Las Vegas general manager George McPhee seems to have some big goals for what he wants the team to accomplish when the expansion team begins play during the 2017-18 season.
In a recent interview with Dan Rosen of NHL.com, McPhee was asked a question about the new arena in Las Vegas helping to attract players to the NHL’s latest expansion team. In response, McPhee talked about everything the market has to offer, from the rink, to no state sales tax, to easier travel because of another team in the West, to the weather and how easy it is go get around. He continued:
So why not try to put a team together that can try to make the playoffs in the first year? We’re going to be smart. We’re not going to do anything silly, do bad deals or anything like that, but can we get a really good, competitive team with some really talented young players right away. Yeah, I think so.”
On one hand, what else is he going to say? No general manager, even one for an expansion team, is going to come out and say they are not trying to make the playoffs or that they do not have high expectations.
But if you look at the situation realistically, history is not kind to teams during their first couple of years in the league.
Since 1990 the NHL has added nine teams. Not only did none of them make the playoffs in their first year, the earliest any of them made it was in their third year, something that the San Jose Sharks, Florida Panthers, Anaheim Ducks, and Minnesota Wild all did.
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The Panthers and Wild had the most success in those seasons with the Panthers riding some great goaltending to the Stanley Cup Final in 1996, while Jacques Lemaire and the Wild trapped their way to the Western Conference Final in 2003.
The Sharks, who had won just 28 games in their first two years of existence, pulled off one of the biggest postseason upsets in NHL history in their first appearance when they beat Scotty Bowman’s heavily favored Detroit Red Wings in the first round.
As for the other expansion teams over the past 25 years: The Tampa Bay Lightning made the playoffs in their fourth year, which was their only appearance in the first 10 years of the franchise’s existence. The Ottawa Senators were one of the worst expansion teams ever during their first four years in the NHL before finally making the playoffs in year five, starting a run of 11 consecutive postseason appearances. Nashville needed to wait six years, Atlanta needed until year seven to get in, while Columbus did not qualify until its eighth year.
The Atlanta/Winnipeg franchise, now entering its 17th season in the league, has yet to win a single postseason game.
Columbus has been eliminated in the first round (with only two total wins) in its two postseason appearances.
The last expansion team to make the playoffs in its first year of existence was the 1979-80 Hartford Whalers. They had the benefit of not only playing in a smaller league where 16 out of the 21 teams ended up making the playoffs, but also playing in the league’s worst division at the time (the Norris Division). The 1979-80 Edmonton Oilers were the only other expansion team after the 1967 expansion that made the playoffs in their first year.
Las Vegas might have a lot to offer free agents, and it might have more talent available to it in the expansion draft than other teams have had in the past, but there is still going to be a lot of inevitable struggles early on.
One thing you can do is look back at these recent expansion teams and look at what went into the teams that found success relatively quick, and what went wrong for the teams that still haven’t really been able to get going. In some cases, teams like Florida and Minnesota had great goaltending right from the very beginning, while the Wild were playing at the peak of the dead puck era and clogged up the neutral zone better than any team in the league (the 1996 Panthers were one of the teams that helped usher in that era).
On the other side you have had franchises like Columbus and Atlanta/Winnipeg that were just poorly run early on and were never able to climb out of their early hole no matter how many high draft picks they had.