NHL’s expansion struggles changed with Vegas and now Seattle

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SEATTLE — When the NHL hit the accelerator on expansion some 30 years ago it brought hockey to untapped markets, warm weather destinations and established a footprint throughout all corners of North America.

It also created some pretty terrible teams and wins were hard to come by in places like Tampa Bay, Anaheim, Ottawa, Atlanta and Nashville for several seasons.

“In the past, we were in the era of expansion teams, so when Atlanta came in, you didn’t necessarily need to be your best and still be able to win the game because the team you’re playing against wasn’t like the Vegas expansion team. They were a true expansion team, and they struggled,” former Washington Capitals goalie Olie Kolzig recalled. “You had Columbus when they came in, you had Minnesota when they came in, so there was a handful of those nights that (you couldn’t) take off but you knew you didn’t have to be your best.”

Things have changed.

The NHL reworked its expansion draft rules in 2017 and Vegas flipped the league on its head by becoming the most successful first-year franchise in NHL history, reaching the Stanley Cup Final in the Golden Knights’ inaugural season.

The same rules are in place, meaning the Seattle Kraken franchise is in the same situation when it drafts its first team next Wednesday. In theory, Seattle general manager Ron Francis can put a competitive team on the ice from the outset, just like Vegas.

If only that was the case years ago.

“Hindsight is always 20/20, but I really think the NHL erred in and how they treated the expansion teams all the way up until Vegas,” said Nashville general manager David Poile, who drafted the first Predators roster in 1998. “Oftentimes, in my opinion, we did not do right by the expansion teams, and we made their trek much more difficult than it needed to be.”

Poile is right. The history of expansion in the NHL is a roller coaster of contractions and relocations, strange partnerships and ultimately very little success in the infancy of most franchises.

Teams often went through several roster iterations before success was achieved. For example, when the New York Islanders started their run of four straight Stanley Cup titles in the 1979-80 season there was only one player — Hall of Fame goalie Billy Smith — still on the roster from their expansion draft in 1972.

“We were dealing with a lot of older guys that probably were at the end of the line,” said Carolina general manager Don Waddell, who was the GM in Atlanta when the Thrashers arrived in 1999. “I think we only had one guy stay past two years with our franchise from the expansion draft, which is not the way you probably would hope to set out with an expansion draft.”

After the expansion rush that began in 1991, no team found success faster than the Florida Panthers, who opened play in 1993 and reached the Stanley Cup Final in 1996. The Panthers featured 10 players from their expansion draft on the roster for the 1996 season, including leading scorer Scott Mellanby, but the lineup had been supplemented through the draft (Rob Niedermayer) and trades (Robert Svehla and Stu Barnes).

Ottawa is another example of an expansion franchise that was thumped early but created a foundation that led to 11 straight playoff berths beginning with the Senators’ fifth season.

At the other end was Tampa Bay, which spent 10 seasons mostly at the bottom of the standings with just one playoff berth. The Lightning are the defending back-to-back champions now, with three titles overall, but it took time and investment to finally get there.

Waddell was long gone from Atlanta by the time the Thrashers made the playoffs in 2007, their only playoff berth before moving to Winnipeg. It took six seasons for Poile and the Predators to make the postseason.

“Almost philosophically we drafted a lot of players that we knew would not be with our team for more than a couple of years,” Poile said.

The NHL went through a lengthy expansion pause but when the Golden Knights arrived, friendlier rules and the guile of the Vegas front office transformed the expectations for any team going forward. Vegas found ways to leverage salary cap issues, pilfered teams with bloated rosters and were willing to take on veterans to be solid from the start.

“After the fact, the word I most used most often to describe the entire process was fascinating,” said Vegas GM Kelly McCrimmon, who was assistant GM to George McPhee during the expansion draft. “It was a fascinating process to be part of.”

It worked, too: Vegas earned 109 points in its first season and 93 in its second — 61.6% of all the possible points the Golden Knights could have earned over its first 164 regular-season games. Of the previous nine expansion teams, none earned more than 83 points (Florida, 1993-94) in either of their first two seasons. Both San Jose and Ottawa failed to top 40 points in either of their first two campaigns.

Francis knows he needs to find some long-term foundational pieces for Seattle, but everything the franchise does in its first year will be compared to Vegas.

Does Seattle go young and build? Do they absorb salary, cut deals and try to develop a roster that can win from the start? It’s a delicate balance, but whatever approach the Kraken take, those within the NHL believe Seattle being competitive — thanks to the rules in place — is best for the league.

“We came in when the league was paying $75 million for a franchise,” Waddell said. “These guys are paying $650 (million). So they deserve a little better opportunity to build a team.”

Ducks’ Urho Vaakanainen crashes into boards, leaves on stretcher

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ANAHEIM, Calif. — Ducks defenseman Urho Vaakanainen was taken off the Honda Center ice on a stretcher after he crashed into the end boards in the first period of Anaheim’s preseason game against the San Jose Sharks.

The Finnish defenseman was conscious and alert with full movement in his extremities at UCI Medical Center, the Ducks said.

The frightening incident occurred midway through the opening period when Vaakanainen smashed into the boards at a dangerous speed behind the Sharks’ net. Vaakanainen appeared to be concentrating on the pass he had just made to Derek Grant, who scored the Ducks’ opening goal on the assist.

Vaakanainen’s teammates came onto the ice and gathered around him as he was taken away on the stretcher.

The Ducks acquired the 23-year-old Vaakanainen from Boston last March in the deal that sent longtime Ducks defenseman Hampus Lindholm to the Bruins. After recording two assists in 14 games for the Ducks last season, Vaakanainen is attempting to win a top-six role on Anaheim’s defense this fall.

Lightning donate $2 million to Hurricane Ian relief efforts

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TAMPA, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Lightning and team owner Jeff Vinik are donating $2 million toward Hurricane Ian relief efforts.

The NHL team announced that $1 million each will be donated by the Tampa Bay Lightning Foundation and the Vinik Family Foundation.

“This is a tragic situation for many families and communities across the state of Florida, but especially so in the southwest region of the state,” Vinik said in a statement released by the team. “In times like these the most important thing we can do is support one another, and we hope this donation will help families recover and rebuild in the months to come.”

Ian made landfall Wednesday on Florida’s Gulf Coast, south of the Tampa Bay area. The Lightning postponed two home preseason games and moved the club’s training camp to Nashville, Tennessee, during the storm.

Maple Leafs sign defenseman Rasmus Sandin to 2-year deal

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TORONTO — Rasmus Sandin has signed a two-year, $2.8 million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the club announced on Thursday.

The 22-year-old from Sweden was the 29th overall selection in the 2018 draft. Sandin had 16 points in 51 games with Toronto last season. He’s played in 88 career regular-season games, with six goals and 22 assists, and has one goal in five playoff games.

“Got a great set of tools,” fellow defenseman Jake Muzzin said. “With experience, I think they’re only going to get better.”

The signing comes as the Leafs’ blueliners been hit hard by injuries. Muzzin has been dealing with a back issue, and Timothy Liljegren recently had surgery for a hernia.

Toronto then lost Jamie Benn (groin) and Carl Dahlstrom (shoulder) in Wednesday’s 3-0 preseason victory over the Montreal Canadiens, pressing forwards Calle Jarnkrok and Alexander Kerfoot into defensive roles for two periods.

Back with Wild, Fleury welcomes big workload as clear No. 1

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ST. PAUL, Minn. — With his ever-present smile, tireless approach and long list of accomplishments in the net, Marc-Andre Fleury has always embraced a heavy workload.

The Minnesota Wild sure haven’t shied away from leaning hard on their new – and 37-year-old – goalie. After arriving in a deadline-day trade in March and re-signing with the Wild in July, the guy everyone calls “Flower” is still fully abloom as he begins his 19th season in the NHL.

“They say, `You play,’ I play, unless maybe I’m hurt or something,” Fleury said. “But other than that, I like playing.”

Wild general manager Bill Guerin initially planned to bring back both Fleury and Cam Talbot, who made the All-Star team and went 13-0-3 in his last 16 regular season starts before being benched in favor of Fleury for the first-round playoff series against St. Louis. The Wild lost in six games, after Talbot got the cold start in the elimination game and gave up four goals on 26 shots.

Guerin changed his mind, though, after signing Fleury to a two-year, $7 million contract. Realizing Talbot’s frustration from the lack of postseason action, he didn’t want to risk any tension or discontent. Talbot was traded to Ottawa for Filip Gustavsson, who will be the No. 2 goalie while top prospect Jesper Wallstedt gets more development in the AHL.

Gustavsson has only 23 career regular-season starts, nearly 200 fewer than Talbot, so it’s a good bet that Fleury will get the majority of the games.

“I was ready to share the load with him, but things didn’t work out and happy to be having the chance to play maybe a bit more. It’s fun to play. It’s more fun than sitting on the bench,” said Fleury, who went 28-23-5 in 56 combined starts for Chicago and Minnesota last season with a 2.90 goals against average and a .908 save percentage.

The Wild reconvened for training camp last week, beginning their quest to recapture the mojo they enjoyed last season while setting franchise records for points (113), wins (53) and goals (305). The only team that finished ahead of them in the Western Conference was Colorado, which went on to win the Stanley Cup, but they never met the Avs in the playoffs because the Blues got to them first.

There’s a strong chemistry in place, at least, to build upon.

“We still have a lot of guys here who were here last year. We’re just trying to make it even better, just trying to listen to everybody,” center Joel Eriksson Ek said. “We want to set a standard and a way for how hard this team’s going to work.”

The Wild start the regular season by hosting the New York Rangers on Oct. 13.

COMINGS AND GOINGS

The most significant roster move of the summer amongst the skaters was the inevitable salary-cap-driven trade of second-leading scorer Kevin Fiala to Los Angeles. Fiala had a career-high 33 goals and 52 assists last season. Guerin otherwise dabbled mostly in two-way contracts in free agency for depth. Former Anaheim center Sam Steel signed with Minnesota last month, one day after defenseman Dimitry Kulikov was dealt to the Ducks.

MORE POWER

The Wild were done in during the playoffs by abysmal special teams. They went just 4 for 24 on the power play against the Blues, and head coach Dean Evason had the team working on that on the first day on the ice. The penalty kill that lagged last season was a focus of the second practice.

“It has to get better, no question,” Evason said.

BLUE LINE SHUFFLE

Captain Jared Spurgeon has been placed with Jonas Brodin on the first pair on defense, and Jake Middleton has joined Matt Dumba on the second unit. Dumba and Brodin are close friends who’ve been paired together for several seasons.

“Dumbs is a shooter too,” said Middleton, who re-signed for three years and $7.35 million. “It’s pretty exciting. I can get some cookies passing him the puck. That’d be a big plus. I think it’ll work well. He loves hitting guys too. He plays a gritty game as well so I think we’ll be a good combo.”

UP FRONT

With Jordan Greenway recovering from offseason surgeries, Tyson Jost will get the first chance to skate with Eriksson Ek and Marcus Foligno. The departure of Fiala has opened at least one spot for a rookie to make the team, with 2020 first-round draft pick Marco Rossi in line for it.

ON THE SLATE

This is the first time in eight years the Wild will play their regular-season opener at home. After three more games at Xcel Energy Center, they don’t hit the road until a five-game trip that starts Oct. 22 at Boston. The Wild have a season-long nine-game homestand from Feb. 9-21.