick compensation, whereas Waddell selected just one.

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Back to that quote. Waddell spoke of the importance of adding leadership and experience right out of the gate, but he also wanted to be open to adding young players and building through the draft. Yet, oddly enough, Waddell passed up on opportunities to add excellent veteran players like Igor Larionov and Wendel Clark, and a good younger players like Geoff Sanderson and Dave Manson. Like Poile, Waddell made deals to not take certain players in order to flesh out the roster and farm system, but you still need to come out of the Expansion Draft with something resembling a core.

The Thrashers were miserable in their first season, putting up a 14-57-7-4, much worse than the inaugural seasons Nashville, Anaheim, or Florida, the teams who entered the league under more favourable years, managed to have. Their first-ever pick was Patrik Stefan with the first pick in 1999. He’s regarded as the worst first pick in NHL history, though Nail Yakupov may have something to say about that when it’s all said and done.

Being so bad, the Thrashers stockpiled high picks, Dany Heatley, Ilya Kovalchuk, and Kari Lehtonen over the next three years, but the team struggled to pull itself out of the basement. They missed the playoffs in their first six seasons, but finally made it in 2007. They were swept in the first round by the New York Rangers, which would be their only playoff appearance in Atlanta, as the team was moved to Winnipeg after its 11th season.

It all goes back to their miserable performance at the Expansion Draft, though. The Thrashers didn’t wheel and deal enough to stockpile a ridiculous amount of draft picks like Nashville did AND they didn’t put together a good core of veteran players. Of the 26 players chosen that day, 12 were gone before the team’s first season started. By the end of the Thrashers’ third season, only four Expansion Draft players remained — Tomi Kallio, Norm Maracle, Yannick Tremblay, and Chris Tamer.

Minnesota Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets

(2000 Expansion Draft)

As announced in 1997 with the Predators and Thrashers, the Minnesota Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets would join the league for the 2000-01 season. Minnesota had gone seven seasons without an NHL franchise as the North Stars moved to Dallas after the 1992-93 season, while Columbus was Ohio’s third attempt at professional hockey after the failed Cleveland Crusaders and Cleveland Barons.

Every team other than Nashville and Atlanta had to protect either one goalie, five defencemen, and nine forwards or two goalies, three defencemen, and seven forwards. The Wild and Blue Jackets would then made 52 picks, two players from each team, in a snake format.

  • Minnesota and Columbus’ choices at the Expansion Draft.
  • The Wild agreed not to take Evgeni Nabokov from the Sharks in exchange for Andy Sutton, a 2000 seventh round pick, and a 2001 third round pick.
  • The Wild traded a 2000 third round pick and a 2002 fourth round pick to the Stars for Manny Fernandez and Brad Lukowich.
  • The Wild traded Joe Juneau (selected from Ottawa) to the Coyotes for Rickard Wallin.
  • The Wild traded Chris Terreri (selected from New Jersey) back to the Devils for Brad Bombardir.
  • The Wild traded Mike Vernon (selected from Florida) to the Flames for Dan Cavanaugh and a 2001 eighth round pick.
  • The Wild traded Brad Lukowich, a 2001 third round pick, and a 2001 ninth round pick to the Stars for Aaron Gavey, Pavel Patera, a 2000 eighth round pick, and a 2002 fourth round pick.
  • The Blue Jackets agreed not to take Evgeni Nabokov from the Sharks in exchange for Jan Caloun, a 2000 ninth round pick, and a conditional 2001 pick.
  • The Blue Jackets agreed to select Frederic Chabot from the Canadiens in exchange for a 2001 second round pick.
  • The Blue Jackets agreed not to take Dominik Hasek or Martin Biron and instead take Dwayne Roloson and Geoff Sanderson from the Sabres in exchange for Jean-Luc Grand-Pierre, Matt Davidson, and a 2000 and 2001 fifth round pick.
  • The Blue Jackets traded a 2000 fourth round pick and a 2000 ninth round pick to the Islanders for Chris Nielsen.
  • The Blue jackets traded a 2001 fourth round pick to the Mighty Ducks for Espen Knutsen.
  • The Blue Jackets traded a 2002 second round pick to the Avalanche for Marc Denis.
  • The Blue jackets traded a 2001 third round pick and Turner Stevenson to the Devils for Krzysztof Oliwa and Deron Quint.

The Blue Jackets and Wild did a little bit of wheeling and dealing, but being the third wave of expansion teams in as many years combined with the fact there would be two teams selecting players in a draft at the same time made it difficult for conditions to be made. The major deals were Minnesota and Columbus agreeing not to take Evgeni Nabokov from San Jose in return for assets. Both teams were fine making this agreement because they had already acquired their goalies of the future, Manny Fernandez and Marc Danis, in separate trades.

The Wild and Blue Jackets both had a rough time in their inaugural season, finishing in the bottom two seeds of the Western Conference standings. Still, these two teams were miles above the early 1990s expansion teams.

Minnesota picked things up pretty quickly. In their third season in the league, the Wild not only qualified for the playoffs, but shocked the Canucks and Avalanche, becoming the first NHL ever to come back and win back-to-back playoff series after trailing three games to one. The Wild were led by Marian Gaborik, their first-ever draft pick, third overall in 2000, but they had also quickly assembled a solid veteran core of Cliff Ronning, Andrew Brunette, and Wes Walz.

Over their first seven seasons, the Wild reached the playoffs three times and were consistently a respectable team. Minnesota hasn’t drafted particularly well, missing on top picks like A.J. Thelen, James Sheppard, and Colton Gilles. But they’ve compensated for it by becoming an attractive free agent destination, adding the likes of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter on the open market. At this point, the Wild have made the playoffs five years in a row and have cemented themselves as a consistently solid team in the Western Conference.

The Blue Jackets haven’t had as much success as their 2000 Expansion cousins. It took them eight years to make their first playoff appearance, and through 16 seasons, they’ve only made it to the dance three times, never once making it beyond the first round.

I said the Wild had a largely forgettable time at the draft, but it’s nowhere near as bad as Columbus. Their first pick ever, Rostislav Klesla at fourth overall in 2000, was solid, the following year’s first overall pick Rick Nash was a star player in Columbus for years, but after that? It’s like a who’s who of busts from the 2000s. Nikolai Zherdev fourth overall, Alex Picard eighth overall, Gilbert Brule sixth overall, Nikita Filatov sixth overall. Jakub Voracek and Derrick Brassard are both good players in the league now, but neither was able to figure it out in Columbus.

Vegas Golden Knights

(2017 Expansion Draft)

So what does all of this mean for Vegas? What can they learn?

One thing is for sure, Vegas is coming into their Expansion Draft with a much, much better situation than any of the nine teams from the 1990s growth period. As you know, teams this time around were only able to protect seven forwards, three defencemen, and one goalie, or eight skaters and one goalie. As a result, just about every team is exposing a pretty good player for Vegas to grab. That sure as hell wasn’t the case for San Jose, Ottawa, or Tampa Bay, who had to really dig deep to put together a roster. Even when the rules were changed to make it easier for Anaheim and Florida it wasn’t as good of a deal as the Golden Knights are getting.

It’s difficult to draw conclusions from these other nine teams because the contexts are so different. Really, the theme is good management, consistent ownership, and some luck. Atlanta failed mightily because Waddell’s plan was all over the grid, and Columbus has had a hard time because Doug MacLean drafted and developed poorly. Tampa Bay and Ottawa had big hurdles to jump over with failing ownership, but acquired so much high level talent at the draft they were able to thrive once things settled down.

It seems the best and most relevant team to look at right now is Nashville. They, like Vegas, are the first team bashing their head through the wall. I’m not sure if/when a 32nd team will join the league, but Vegas has the luxury of getting a fresh Expansion Draft to themselves without a team that’s completely exempt. What we learned from the Predators was the importance of depth. They took one player and swung deals to turn him into two or three other players, then used those players to get a massive pool of draft picks.

But through all of that, there was a very solid core of player. Sure, it wasn’t much, but Vokoun, Walker, Johnson, and Timonen, all acquired on Day 1 really were the foundation of that young Predators team. They got a lot of bullets at the draft, they never had to rush prospects, and when young players did come up, they weren’t thrown to the wolves.

There are a lot of good players available at the Expansion Draft, but the 2017-18 team is only the first phase. There isn’t a perfect way to do things, but being able to be somewhat successful right off the hop is paramount. Another key is being able to maximize Expansion Draft assets. Vegas will get 30 players, but with savvy transactions, that number can easily rise. The Golden Knights would be wise to identify a core of five or six good, veteran players to keep and build around. After that, many good players can be flipped into two or three assets that can continue to feed the team as it grows. Even though it seems ideal to tank out and add elite talent to the pool, it’s incredibly difficult to develop players properly in a disastrous system.

Previously in this series – a look at the expansion of the San Jose Sharks, Ottawa Senators, Tampa Bay Lightning, Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, and Florida Panthers. 

**Stats and information courtesy of hockey-reference, hockeydb.com, Nathan Garbay’s expansion research.