Can the Golden Knights’ first-year success be explained by simple math? Part One: 1991, 1992, and 1993.

Like almost anyone who’s ever messed around with numbers and sports, I’ve devoted an inordinate amount of time reading and further analyzing the work of sabermetrics pioneer Bill James. Like so many others, I fall short of what he’s done.

One study that he conducted was a mathematical attempt to determine the quality of play league-wide in baseball, with a backdrop of answering the question of whether players in previous generations spent a lot more time learning the game in the minor leagues.  I think it turned out the other way, where looking at average time in the minors led to a greater focus on the actual quality of play.

I’ll sum up everything thusly: players do not spend significantly more or less time in the minor leagues than in previous or in later generations, players who are considered excellent or better usually spend very little time in the minor leagues, and there are noticeable drops in caliber of play during expansion years and particularly during WWII. The way that this was measured was by looking at the overall spread of players and how many minor league games that they had played in their careers. Since expansion elevated a handful of career minor league players onto major league rosters, the average number of minor league games would be pushed up. In the case of WWII, where there was the jarring shock of so many established MLB players exiting the game (mostly on a temporary basis) while being replaced wholesale by career minor league players, the caliber of play would suffer a cataclysmic decline.

Since expansion, numbers, and attempting to quantify the unquantifiable all fall within my realm, I figured I’d take a crack at hockey. But since we’re in the middle of what looks like a historic season for a first-year Vegas Golden Knights team, I thought I’d see if there was a different approach.

It’s a simple one. Did Vegas benefit by being able to take players who were and are significantly better than what the last nine expansion teams were able to tap into? I think this is absolutely a question that is worth exploring, since there is the possibility of further expansion on the horizon.

First, a note on the methodology.

Every player that suited up for a first-year expansion team is compiled against their career NHL, minor and other pro, and junior/college in their 20-year-old season or beyond. Although there are absolutely exceptions, in the vast majority of cases you will find that truly exceptional players will have very few minor and other pro games, and very few of them either played junior or college hockey as a 20-year-old or beyond.

To wit: there are 53 Hockey Hall of Fame skaters who played even a single game at any point from the 1990-91 season up through the end of 2016-17 season.

Of the 16 defensemen:

  • Larry Robinson played 112 minor league games, and only then because of the staggering depth of the parent Montreal team.
  • Rod Langway played two years of college hockey, but none after turning 20. Instead, he went to the WHA, and he would eventually play just 48 minor league games during his career (excepting his post-NHL comeback in 1994-95 and later).
  • Mark Howe played 929 NHL and 426 WHA regular season games, but never played in the minors.
  • Slava Fetisov played exactly one game in the minors after coming to North America as a 31-year-old. His case is truly an exceptional one, what with being buried in the Soviet Union for a large chunk of his career.
  • Scott Stevens never played a single minor league game.
  • Paul Coffey never played a single minor league game.
  • Chris Chelios played in the SJHL until he was 20, then two years at the University of Wisconsin. He played 69 college games after age 20, but never played in the minors until his late-career comeback at age 47.
  • Larry Murphy never played a single minor league game.
  • Chris Pronger never played a single minor league game.
  • Phil Housley never played a single minor league game.
  • Scott Niedermayer played 5 games in the IHL, but this was a case where he signed an IHL contract with the Utah Grizzlies during a contract dispute with New Jersey. He was already an established player and had been for years.
  • Ray Bourque never played a single minor league game.
  • Brian Leetch played one year of college hockey at age 18, then went to the NHL and never played in the minors.
  • Al MacInnis played 19 games in the CHL as a 20-year-old, and never again suited up in the minors.  (That’s the old Central Hockey League, not the junior CHL)
  • Rob Blake played 42 games of college hockey as a 20-year-old, then went to the NHL full-time and never played in the minors.
  • Nicklas Lidstrom played 38 games in the Swedish League as a 20-year-old, then played in the NHL full-time and never played in the minors.

These 16 defensemen played something like 20,000 total NHL regular season games, plus another several hundred playoff games. The total number of minor league games combined among them is less than 200.  The total number of college/junior games in a 20-year-old season or beyond is 111, 69 from Chelios and 42 from Blake.

These are significant numbers that demonstrate the point clearly: exceptional players are established in the NHL at an early age, and generally speaking do not have anything more than a single season of non-NHL hockey after age 20. The exceptions in this list are Fetisov (who couldn’t escape the USSR) and Robinson (who was 20 years old and couldn’t crack a Canadiens’ blueline that had three HOFers firmly entrenched). That’s it.

Still not convinced? Let’s look at the left wingers, who are the third basemen of the HHOF. Of the full-time LWs, which still includes guys who suited up at other positions:

  • Luc Robitaille was a 9th-round pick of Los Angeles…and still played 0 minor league games and 0 junior games in his age 20 season.
  • Brendan Shanahan played 0 minor league games and no junior games in his age 20 season.
  • Pavel Bure played no minor league games
  • Michel Goulet played no minor league games, although he did have a season in the WHA before ending up in the NHL.
  • Joe Mullen was undrafted and played 59 college games in his age 20 season and later. He also played 182 CHL games across two-and-a-half seasons before finally establishing himself in the NHL.
  • Brett Hull was drafted out of the BCJHL, and played two years of college in his age 20 season and beyond (90 games). That was followed by a year (67 games) in the AHL before making it full-time in the NHL.

Six left wingers, and two notable exceptions again. Mullen came up in a time period when there was open discrimination against American players, and particularly American college players. The first American college player to be taken in the first round of the NHL draft was Mike Ramsey (1979), which was after Mullen had already graduated college. As for Hull, he’s spoken openly about the fact that his hockey career was basically a side hobby until around the time that he got to college and started taking it more seriously.

For the sake of brevity, the remaining 31 HOF skaters:

  • Guy Lafleur, Glenn Anderson, Cam Neely, Mike Gartner, Jari Kurri, Mike Modano, Mats Sundin, Dave Andreychuk, Paul Kariya, Mario Lemieux, Eric Lindros, Dale Hawerchuk, Steve Yzerman, Doug Gilmour, Joe Sakic, Ron Francis, Pat LaFontaine, Denis Savard, Bryan Trottier, and Wayne Gretzky all played 0 minor league games and 0 junior/college games in their 20-year-old season or later
  • Dino Ciccarelli played 48 minor league games (one season), Mark Recchi 67 (one full season plus four games), Mark Messier 4.
  • Joe Nieuwendyk played 23 college games as a 20-year-old, and no minor league games
  • Igor Larionov, Sergei Makarov, and Peter Stastny all were stuck behind the Iron Curtain and could not come to the NHL until later in their careers. There is no question that all were NHL-caliber players as far back as age 18 or 19.
  • Peter Forsberg and Sergei Fedorov played their 20-year-old season overseas before playing in the NHL full-time the next season. Teemu Selanne played his 20-year-old and 21-year-old seasons overseas before making the jump. None ever played a single minor league game.
  • Adam Oates played Junior A hockey, then played three years at RPI starting as a 20-year-old. That was followed by 34 minor league games (all in one season) before cracking the NHL full-time.

Out of those 53 HOF skaters, 33 of them never played so much as a single minor league game or a college/junior game in their 20-year-old season or later. 4 of them (Stastny, Fetisov, Larionov, Makarov) were unquestionably NHL-caliber but could not escape the Iron Curtain. 3 of them (Fedorov, Lidstrom, and Forsberg) played their 20-year-old season overseas before coming over, and 1 more (Selanne) had an additional season. Of the remaining 12, all except Mullen, Hull, Oates, and Chelios were not full-time NHL players by age 21.

Of course, there are the goalies to consider…only four of them though.

  • Grant Fuhr played 10 minor league games
  • Dominik Hasek was stuck behind the Iron Curtain
  • Patrick Roy played 1 minor league game as a 19-year-old, which doesn’t count for the purpose of this exercise
  • Ed Belfour was undrafted and played his 20-year-old season in the MJHL. After that, it was a year in college, then a year and a half in the minors before playing a season for Team Canada and then beginning his NHL career.

57 Hall of Famers overall, and only 5 of them weren’t firmly established as NHL players by age 22. Of them, Mullen suffered from anti-American discrimination as well as being regarded as too small for pro hockey, Oates suffered from anti-setup man discrimination (it’s true; superlative playmakers tend to be more lightly-regarded if they aren’t also exceptional goal scorers or if they happen to be stuck on a line with guys who can’t finish), Belfour is an outlier because he’s a goalie, and Hull has stated plainly that he put forth no effort until getting to college. Chelios is another odd case in that he went to high school in California where there was no hockey, and didn’t actually hit a growth spurt until he was 19 years old that pushed him to the cusp of six feet tall. Until then, he was just another American who was too short for hockey.

Where am I going with this?

Yes, these are Hall of Famers. But for actual NHL players, you’ll still see the same general patterns. You’re not likely to see a first-pairing defenseman who was up and down between the NHL and AHL when he was 25, or a second-line forward who played four years of college hockey after age 20 and then two years in the minors before finally breaking in for good. You may see this on the third and fourth lines, or on the second or third pairings (where there are more players of that caliber than there are NHL roster spots), but it’s extremely uncommon for All-Stars or marginal All-Star players.

Where you do see these exceptions are usually with the same types of players: goalies, short skaters, setup guys, and players from locations where access to higher-level developmental hockey is much reduced. Players who are undrafted out of junior hockey will also fall into this group; teams are reluctant to draft an overage player, and such a player will be shuffled down an organizational depth chart behind a guy who was drafted no matter how bad that drafted player may be.

Let’s look at some notable exceptions:

  • Johnny Gaudreau – Listed at 5’9″, played 40 college games at age 20 and none afterward, no minor league games
  • Martin St. Louis – Listed at 5’8″, played 71 college games at age 20 and afterward, then 151 minor league games across three seasons before finally making it in the NHL. That’s 222 non-NHL games at age 20 and beyond.
  • Mark Giordano – Undrafted, played an overage junior season (65 games), then two years in the minors (144 games), one in the NHL, and then a year in Russia (50 games) before finally establishing himself. That’s 259 non-NHL games at age 20 and beyond.
  • Joe Pavelski – Undrafted his first year (Wisconsin high school hockey), played two years of college hockey starting at age 20 and then 16 games in the minors. That’s 100 total non-NHL games at age 20 and beyond.
  • Shayne Gostisbehere – Undrafted his first year eligible, played a year of college hockey (42 games) and scatters AHL games (21) before sticking permanently in the NHL. 63 total non-NHL games.
  • Andy McDonald – Listed at 5’10”, undrafted, spent three years in college at age 20 and beyond (104 games) and then a season and a half in the minors (67 games) before sticking in the NHL. 171 non-NHL games at age 20 and later.
  • Chris Kunitz – Undrafted, and spent four years in college starting at age 20 (152 games) followed by two years in the minors (118 games). That’s 270 non-NHL games after age 20 before he finally became an NHL player.
  • Jason Blake – Undrafted, spent a year in the USHL (47 games) and then four years in college after turning 20 (155 games), then scattered minor league games (14 games). That’s 216 non-NHL games after turning 20.
  • Dan Boyle – Listed at 5’11”, undrafted, spent two years in college after age 20 (77 games) and two-plus seasons in the AHL (117 games). 194 non-NHL games after turning 20.
  • Geoff Courtnall – Undrafted, spent one overage season in juniors (72 games) and then one-plus in the minors (95 games) before becoming a full-time NHLer. 167 non-NHL games after age 20.
  • Steve Duchesne – Undrafted, only played one year of minor league hockey (75 games) before becoming an NHLer full-time.

This list can keep going. Pascal Dupuis played 131 non-NHL games after turning 20, Dan Girardi 187, Jeff Halpern 108, Tyler Johnson 208, Tim Kerr 63, Mike Keane 78, Torey Krug 111…even Brian Rafalski, regarded as the ultimate late bloomer, played only 262 non-NHL games in his 20-year-old season and beyond.

This is a decent list of guys who are regarded as late bloomers to at least some extent. What you’ve undoubtedly noticed is that the number of non-NHL games is still relatively low. Of the 19 players listed, just 6 of them played 200+ non-NHL games after turning 20. And none of them hit 300.

No, really, where am I going with this?

I’ve said before that numbers speak, at least to some extent. My question is whether this particular set of numbers can be used to “speak” to whether certain expansion teams have benefited from having a first-year roster composed of NHL players as a result of different expansion draft parameters. And then, in the case of the three expansion years where two teams entered and drafted against each other (1992, 1993, and 2000), is there a correlation between any of this and the team’s first-year success?

Methodology

To determine this, I’ve compiled the entire first-year rosters for the ten most recent expansion teams (including this year’s Vegas team).

I then tabulate career games heading into the expansion season in question, broken them down into NHL games, minor league and other non-NHL pro games, and junior/college games in an age 20 season and later. Since this was all done by hand, I cannot promise 100% accuracy. I’m very confident in the NHL numbers, less so with the juniors/college numbers, and less than that with the non-NHL pro games. I don’t think I’m off by large numbers in any case.

But that still provides a skewed picture. So I further weighted all of these by multiplying them by the number of games that the player actually played in during the expansion team’s first year. Had I not done so, a player who suited up in two games would have his career numbers to that point count just as much as a guy who suited up in sixty games. When trying to figure out something actually meaningful, this would actually cloud the picture.

And then we sit back and wait to see what the numbers reveal, if anything.

Pitfalls

I think you can recognize a couple of pitfalls right off the bat.

1) For one thing, it regards junior games played in a 20-year-old season as being equal to college games. This is despite the fact that very few players actually play a 20-year-old season of junior hockey and then actually become successful NHL players, compared to college players.

For another thing, the numbers themselves will skew in two different places: non-NHL pro games, and in junior/college games. A college season will last between 35-40 regular season games, a junior one more like 70+. Someone who plays two college seasons is thus “seen” as equal to someone who plays one junior season. I’d argue that this isn’t as unreasonable as it sounds, mostly because, again, so few guys who play a 20-year-old junior season become successful NHL players.  On the other hand, it’s also possible to play up to four college seasons at and after that age, compared to one for junior hockey.

It also skews with non-NHL pro games, where a minor league season will be between 70-80 games and a European pro season will be slightly more than half that. This is partially alleviated by including smaller international tournaments for the European pro players.

2) One thing that I have not mentioned is that all compiled numbers are only regular season games rather than including playoff games. I did this because of the weird machinations that are involved with minor league playoffs, where it would be possible for NHL teams to send established players down for the purpose of pushing for a Turner or Calder Cup. It would also be possible to go the other way, where a shorthanded NHL team would call up minor league players for the playoffs even if it meant damaging the minor league team’s chances of winning in the playoffs.

3) I also declined to set up anything as a percentage of possible games played, for the reason that it would cloud the picture rather than revealing it. If a defenseman plays 5 NHL games and 37 AHL games in a given season, what was the reason? Is it:

  • He started the year in the NHL, was injured, and was sent down to the AHL after his injury healed but couldn’t quite get his timing right?
  • He was recalled 7 times during the NHL season when a slew of injuries affected that team, and actually played a few games to spell an established player?
  • He’s a lousy defenseman in the AHL, but earned a recall to the NHL because he was being showcased for a possible trade?
  • He’s physically and mentally weak, and was banished to the minors after two weeks despite having been practically gifted an NHL roster spot?
  • He can’t stay healthy himself?

Here’s the thing: I don’t know. And to be perfectly honest, although I’m a diligent researcher and I can usually find what I’m looking for, I’m not THAT good.

To reveal anything from a percentage of possible games played would require going through every single transaction report in the last 30+ years, comparing it against schedules, then hoping that I could actually find the reason listed for why this player was recalled or scratched or played or suited up but benched. This would also mean doing it for over 400 players who suited up in the first year of one of the ten most recent expansion teams. I wouldn’t want to do this for my own career, so I have even less in doing it for Kent Paynter’s or Rick Lessard’s careers (Nothing against Mr. Paynter or Mr. Lessard).

And it still wouldn’t be consistent. Let’s say that a player gets called up to the NHL on the day of a game, but because of a stiff wind at O’Hare travel all across North America gets snarled and he ends up only arriving 45 minutes before the puck drops. The odds of such a player getting into the lineup are almost non-existent, so would this count as a possible game played or not? If so, it’s kind of lousy because it’s not reasonable to expect that a player who arrives under such circumstances would have been able to play. But if not, the counter is that other players have arrived under such circumstances and then played anyway. There’s no way to be consistent, and if I can’t have the consistency then I really have nothing.

4) One final pitfall to this project is that everyone gets grouped into the same category. Yes, Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid and Steven Stamkos and John Tavares and Drew Doughty all went straight to the NHL after being drafted and never played in the minors or another game in junior hockey. Then again, the same also holds true for Evander Kane, Dmitry Kulikov, Nail Yakupov, and Luke Schenn.

It’s not a perfect system, but it’s not designed to be. All I’m looking for is a bit of illumination that may lead to something further.

Why is it necessary, and what does this actually mean?

It’s necessary because of a simple reason: I found something that annoys me, and a niche in analysis that (to the best of my knowledge) does not currently exist.

Imagine this.  An NHL team has 23 players on their active roster at a time, and 20 of them dress for any given game.  Of the 23 players on the active roster, 20 of those players have each played 100 NHL games coming into the season and 3 of them have each played 800 games.  How much experience is actually in the lineup over the span of a season?  (Assuming there are no injuries, no call-ups, no trades, and no changes to the roster at all.)

The answer is “it depends”.  The popular, and inaccurate, way to determine this would be by simply adding up the prior experience of anyone who happened to suit up for a game that season.  If all 23 players played games that year, this would create an answer of 4,400 accumulated NHL games of experience: 20 players times 100 previous NHL games is 2,000, and 3 players times 800 previous NHL games is 2,400.  2,000 plus 2,400 is 4,400.

I think we can see the problem here.  Let’s say one of those longtime veterans plays two games and then is traded for a draft pick.  Did this theoretical team really have 4,400 games of accumulated NHL experience?  Clearly not; someone who accounts for a large chunk of that is gone after just two games, meaning that there are 80 more games that the team will play that year without that player and without those 800 games of prior experience.

What I’m looking to do is cut through this and reveal a more clear picture of actual NHL experience.  In the case of our theoretical roster above, let’s say that only the 20 inexperienced players ever suit up for a game.  We’d see that the total prior NHL experience would be 2,000 games: 20 players times each of their 100 prior games.  Now let’s say that 17 of the inexperienced ones and the 3 veterans all suit up for every game: the prior NHL experience would then be 4,100 games (17 times 100 prior games, plus 3 times 800 prior games).

This is just using nice round math and nice round numbers.  In reality, it’s never this simple.  Players get traded, traded for, lost on waivers, claimed off waivers, have their contract terminated, retire, get sent down to the minors, and called up from the minors.  And on first-year expansion teams, there are normally 35-45 different players who cycle through the lineup over the span of a season.

For example, the most experienced player on the 2000-01 Minnesota Wild was defenseman J.J. Daigneault, who had 898 prior NHL games.  Daigneault only played one game for the Wild that year and spent most of the season with Cleveland of the IHL.  Simply tallying up the prior NHL experience of the Wild’s overall roster from that year would mean that Daigneault’s 898 games get added in as they are despite him playing just one game, while Curtis Leschyshyn’s 779 games just get added as they are despite the fact that he played 54 games with the Wild that year.

If we’re trying to figure out things like average experience, this is a great example of how easily the picture can become clouded.  Leschyshyn brought 779 games of prior NHL experience to the ice 54 times that year, while Daigneault brought his 898 games just once.  I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that these are not equal, or really even close to equal.  There are 119 games of difference between 779 and 898, but there’s a massive difference when the actual usage is considered.  (119 times 53 games of difference is 6,307).  That’s what this does.

Picture it this way.  Let’s say that there’s a piggy bank near the bench for a team.  Each player is given three coins: one that has the number of NHL games he played in before that season on it, one that has the number of other pro games that he played in before that season, and one that has the number of junior/college games that he played in in his 20-year-old season or beyond.  Before the player gets on the ice for a game, he drops these three coins into the bank.  These then get added together to determine the cumulative prior experience of the roster for that game.

In the case of our theoretical team above, we’ll say that there are 19 inexperienced players and 1 veteran.  The experience for that game would be 2,700 games: 19 players who each had played 100 NHL games before that year, and 1 who had played 800 NHL games before that year.  Now let’s say that there are 18 inexperienced and 2 veteran players for the next game: it becomes 3,400 games of experience: 18 players times 100 games, plus 2 players times 800 games.

But how does this break down into an average?  We can add up the two games and divide them out: 2,700 for Game 1 plus 3,400 for Game 2 equals 6,100 games.  Divide that by 2, and our theoretical team averaged 3,050 games of experience in the lineup in a given game.  Divide that by 20 players, and the per-player average is 152.5 games of prior NHL experience.

Now do this over the course of a season, and break it down further by position, and you see how this works.

On these tables, the first three number-filled columns are that player’s prior experience coming into the season.  The team-colored bold number is the number of games that the player actually played in for his expansion team in the expansion season.  And the larger numbers on the right are the total number of “banked” prior games that player is responsible for in that season.  Someone with 100 prior NHL games (first numbered column) who played 40 games in the expansion team’s first year (team-colored number) will have 4,000 “banked” games that year.  This gets added into the team’s total accumulated experience for the year, which is then divided out to determine overall averages.

[This section was added after publishing]

A unique project

As of the moment that I write everything to this point, my research has consisted of only that which has gone into the HOF examples, the sample late bloomer players, and the first-year games played numbers for Ottawa and San Jose. Everything else from this point forward is new research that has not yet been done; I have reached no conclusions because this is all as new to me as it is to you.

I doubt that I will do significant amounts of writing in this style, where we all learn everything as it progresses and it’s more stream of consciousness than simply presenting data and analysis after it’s been compiled and refined. This is more raw.

Let’s see where it goes.

The Data

How to read the tables, and the glossary:

  • “NHL” refers to NHL regular season games played in by the player before the expansion season in question.
  • “Other” refers to other pro regular season games played in before the expansion season. This includes North American minor league games, and also European professional games.
  • “Jr/Col +20” refers to college or junior hockey games played in by a player in his age 20 season or older.
  • “1991-92” (or other year) is the number of games that the player suited up for with his expansion team in that season.
  • “WtNHL” are weighted NHL games: his prior NHL experience multiplied by the number of NHL games he played in the expansion year.
  • “WtPro” are weighted other pro games: his prior other pro experience multiplied by the number of NHL games he played in the expansion year
  • “Wt20+” are weighted Jr/Col+20 games: his prior games multiplied by the number of NHL games he played in the expansion year

1991-92 San Jose Sharks

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If you were to pull out a random scoresheet from the 1991-92 Sharks and point to a random player, you’d find these overall totals on a per-game basis

  • Any given forward in the lineup would have averaged 273.52 NHL games before the 1991-92 season, 104 other pro games, and 28.46 college or junior games after age 20
  • Any given defenseman in the lineup would have averaged 194.47 NHL games, 131.9 other pro games, and 28.14 college or junior games after age 20
  • Any given goalie would have averaged 55.68 NHL games, 161.53 other pro games, and 6.5 college or junior games after age 20
  • Overall, any given skater would have averaged 247.17 NHL games, 113.29 other pro games, and 28.35 post-20 games

These totals are based on the idea that if you were to randomly grab a scoresheet from any Sharks’ game in 1991-92 and point to any random player, this is what their experience would look like.

Fast analysis:

  • The goalie breakdown isn’t necessarily meaningful. Arturs Irbe’s line is 0/196/0, but he was also buried behind the Iron Curtain and couldn’t have played in North America no matter how badly he wanted to. Jarmo Myllys suffered from discrimination against European goalies in the NHL; the number of European goalies in the NHL was fairly small, and largely undistinguished. It would be another eight years before a Finnish goaltending prospect – Mika Noronen – was taken seriously as a future NHL player.
  • Among the twelve defensemen who played for the Sharks in 1991-92, only two had more than 100 games of NHL experience: Doug Wilson (938) and Bob McGill (579). This is so extreme that despite the fact that Wilson only played 44 games in 1991-92, if he had 0 prior NHL games the Sharks’ average defensemen experience would plummet from 194.47 to 108.48. Take McGill out instead, and it “only” drops to 119.68 even though he played just 62 games with the Sharks that year. Take out both, and the average Sharks defenseman in 1991-92 had just 33.70 games of prior NHL experience.
  • This effect is less extreme among the forwards, where 15 who suited up had over 100 NHL games of prior experience. The three most experienced were Brian Mullen (679), Kelly Kisio (572), and Steve Bozek (583). Take out Mullen and the Sharks’ average forward experience drops from 273.52 to 222.59; take out Kisio and it only goes down to 244.92; take out Bozek instead and it goes to 238.30. Take out all three, and the average forward per-game had 158.77 games of prior NHL experience. Now compare that to the defensemen, who even with Wilson and McGill only had 194.47 prior games.

Remember though, I’m not doing after-the-fact analysis right here. I’m compiling these, looking at them, and providing my own immediate feedback. What I’ve written above is pretty much set in stone.

Moving on.

1992-93 Ottawa Senators

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Instant analysis:

  • I somehow didn’t include the positions on the Sharks when I compiled everything into an HTML table. Not really sure how that happened.

Instant analysis on the roster itself:

  • Pull a random scoresheet from the 1992-93 Senators and point to a random forward. At the beginning of the season, he’d have had 244.77 games of NHL experience, 156.70 games of other pro experience, and 23.44 games of college/junior over 20 experience. Point to a random defenseman, and he’d have 235.58 games of NHL experience, 226.33 games of other pro experience, and 49.22 games of college/junior over 20 experience. Point to a goalie, and it’s 207.42/172.52/67.42.
  • If you pulled a random scoresheet from the 1992-93 Senators, chances are pretty good it would be a loss for that team. They finished with a 10-70-4 record, and I think I referred to them elsewhere on this site as something like “the Biblical covenant curse in the form of a hockey team”.
  • The 1991-92 Sharks had only two defensemen with over 100 games of NHL experience. The 1992-93 Senators had five.
  • One player who heavily skews the “Other Pro” number is Tomas Jelinek, who had 540 games in the Czechoslovakian League.

I try hard to write in a positive manner, and try very hard to not criticize players who were put into the difficult situation of playing on a first-year expansion squad. Teams like the 1992-93 Senators make this more difficult than I would like. The team’s leading scorer was Norm Maciver, a defenseman who also happened to be a waiver claim in the preseason from Edmonton – a team that itself finished 24 games under .500 that year. I’m reminded of a story involving the AFL’s New York Titans, who were ordered to build their roster not out of trades or through astute drafting, but out of waiver claims. A frustrated GM thus informed team owner Harry Wismer that, “It’s not possible to beat other teams by using players who are not good enough to make their rosters.”

Ottawa underscores a problem with this specific methodology, which is that it simply regards NHL games played as the same. Someone who was a fourth-line forward on a dynasty team is “seen” the same as the HOF forward. For this particular example, Senators’ defenseman Gord Dineen – who had played with the late dynasty-era Islanders – has his NHL games count the same as his old teammate Denis Potvin’s.  (This is not a slight against Mr. Dineen, who played over 1,300 pro games in a career that spanned 18 seasons and earned a handful of championship rings.)  It’s obviously assumed that a player has to be of a certain caliber to suit up in an NHL game in the first place, even if there is a disparity between players themselves.

San Jose’s defensemen in 1991-92 had combined for 1,799 previous NHL games, with 1,517 of those coming from just two players (Doug Wilson and Bob McGill). Ottawa’s defensemen had combined for 2,649 games, and even taking out Brad Marsh’s 1,027 games, there’s still 1,622 NHL games among the rest of them. Yet Ottawa allowed 395 goals in 84 games (4.70 per game), San Jose 359 in 80 games (4.49 per game). And San Jose didn’t have Wilson for 36 of their 80 games.

The real problem that Ottawa and Tampa Bay had wasn’t necessarily with NHL experience, but with depth. A lot of guys were being asked to play two lines and two pairings above what they had been for their NHL careers, and to do it for 84 games. Willpower wasn’t the issue.

1992-93 Tampa Bay Lightning

199293tb

Instant analysis:

  • In an average scoresheet from 1992-93 for the Tampa Bay Lightning, an average forward would have 215.58 games of prior NHL experience, 156.66 games of prior other pro experience, and 31.69 games of prior college/junior experience past age 20. An average defenseman would have 344.25 games of prior NHL experience, 81.51 games of other pro experience, and 26.62 games of prior college/junior experience past age 20.
  • Of the three teams we’ve seen so far, Tampa Bay has by far the most experienced back end. San Jose’s defensemen averaged less than 200 games of NHL experience (and just 33 when the two most experienced were taken away), Ottawa’s had 235 NHL games and 226 of other pro, and Tampa Bay’s 344 NHL and 81.5 other pro. These are not small numbers, since we’re talking about trading out an average of two full seasons of “other pro” for a season and a half of NHL games.  And it also doesn’t reflect the fact that Tampa Bay had 1st overall pick Roman Hamrlik in the lineup for 67 games as an 18-year-old rookie.
  • Tampa Bay allowed 332 goals in 84 games, which is 3.95 goals against per game. Ottawa had 395 against, which is 4.70 per game.
  • Tampa Bay had 53 points in their first season, Ottawa 24, and San Jose 39. San Jose dropped to 24 points in their second year, meaning that 1992-93 Tampa Bay had more points than Ottawa and San Jose did combined in that same season.

So far we’ve taken a brief look at the three pre-Bettman expansion teams from the last wave. What have we learned?

Not much, at least not to this point. There’s not enough data to go around, and still too much guesswork and inference.

What we do see is two very different methods of assembling an expansion team. San Jose and Ottawa were largely content to stand pat with what their expansion draft and early forays into minor free agency brought them, with only a couple of trades. Tampa Bay, with Phil Esposito at the helm, went nuts and had a massive amount of roster turnover.

I went into some amount of detail on this in a prior write-up, which deals with the roster construction of Ottawa compared to Tampa Bay.

1993-94 Anaheim Mighty Ducks

199394ana

Instant analysis:

  • A random forward from a random game played by the 1993-94 Ducks would have prior experience of 141.48 NHL games, 196.67 other pro games, and 30.4 college and junior games after age 20.
  • A random defenseman from a random game would have prior experience of 209.07 NHL games, 306.82 other pro games, and 22.89 college and junior games after age 20.
  • The defensemen are heavily skewed by Randy Ladouceur’s 742 NHL games and Alexei Kasatonov’s 705 other pro games. Without Ladouceur, the average prior experience plummets to 89.82 NHL games. On the other hand, if Kasatonov had been in the NHL instead of under Soviet control, his 705 additional NHL games would have pushed the average up to 285.79 games.
  • Bob Corkum, Garry Valk, and Tim Sweeney all set career highs in points. Corkum, in fact, scored 51 of his 200 career NHL points in his 76 games in 1993-94; this compares to 149 points in 644 career games in every other season.
  • With very little scoring options in the expansion draft, Anaheim went the route of suffocating defense. This team allowed the 8th-fewest goals in the NHL out of 26 teams, but was 23rd in goals allowed.

1993-94 Florida Panthers

199394fla

Instant analysis:

  • An average Florida forward in an average Florida game in 1993-94 would have 257.5 games of prior NHL experience, 144.59 games of other pro experience, and 15.76 games of college/junior experience after age 20.
  • An average Florida defenseman, on the other hand, would have 361.01 games of NHL experience, 102.36 games of other pro experience, and 12.09 games of college/junior experience after age 20.
  • Of the five teams we’ve looked at so far, Florida’s defensemen have by far the most NHL experience, the least other pro experience, and the least 20+ experience. Florida’s forwards also have the least college/junior after age 20 experience by a significant margin.
  • Four Florida defensemen – Brian Benning, Keith Brown, Joe Cirella, and Geoff Smith – combined for 2,307 previous NHL games, 0 other pro, and 0 junior/college past age 20. They played in front of goalie John Vanbiesbrouck, who himself had a 449/0/37 line.
  • The Panthers still have what is the best first year by an expansion team in NHL history. They finished 4th in goals against, had a goal differential of 0, posted 83 points in 84 games, and missed making the playoffs in their first year by just one point in the standings.

Thoughts on the first five expansion teams.

The single most important factor in whether an expansion team will have early success is if their first general manager has been an NHL GM previously. If he has, then the team will be fine fairly soon. If he has not been, it’s unlikely the team will improve until sweeping changes are made.

Of these first five expansion teams, four of them had former GMs leading the way. Former Minnesota North Stars’ GM Jack Ferreira led both the 1991-92 Sharks and the 1993-94 Ducks, former Rangers’ GM Phil Esposito led the 1992-93 Lightning, and former Flyers’ GM Bobby Clarke led the 1993-94 Panthers. The Sharks suffered through seasons of 39 and 24 points before breaking through with 82 in their third year and making the playoffs. The Lightning made the playoffs in their fourth year, the Ducks in their fourth year, and the Panthers in their third.

Ottawa was led by first-time GM Mel Bridgman, and the Senators needed until their fifth year to make the playoffs. In their first four years, the team had a 51-224-23 record (.2097 point percentage, which translates to 34.4 points in an 82-game schedule).

Here is how the five teams stack up in the major categories that we’ve looked at:

  • NHL experience by forwards: 273.52 by San Jose, 257.5 by Florida, 244.77 by Ottawa, 215.57 by Tampa Bay, 141.48 by Anaheim
  • NHL experience by defensemen: 361.01 by Florida, 344.25 by Tampa Bay, 235.58 by Ottawa, 209.07 by Anaheim, 194.47 by San Jose
  • NHL experience by goalies: 356.44 by Florida, 207.42 by Ottawa, 83.57 by Anaheim, 66.86 by Tampa Bay, 55.68 by San Jose
  • Other pro experience by forwards: 196.67 by Anaheim, 156.70 by Ottawa, 156.66 by Tampa Bay, 144.59 by Florida, 103.99 by San Jose
  • Other pro experience by defensemen: 306.82 by Anaheim, 226.33 by Ottawa, 131.91 by San Jose, 102.36 by Florida, 81.51 by Tampa Bay
  • Other pro experience by goalies: 188.62 by Tampa Bay, 172.51 by Ottawa, 161.53 by San Jose, 105.02 by Anaheim, 20.40 by Florida
  • College/junior experience past 20 by forwards: 31.69 by Tampa Bay, 30.41 by Anaheim, 28.46 by San Jose, 23.44 by Ottawa, 15.76 by Florida
  • College/junior experience past 20 by defensemen: 49.23 by Ottawa, 28.14 by San Jose, 26.62 by Tampa Bay, 22.89 by Anaheim, 12.09 by Florida
  • College/junior experience past 20 by goalies: 67.42 by Ottawa, 32.19 by Anaheim, 26.23 by Florida, 20.83 by Tampa Bay, 6.5 by San Jose

Everything from Anaheim and Florida, plus the text immediately above this, was done on a Sunday night. I woke up on Monday morning, and my first thought (after “Did I oversleep?”) was, “Hey dumbass, why didn’t you include the NHL info from 18- and 19-year-old seasons? And for that matter, why didn’t you actually list the overall roster size?”

These are things I should have realized before starting all of this. If I’m looking at college and junior games after age 20, which is generally but not always a mark of a player who’s unlikely to have a long and productive NHL career, then what’s the opposite of it? It’s NHL games played in an 18- or 19-year-old season, which is generally but not always a pretty solid indicator of a successful future NHLer.

Yes, there are exceptions and situations that don’t make for a clean comparison. A bad team is more likely to put an unprepared young player into the NHL, or maybe they’re more likely to draft an NHL-ready player who has a low ceiling just to improve their team for next year and not really care about the years after. But on the other hand, bad teams are going to draft a player higher and have their pick of better-regarded prospects in the first place. No one would argue that Mario Lemieux or Sidney Crosby weren’t NHL-ready not just on putrid Penguins teams, but on any team in the NHL. But there are pressures on a GM, on an owner, on a coach, that make these all very fluid situations.

1998

Let’s take a quick look at the 1998 NHL Draft. The top seven picks were, in order, Vincent Lecavalier (Tampa Bay), David Legwand (Nashville), Brad Stuart (San Jose), Bryan Allen (Vancouver), Vitali Vishenvski (Anaheim), Rico Fata (Calgary), and Manny Malhotra (NY Rangers).

  • Lecavalier played 162 NHL games as an 18- and 19-year-old immediately after being drafted. Tampa Bay had 44 points in 1997-98, and with Lecavalier they improved to 47. He himself put up 67 points in his second year.
  • Legwand played 1 game as an 18-year-old before being sent back to the OHL. As a 19-year-old, he played in 71 games. He would eventually play over 1,100 NHL games.
  • Stuart played 0 NHL games the year after being drafted, but all 82 in his second year post-draft. But because of his birthdate, this is actually classified as his 20-year-old season rather than 19.
  • Allen did not play any NHL games in his first two years post-draft, but would total 721 regular season games by the time he retired.
  • Vitali Vishnevski played 31 games as a 19-year-old in his second season after being drafted. He played 552 NHL games before heading back overseas.
  • Fata played 20 games as an 18-year-old and 2 games as a 19-year-old. His NHL career lasted just 230 games.

And then there’s Manny Malhotra, drafted by the Rangers after that team’s 68-point season marked the true disintegration from the glory days. Stanley Cup in 1993-94, second round in 1994-95, second round in 1995-96, conference finals in 1996-97….68 points on a 25-39-18 record. The team wasn’t just bad, they were boring. And they were expensive, regularly among the top three payrolls in the NHL despite increasingly dwindling results.

What kind of player was Malhotra as a prospect?

Top 10 prospects

The leading prospects ranked by the NHL’s Central Scouting Bureau:

Rk Name, Team (League) P Ht Wt Comment

1. Vincent Lecavalier, Rimouski (QMJHL) C 6-4 180 Skilled, dominating

2. David Legwand, Plymouth (OHL) C 6-1 175 Natural scorer

3. Bryan Allen, Oshawa (OHL) D 6-5 210 Mobile, offensive

4. Brad Stuart, Regina (WHL) D 6-3 215 Solid checker

5. Michael Henrich, Barrie (OHL) R 6-2 206 Could be more physical

6. Manny Malhotra, Guelph (OHL) C 6-1 210 Hard worker

Mayer, Rick. “Lottery a no-lose situation for Bolts.” The Tampa Tribune, 10 May 1998, Sports, p. 8

It’s important to note that the above was written before the Memorial Cup, a tournament in which Malhotra excelled and showed some offensive skill as well. As the draft gets closer:

3. Manny Malhotra, C, Guelph (OHL); 6-1, 210; 57 GP, 16-35-51: His team’s player of the year and top rookie last season. . . . Member of Team Canada in the World Junior Championships. . . . Played in OHL All-Star Game. . . . Very good skater and can handle the puck. . . . Solid two-way player. . . . Strong player who likes to hit. . . . Hard worker. . . . Has scored 16 goals in each of his two junior seasons. . . . Father emigrated to Canada from Pakistan; he and his wife have doctorates

Bailey, Budd. “TALENT EVALUATORS COULD USE A CRYSTAL BALL, TOO.” The Buffalo News, 24 Jun 1998, Sports, p. S11

6. Manny Malhotra, 18, Mississauga, Ontario. The 6-1 1/2, 210-pound center had 51 points (16-35) in 57 games with Guelph (OHL). Tenacious checker and leader. Canadian junior hockey’s scholastic player of the year.

“I like to be out there with the game on the line. I relish pressure situations.” — Malhotra.

“NHL Draft-Capsules.” Associated Press Archive, 25 Jun. 1998

C Manny Malhotra

Team: Guelph Storm, OHL

Vitals: Shoots L, 6-2, 210

Born: May 18, 1980

Hometown: Mississauga, Ontario

Stat of note: Scored nine playoff goals

Scouting report: Outstanding defensive player with impressive leadership skills. Projected as a third-line center in the NHL who can chip in with 15-20 goals. Can also play the wing.

Kaufman, Ira. “NHL DRAFT – TOP 20 JUNIOR PROSPECTS.” The Tampa Tribune, 26 Jun. 1998, Sports, p. 17

* 4) MANNY MALHOTRA: C, Guelph (OHL)

Despite an unimpressive 16 goals and 35 assists in 57 games, the 6-1 1/2, 210-pound Malhotra projects as an effective two-way player. He might not develop into more than a third-line checker, but Malhotra displayed a flash of offensive ability with nine playoff goals for the Storm.

“TOP 10 DRAFT PROSPECTS.” Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, CA), 26 Jun. 1998, Sports, p. C5

4. Manny Malhotra, Guelph (Ont.) 18 C Top defensive forward prospect.

Biggane, Brian. “DRAFT DAY DEAL ELUDES PANTHERS – FLORIDA, STUCK WITH A SECOND-ROUND PICK, WANTS A FIRST-ROUNDER.” The Palm Beach Post, 27 Jun. 1998, Sports, p. 8C

3. Manny Malhotra, Guelph (OHL), 18, 6-1, 210, 16-35-51

Comment

— A solid, intelligent two-way player. Not a big scorer, but came through with big goals in the playoffs.

Pukalo, Mark. “A LOOK AT SOME OF THE BEST PROSPECTS AVAILABLE.” The Hartford Courant, 27 Jun. 1998, Sports, p. C6

Anyway, the Rangers drafted him 7th overall. Even then there was some controversy.

The Rangers couldn’t believe it. Six picks had come and gone, and Manny Malhotra was still sitting in the crowd, waiting patiently for his name to be called.

The prevailing opinion going into yesterday’s NHL Entry Draft was that Malhotra, the outstanding center from the Guelph Storm, certainly would go earlier than seventh overall, when the Rangers were slated to pick. But when the Calgary Flames chose Rico Fata sixth overall and Malhotra was still available, the reaction at the Rangers’ draft table told the story.

“When the Flames picked Fata, our guys almost ripped the seams in their jackets jumping up,” said Rangers general manager Neil Smith. “We really believe Malhotra can play on our team this year, and I’ve never said that about anyone we’ve ever drafted before. I think he could make it, I really do.”

Wentworth, Bridget. “Rangers get their man – Smith thinks Malhotra can make team next season.” Star-Ledger, The (Newark, NJ), 28 Jun. 1998, Sports, p. 4

The New York Rangers had the hardest time making up their mind about who to take. They hemmed and hawed, used up their allotted time, called a timeout and then, with the Arena gallery growing restless and booing loudly, finally took center Manny Malhotra of Guelph in the Ontario Hockey League with the seventh overall pick.

Northrop, Milt. “SURPRISES ARE FEW, BUT SABRES NAB ONE – LECAVALIER GOES FIRST, LEGWAND NEXT.” The Buffalo News, 28 Jun. 1998, Sports, p. B1

It’s been almost 20 years, and I don’t remember whether the Rangers did in fact burn through their entire time.  And if they did, I don’t remember the reason.  But the fact that there are two stories from the day after that are so diametrically opposite is certainly odd.

To make a long story short, Malhotra played well in training camp and made the Rangers’ opening night roster. He played 73 games that year, averaging between eight and nine minutes a night primarily on the third line.

The next year, controversy erupted in training camp.

As controversies go, the one that arose out of the New York Rangers’ training camp Tuesday is relatively minor. But the potential ramifications could be significant.

Rangers coach John Muckler, perhaps tired about being asked why 19-year-old Manny Malhotra can’t fill the gaping hole the team has at No. 2 center, said he thinks Malhotra will never be more than a third-line center.

Rangers president-general manager Neil Smith politely disagreed, saying that, while Malhotra might wind up playing on the third line because he can be a checking type, he will also be more than a prototypical third-liner.

Malhotra was picked seventh overall in the 1998 draft. He was to be the centerpiece of a rebuilding process that has sputtered and evolved into a team that now has a lot of promise in the far future, a lot of veterans in the immediate future, and apparently a lot of time between the two.

“Sometimes I think the media has Manny rated too high,” Muckler said. “I thought that last year. I thought some of you people had him rated as a first-liner or second-liner. I see Manny as a solid third-line hockey player.”

When asked if he meant that Malhotra was a third-liner now, or in the future, Muckler said, “I think that’s where he’s going to be in the National Hockey League.”

Smith, who has refused to deal Malhotra in a package for Pavel Bure and when other teams have demanded he be included (Carolina, for instance, immediately asked for Malhotra when discussing the available Keith Primeau), had a different assessment.

“Whether or not (Muckler) feels whatever he’ll be down the road, it’s irrelevant,” Smith said. “But if the GM, who is tailoring the organization, feels that’s all the player can do for the organization, that’s different.”

Smith mentioned that he believes Malhotra will evolve into a second-liner, and in the past Malhotra’s potential has drawn comparisons to that of Philadelphia’s Rod Brind’Amour, an all-around guy who can play offense and defense. Malhotra is bigger and a better skater than Brind’Amour.

“I think his potential is, in the peak of his career, I envision a 35-goal scorer,” Smith said. `When he’s 26 or 27, I envision 35 goals, a two-way player, a clubhouse leader and a captain or assistant captain.”

Carpiniello, Rick. “Rangers coach, GM disagree about Malhotra.” USA TODAY, 8 Sep. 1999

The Rangers went through a miserable season, and both Muckler and Smith were fired after seemingly spending most of the year using Malhotra as a ping-pong ball between them. Malhotra, 19 years old at the time, ended up playing just 27 scoreless games before being sent down to Hartford of the AHL and to his junior team in Guelph.

To sum up the next decade, Malhotra ended up being traded to Dallas, was lost on waivers to Columbus, signed with San Jose as a free agent, signed with Vancouver, and ended up his last two years between Carolina and Montreal. He topped out as a third-liner, albeit one of the best in the game.

In 2011, as he anchored the Canucks’ third line in the Stanley Cup Final:

BOSTON – Manny Malhotra is a profile in courage, two victories away from winning the first Stanley Cup of his 12-year NHL career, hailed across the continent after returning to the Canucks’ lineup for Saturday’s 3-2 victory in Game 2 of the Final against the Bruins in Vancouver after sustaining a serious eye injury on Mar. 16 that required two surgeries and threatened his career.

He is a symbol of dedication, commitment and professionalism.

But a dozen years ago, Malhotra instead was a symbol of the Rangers organization’s dysfunction through the dark ages in which the team missed the playoffs seven straight times from 1998 into the lockout.

He was a teenager who, after being selected seventh overall in the 1998 Entry Draft, became a political football in the unhealthy triangular relationship between Garden president Dave Checketts, general manager Neil Smith and head coach John Muckler that undermined the cause.

Smith had desperately wanted to showcase Malhotra as evidence of the organization’s commitment to developing youth on a roster that was fraying and graying. But after training camp, the GM realized Malhotra, who had been selected more for his character and work ethic than dazzling offensive numbers and skill, wasn’t ready for the NHL and prepared to send him back to the OHL.

But Checketts, more interested in image and perception than in either his GM’s evaluation or hockey nuts-and-bolts, intervened, overruled Smith and signed Malhotra.

Like it or not, Smith had the 18-year-old on the roster. Like it or not, Muckler had the center in his lineup. When Malhotra played, it was as a spare part. The following season was worse, with Malhotra playing in just 27 games (without a point) before finally returning to Guelph of the OHL in late March.

Brooks, Larry. “CHECK MATE: MALHOTRA HAS FOUND NICHE.” New York Post , 7 Jun. 2011, Sports, p. 061

And then in 2017:

It was training camp of 1998 and Garden management was desperate to show the organization’s youth movement was a reality as opposed to a figment of its imagination in the aftermath of the previous season’s tumble out of the playoff picture that coincided with Mark Messier’s free-agent defection to Vancouver.

That youth movement, such as it was, focused entirely on Manny Malhotra, the 18-year-old center who had been the club’s seventh-overall selection in that June’s draft. It was not entirely clear Malhotra had earned a spot on the club as camp wound down and the signing deadline approached.

Indeed, there was significant sentiment within the organization that Malhotra would benefit more from spending another season in Guelph of the OHL than he would by making the leap to the NHL, even if Wayne Gretzky would be on hand to tutor him.

But Dave Checketts, CEO of the Garden at the time, was so fixated on being able to sell the youth movement that he interceded in contract talks with Malhotra’s representative and overrode general manager Neil Smith in order to get the teenager signed just ahead of the deadline and ensure he would be on the opening roster.

Despite the fact that Malhotra would construct an estimable 16-year NHL career through which he played 991 games, there is little doubt his all-around game would have benefitted from spending his age-18 season in junior hockey. As it was, he became an unfortunate pawn in the distasteful internal battle that would rage for two years between Smith and head coach John Muckler.

Brooks, Larry. “Good & ready? Rangers should only promote teens when they’re prepared.” New York Post, 26 Sep. 2017, Sport, p. 056

At the end of the day, Malhotra played 73 NHL games as an 18-year-old and 27 games as a 19-year-old. But ultimately, this serves as an example of both how not to develop a young player and also one of the pitfalls of blind numbers in any type of analysis. Yes, Malhotra was ready to play in the NHL as an 18-year-old by anchoring the third line and being brought along slowly. No, he was not ready to be elevated into a higher role the next year simply because a beleaguered GM made a stupid comment in response to what he thought was a stupid comment. And for Malhotra, at the time a 19-year-old who had never been referred to as “future 35-goal scorer” even during those heady days in the Memorial Cup in 1998, to be the middle part of a very public tug-of-war between a coach and a GM was inexcusable.

It’s reasonable to assume that someone playing NHL games as an 18- or 19-year-old is of a sufficient skill level at that time to warrant being in the lineup. But it’s not a definite, and it’s not a sign of guaranteed future stardom either.  Connor McDavid and Nail Yakupov have a few things in common: both were 1st overall picks by Edmonton, both went right to the NHL, both shoot left-handed, and neither played a minor league or junior game after being drafted.  Outside of that, they’re not exactly similar players.

In the case of the five expansion teams covered so far, each had players on their first-year roster who had played in NHL games as 18- or 19-year-olds.

  • 1991-92 San Jose Sharks (171 regular season + 5 playoff games)
    Dean Evason – 2 regular season games
    Brian Lawton – 98 regular season + 5 playoff games
    Bob McGill – 68
    Wayne Presley – 3
  • 1992-93 Tampa Bay Lightning (393 regular season + 26 playoff games)
    Mikael Andersson – 32
    Marc Bergevin – 60 + 6
    Alain Cote – 35
    Adam Creighton – 37
    Randy Gilhen – 2
    Mike Hartman – 17
    Steve Kasper – 76 + 3
    Chris Kontos – 44
    Herb Raglan – 69 + 14
    John Tucker – 21 + 3
  • 1992-93 Ottawa Senators (526 regular season + 15 playoff games)
    Dave Archibald – 150 + 5
    Laurie Boschman – 80 + 3
    Mark Freer – 2
    Jody Hull – 60 + 1
    Jim Kyte – 60 + 3
    Andrew McBain – 78 + 3
    Brad Miller – 7
    Rob Murphy – 13
    Sylvain Turgeon – 76
  • 1993-94 Anaheim Mighty Ducks (13 regular season games)
    Bobby Dollas – 1
    Peter Douris – 11
    Jarrod Skalde – 1
  • 1993-94 Florida Panthers (235 regular season games + 16 playoff games)
    Brian Benning – 4 + 6
    Keith Brown – 76 + 6
    Joe Cirella – 67
    Randy Gilhen – 2
    Jeff Greenlaw – 22
    Greg Hawgood – 1 + 3
    Jody Hull – 60 + 1
    Scott Mellanby – 2
    John Vanbiesbrouck – 1

I’m going to be honest and say that this actually surprises me.  I’d have expected Florida to be leading the way, particularly since they had four defensemen who combined for something like 2,400 games of NHL experience to that point without any minor league or late junior/college games to their names.  I’d have also expected Ottawa to have been much lower than this.

Regardless, it’s here and pretty unmistakeable.  So what could possibly lead to this?

I don’t think it’s possible to truly know, but I can toss a couple of reasonable theories out there.

The first one is that a lot of these players were going to bad teams and earned a longer look in training camp than they might have with a more successful franchise.  There are 35 players who are listed above who played NHL games as an 18- or 19-year-old, and we see two things: only 13 of them played in a playoff game during those years, meaning that 22 did not.  (This is also during the years of the 21-team NHL, when only 5 teams missed out on the postseason.)   We also see a lot of small numbers for the number of games played.  20 of these players appeared in 40 or fewer games, which is half of a regular season during this period of time.

The second one is that these were simply names that popped out when they were available, whether in the expansion draft or on the waiver wire or in the free agent market.  We all have a natural tendency to buy into the expertise of the experts, and when the name of a former top prospect who’s still in his 20s becomes available, it’s very easy to bridge the gap of time and situation mentally.   If he was a hot prospect five or six years ago and is available today, why?  He didn’t forget how to play hockey, and the whole world of scouts and GMs couldn’t possibly miss the boat that badly.  He just needs a different situation, a different coach, a different front office…if he needs a change of scenery, we can be that change and he’ll really break through and produce for us.

A player who was highly-regarded coming into the league will normally be given more – and better – chances down the road than someone who didn’t come in with as much hype.  The guy who was taken 6th overall and hasn’t broken through will end up being claimed on waivers, or traded for, or signed as a free agent.  The 6th-rounder who hasn’t broken through will end up deciding whether he wants to try to continue his career in the Swiss League or in the German League, but that’s about it.

There is a third theory, which is that the actual draft structures in 1991 and 1992 led to a need to take almost anyone who’d actually played in the NHL and had some amount of promise – no matter how remote the chance would be that they would ever fulfill it.  I have been extremely critical of the actual expansion draft process that did incoming San Jose, Tampa Bay, and Ottawa exactly zero favors when entering the league.  It was a joke, just an absolute joke, the way in which the established teams were more or less allowed to set their own rules for the expansion draft while leaving the incoming teams to have to do everything right in order to not be completely embarrassed.  If it weren’t for some unusually astute scouting and a lot of luck, it’s very possible that San Jose would have gone their first decade without ever hitting the .500 mark in a season.  It only took until ther ninth year to hit .500 anyway.

Year Three

Consider this.  When San Jose made the playoffs in their third year, the roster had transitioned from what they had in their first year into one anchored by:

  • Arturs Irbe – a 10th-round pick of Minnesota, taken by San Jose in the 1991 Dispersal Draft
  • Tom Pederson – an 11th-round pick of Minnesota, taken in the Dispersal Draft
  • Doug Zmolek -another Dispersal Draft claim
  • Rob Gaudreau – another Dispersal Draft claim
  • Rob Zettler – another Dispersal Draft claim
  • Jeff Norton – acquired for a future 3rd-round pick from the Islanders, who would have likely lost him in the 1993 Expansion Draft for nothing
  • Gaetan Duchesne – like Norton, acquired for a draft pick from a team (Dallas) that likely would have lost him in the 1993 Expansion Draft for nothing
  • Sandis Ozolinsh – a 2nd-round draft choice, taken with a pick that was acquired from Minnesota in exchange for not taking a particular player (likely Mike Craig) in the Dispersal Draft
  • Michal Sykora – a 6th-round pick of San Jose in 1992
  • Ray Whitney – San Jose’s 2nd-round pick in 1991
  • Vlastimil Kroupa – San Jose’s 2nd-round pick in 1993
  • Mike Rathje – San Jose’s 1st-round pick in 1992
  • Dale Craigwell – San Jose’s 10th-round pick in 1991
  • Sergei Makarov – acquired from Hartford as part of a trade involving a lot of draft picks and that allowed the Whalers to take Chris Pronger
  • Todd Elik – another former North Star, but he was actually a waiver claim in 1993
  • Igor Larionov – another waiver claim
  • Johan Garpenlov – acquired from Detroit for Bob McGill
  • Ulf Dahlen – acquired from Dallas for Zmolek and Lalor
  • Shawn Cronin,  aka “Cronin the Barbarian” – acquired for cash
  • Bob Errey – signed as a free agent
  • Jeff Odgers – signed as a free agent
  • Jamie Baker – signed as a free agent
  • Mike Lalor – signed as a free agent
  • Jayson More – Expansion Draft selection

Broken down by method:

  • Five Dispersal Draft claims (Irbe, Pederson, Zmolek, Gaudreau, Zettler)
  • Six draft picks of San Jose (Whitney, Ozolinsh, Sykora, Kroupa, Rathje, Craigwell)
  • Three trade pickups (Makarov, Garpenlov, and Dahlen)
  • Two trade vultures (Norton and Duchesne; both would have been lost in the 1993 Expansion Draft and were instead traded to draft-exempt San Jose at a very cheap price)
  • Two waiver claims (Elik and Larionov)
  • One trade pickup for cash (Cronin the Barbarian)
  • Four free agent signings (Errey, Odgers, Baker, Lalor)
  • One Expansion Draft selection (More)

San Jose would not have been a playoff team in 1993-94 without acquiring a lot of players who were able to step right in and produce.  Arguably the two biggest stars were Irbe and Ozolinsh, who also happened to be the first Latvian NHL stars.  (Yes, Helmuts Balderis played with the North Stars a couple years prior.  He was 37 when he came over, and wasn’t exactly counted on to lead his team for years to come.)

But to make the playoffs in their third year meant that nine of the ten Expansion Draft selections that the Sharks had made were gone.  Even then, it took late-career revivals and unexpected breakthroughs to get there at all.  I don’t think anyone expected 30 goals out of a 35-year-old Makarov, or 25 goals and 66 points out of Elik, or 26 goals and 64 points out of a 21-year-old defenseman in Ozolinsh (with 22 of those being even-strength goals), or a Latvian goalie in Irbe to become an All-Star while leading the NHL in minutes played.

(I should note that I only refer to Irbe as “Latvian goalie” because, despite what may be said today, there absolutely was a dominant school of thought that Europeans could not be good NHL goalies for anything except random flashes.  The late Pelle Lindbergh was seen as the exception that proved the rule; too many believed that Hardy Astrom and Jiri Crha and Sergei Mylnikov and Hannu Kamppuri were exactly what Europe could produce.  I’m not defending this viewpoint as the right one, just pointing out that this was the prevailing widespread belief.  1993-94 was the beginning of a shift in attitude, as Irbe backstopped the Sharks into the playoffs and Dominik Hasek played at a level that few thought possible.)

San Jose took 24 players in the Dispersal Draft, then 10 more in the Expansion Draft.  Of the 34 players that were acquired, six played anything resembling a regular role in the Sharks’ third-year playoff team.  Only four of them actually suited up in a playoff game that year – Irbe, Gaudreau, Pederson, and More.

The 1993 expansion process that stocked Anaheim and Florida was a much different story, which is how Anaheim had 71 points in their first year and Florida 83 (compared to 53 for Tampa Bay and 24 for Ottawa just one year prior).

Ultimately, that’s what the pre-Bettman expansion is really all about.  It’s about a league that set up expansion drafts using a set of parameters so onerous, and so obscenely stupid, that the incoming teams could only hope to have success once the vestiges of the Expansion Drafts were all but gone.  It’s appalling, just a terrible way to run a league and an expansion process.

(I was originally not planning on making this a two-part series, but since I’m at over 11,000 words, that’s what this will become.  Part Two will focus on the Bettman-era expansions that stocked Nashville, Atlanta, Minnesota, Columbus…and Vegas.)

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