The Way It Was, or “What Do You Mean the Past Isn’t Always Sunshine and Unicorns?”

Originally my plan was to go through and assess each of the 1991, 1992, and 1993 expansion drafts individually.  This was scrapped for a multitude of reasons.

The first is that the rules for each of these were entirely different.  1991 treated expansion San Jose as a reincarnation of the Cleveland Barons, who had merged with the Minnesota North Stars in 1978.  The 1991 expansion draft thus involved Minnesota protecting a handful of players, letting San Jose select the same number of players from their unprotected list, and then dividing up the remaining players and prospects in the North Stars’ system.  This was then followed by a small expansion draft that saw 10 players added to each team.  Obviously, this isn’t going to happen.

1993’s expansion draft was the framework for the later 1998, 1999, and 2000 expansion drafts, but didn’t serve much of a purpose because it was over 20 years ago.  Every player involved has retired, and trying to go that far back in time mentally as a GM was too taxing to make it a reasonable project.  There have been too many things that have taken place that have undoubtedly tainted my memory to at least some extent, so it wouldn’t be doing anything except maybe showing off what I can remember.  And there’s not really any point to that endeavor.

1992, however, is good for a more general overview because there’s a lot that can be gleaned from all angles around it.  The 1998, 1999, and 2000 drafts are more relevant than 1993, but there’s plenty from 1992 and its unique circumstances that are important to this day.  So I’m focusing on this as we go through the 1992 expansion draft.

The expansion process that brought Ottawa and Tampa Bay into the NHL’s fold is, to me, a perfect example of what “the old NHL” was all about.  It was a hastily-assembled series of circumstances that involved a poorly-led league trying (unsuccessfully) to rein in more powerful interests from within, a slapdash circus with conditions and promises that seemed to change by the minute and were arbitrarily enforced.  Potential expansion teams were told that there were to be no temporary arenas, and that all expansion fees were to be paid in full; both cities that were awarded franchises would see their team play in temporary arenas and a myriad of funding and financing issues that threatened the ability to continue going on a year-to-year basis.  Shady financials, political infighting, lawsuits and threats of lawsuits…it was all just a huge circus.

But for the expansion draft, all of this would be put aside at least temporarily, and the business of putting together the first-year team would begin in earnest.  Tampa Bay was led by Hall of Famer Phil Esposito, Ottawa by former player and first overall pick Mel Bridgman.  Esposito had stayed in hockey as a coach, general manager, and broadcaster since his retirement; Bridgman studied business and picked up an MBA from Wharton before being named to head the expansion Senators.

The rules for the draft were as basic as possible, and as atrocious for the new expansion teams as could be fathomed.  Existing NHL teams could protect 14 skaters and 2 goalies, and all first- and second-year pro players were exempt.  The teams had to expose:

  • At least one goalie with 60 minutes of NHL experience
  • At least one defenseman with either 40 games played the year prior (1991-92) OR 70 games over the preceding two seasons (1990-91 and 1991-92)
  • At least one forward with either 40 games played the year prior (1991-92) OR 70 games over the preceding two seasons

If a team had lost a goalie to San Jose or Minnesota in 1991, they were exempt from losing one in 1992; if they lost a defenseman in 1991, they were exempt from losing one.  As an expansion team the year prior, San Jose was exempt from losing anyone in the expansion draft.

Both Tampa and Ottawa would pick 12 forwards, 7 defensemen, and 2 goalies; each team was capped at being allowed to select only one pending free agent.

Now, let’s play a game called “find the loopholes”.  If you remember your history or have a sharp mind, chances are that you’ve spotted a handful as it is.  And most people don’t get to an NHL front office without having a sharp mind, or at least being able to lean on someone who does have one.

First is the goalie loophole.  Knowing well in advance that there was going to be a stipulation for experienced goalies in the looming expansion draft, both Calgary and Chicago signed a goalie in 1991-92 for the sole purpose of playing him in one game and then leaving him unprotected months later.  For both Scott Sharples and Ray LeBlanc, this would prove to be their only career NHL game.  Toronto picked up Jarmo Myllys from San Jose for future considerations to leave him unprotected, and Washington signed Steve Weeks for his NHL experience…and to leave him as the lone unprotected goalie.  All told, the goalie crop for the 1992 expansion draft features almost nothing of value at all.

Second is the defenseman loophole.  Teams who had lost a defenseman the year prior couldn’t lose one in 1992, so these teams, given the chance to protect fourteen skaters with all their defensemen exempt, simply loaded up their protected list with forwards, leaving only the dregs of the roster and farm system unprotected.  This meant that seven existing teams were presenting almost nothing of value at all.

Third is that by allowing existing teams to protect a total of 14 skaters in general, they were able to protect their top three lines, top two defensive pairings, plus an extra skater and have all their first- and second-year pros exempt as well.  But that’s just an average; teams that had deep defensive groups could protect everyone and still only lose a meager forward, and teams with deep forward groups could protect everyone and only lose a middling defenseman.  And if there was a middling player that they wanted to keep, there were always free agents out there, or other teams eager to stash a couple of their players elsewhere.

Fourth is that by only allowing the expansion teams to select one pending free agent, it meant that the existing teams could simply expose a lot of them in addition to their handful of mediocre minor-leaguers.

I’m convinced that, just on the unprotected list in 1998, I could assemble a Predators team that would at least contend for the playoffs.  This is obviously with the benefit of hindsight and the assumption that every drafted player (including pending UFAs) would sign, which is hopelessly unrealistic.  1999 would be tougher, but doable.  2000 would be tough as well.  But 1992 is simply impossible.  And more to the point, 1992 would be impossible to put together a playoff team even if it was only one team selecting players instead of two.  The unprotected lists are an abomination, plain and simple.  The best-case scenario would be to put together a team that might finish one spot out of the basement in the division, then add help in the waiver draft.

There’s a simple lesson here: when it gets down to it, existing teams will look out for their own self-interest more than anything.

The expansion draft turned up little for either team.  Out of 42 players, 9 would never play an NHL game after that 1992-93 season, and 14 more would be done just one year later.  Out of these 42 players, 23 were done in the NHL for good just two seasons later.  Just six players would play more than 250 games after the expansion draft: Brian Bradley, Shawn Chambers, Rob DiMaio, Tim Hunter, Mike Peluso, and Joe Reekie.

The unquestioned top player out of this expansion draft was Brian Bradley, liberated from Toronto.  He would play 328 games with the Lightning, putting up 111 goals and 300 points.  And he was the 36th player taken in that expansion draft.

This wasn’t a mere case of widespread bad luck.  Phil Esposito’s book Thunder and Lightning: A No-BS Hockey Memoir contains the inside story from Tampa’s then-GM.

The pickings were slim.  The established teams were allowed to protect eighteen players and two goalies – in other words, anyone who was any good.  For fifty million dollars, we were getting hosed.  We were being allowed to buy fourth-line offensive players and seventh and eighth defensemen.  We dissected the rosters and predicted who was going to be exposed, and we were 99 per cent right.  It was amazing how close we were – unfortunately.  We went around the room drafting players and talking about them.  We would get to the eleventh or twelfth player, and the scouts would say, “There is nothing here to draft.”

I tried to make deals before the draft.  I called every team in the league to try to trade my draft picks for existing players…Not a single team would trade with me.  Not one.

Esposito’s book has quite a few errors, both chronological and otherwise.  But I believe that this happened as it was written.  The unprotected lists were garbage.

However, I believe I could make an argument that Ottawa actually came out of the expansion draft with a better overall team than Tampa Bay did.  This is despite the fact that Ottawa didn’t bother viewing the official final unprotected list and then didn’t keep track of the draft in progress, leading to situations where they thrice tried to draft ineligible players; they were outwitted badly by the Rangers in a pre-arranged trade; and they didn’t have access to their own internal list after failing to bring batteries for Mel Bridgman’s laptop.

Yet the Lightning would finish that first 1992-93 season with 53 points and a -87 goal differential, compared to 24 points and a -193 goal differential for the Senators.

Why?

I believe it’s a very simple answer: Bridgman and Ottawa were largely content to stand pat with what the expansion draft yielded, while Esposito and Tampa were extremely aggressive.  Knowing Esposito, he probably looked at assistant coach and longtime friend Wayne Cashman at one point in late June and said, “This roster is horseshit, and we’re going to fix it one way or another.  Get the scouts and everyone together so we can figure out who we’re going after.”

Ottawa ran the whole season with their expansion draft goalies, Tampa Bay had two different ones within 24 hours of the expansion draft (trading just-drafted Frederic Chabot for J.C. Bergeron, and then getting Pat Jablonski in another trade).  Before the entry draft took place, Tampa picked up Cory Cross out of the supplemental draft, then signed Mikael Andersson as a free agent and got Danton Cole in a trade for future considerations.  Cole and Andersson would finish tied for 10th in scoring on the Lightning that first year.

The Lightning weren’t done by any means.  In July they added Marc Bergevin and Rob Zamuner as free agents to begin the month, then Chris Kontos at the end.  August brought John Tucker into the fold, and then Adam Creighton arrived via the waiver draft in a pre-arranged deal with the Islanders.  Then Marc Bureau came in by a regular waiver claim.  All told, four of the Lightning’s top five scorers in that first season came by means other than the expansion draft.  From June 1 1992 to June 30 1993, Tampa Bay made 20 trades.

Ottawa, on the other hand, made 11 trades, most of them extremely minor.  They had a big waiver claim in defenseman Norm Maciver, who would lead the Senators in scoring that first year, but outside of that (and a trade for Bob Kudelski) everything came right back to the expansion draft.

The end result of all of this was entirely predictable.  In their first four years, the Lightning would garner 249 out of a possible 596 points (.4177 percentage), which would put them on pace for 68.5 points in an 82-game season.  Ottawa would get 125 of a possible 596 points for an atrocious .2097 point percentage; this is 34.4 points on an 82-game season.  Since the NHL-WHA merger in 1979, Ottawa’s average from their first four years is right on par with all of the worst single-season teams.  1999-00 Atlanta would have 39 points in their first year; 1980-81 Winnipeg had 32 points (in 80 games); 1983-84 Pittsburgh and New Jersey, who were clearly not trying to win games at all, finished with 38 and 41 points, respectively.

Of course, the irony of it all is that beginning in the fifth year of Ottawa and Tampa, the fortunes would reverse completely.  Ottawa would make the playoffs not just that year, but each of the ten seasons afterward.  Tampa would collapse as ownership and front office instability gutted the franchise from top to bottom, and they would miss the playoffs each of the next six seasons.  Yet rock bottom for them, the 1997-98 through 2000-01 campaigns that saw the Lightning fail to hit 60 points a single time, was still better than Ottawa’s first four years.  If you were to take each team’s worst four teams and combine them onto one list, Ottawa would hold all four of the bottom spots.

When Tampa made the playoffs for the first time in 1995-96, they dressed a total of 23 players in their first-round series.  How they were acquired is broken down as such:

  • Signed as free agents (Mikael Andersson, John Cullen, Bill Houlder, Rudy Poeschek, John Tucker, Rob Zamuner)
  • Acquired in trade (Brian Bellows, Shawn Burr, Petr Klima, Michel Petit, Patrick Poulin, Daren Puppa*, Jeff Reese, Alexander Selivanov, David Shaw, Igor Ulanov, Paul Ysebaert)
  • Supplemental draft (Cory Cross)
  • Entry draft (Aaron Gavey, Chris Gratton, Roman Hamrlik, Jason Wiemer)
  • Expansion draft (Brian Bradley)

If you’re counting at home, that’s six free agents, eleven trade pickups, one supplemental draft pick, four entry draft picks, and one expansion draft pick.  This came in just the team’s fourth season.

Of Tampa Bay’s 21 expansion draft picks:

  • Two were traded without playing a game (Frederic Chabot, Tim Hunter)
  • Three never played a game (Jeff Bloemberg, Bob McGill, Dan Vincelette)
  • Ten didn’t play in Tampa after 1992-93 (Doug Crossman, Mike Hartman, Steve Maltais, Basil McRae, Michel Mongeau, Keith Osborne, Rob Ramage, Anatoli Semenov, Shayne Stevenson, Peter Taglianetti)
  • Six played with the team in 1993-94 (Tim Bergland, Brian Bradley, Shawn Chambers, Rob DiMaio, Joe Reekie, Wendell Young)

Just six out of twenty-one expansion draft picks were still with the team just one year later, as the Lightning improved to 71 points in the standings.

Bradley and several other players who formed the backbone of Tampa’s first playoff team can prove a lesson as well.  Skilled players given ice time can produce way more than otherwise thought possible.  Established teams unable to work someone into the regular lineup will tend to focus on what that player can’t do rather than on what he can do.  He might be an inch or two smaller, or a half-step too slow, or have a shot that couldn’t break a pane of glass at five paces.  But on expansion teams that don’t have the luxury of acquiring elite talent, certain types of players can produce big-time when they’re leaned on.

But we need to compare this to Ottawa.  Of the Senators’ 21 draft picks:

  • One was traded without playing a game (Chris Lindberg)
  • One never played a game (John Van Kessel)
  • Twelve didn’t play in Ottawa after 1992-93 (Blair Atcheynum, Laurie Boschman, Mark Freer, Ken Hammond, Lonnie Loach, Dominic Lavoie, Jeff Lazaro, Brad Miller, Rob Murphy, Mike Peluso, Peter Sidorkiewicz, Jim Thomson)
  • Seven played with the team in 1993-94 (Mark Laforest, Mark Lamb, Darcy Loewen, Kent Paynter, Darren Rumble, Brad Shaw, Sylvain Turgeon)

Of these, only Darren Rumble and Sylvain Turgeon played through the end of the 1994-95 season with Ottawa, and neither played another game there again.  All expansion draft players were gone within three seasons.

When Ottawa made the playoffs for the first time in 1996-97, their roster breakdown was as follows.  Of the 20 players who suited up, they came to the team by being:

  • Signed as free agents (Phil Crowe, Randy Cunneyworth, Steve Duchesne, Bruce Gardiner, Denny Lambert, Shawn McEachern, Lance Pitlick, Ron Tugnutt, Sergei Zholtok) – 9
  • Acquired in trade (Tom Chorske*, Janne Laukkanen, Wade Redden, Shaun Van Allen, Jason York) – 5
  • Taken in entry draft (Daniel Alfredsson, Radim Bicanek, Radek Bonk, Andreas Dackell, Alexandre Daigle, Alexei Yashin) – 6
  • Taken in expansion draft (none) – 0

Obviously this isn’t a clean comparison to Tampa; we looked at their fourth-year roster and at Ottawa’s fifth year.

However, let’s do a comparison to Florida, which suited up 24 players in their improbable run to the Stanley Cup Final in 1995-96.  This was in their third year of existence, and Florida’s expansion draft was set up much differently than the 1991 and 1992 atrocities.

  • Signed as free agents (Terry Carkner, Jody Hull, Jason Woolley) – 3
  • Acquired in trade (Stu Barnes, Johan Garpenlov, Ray Sheppard, Geoff Smith) – 4
  • Claimed off waivers (Martin Straka) – 1
  • Entry draft (Radek Dvorak, Ed Jovanovski, Rob Niedermayer, Robert Svehla, Rhett Warrener, Steve Washburn) – 6
  • Expansion draft (Tom Fitzgerald, Mark Fitzpatrick, Mike Hough, Paul Laus, Bill Lindsay, Dave Lowry, Scott Mellanby, Gord Murphy, Brian Skrudland, John Vanbiesbrouck) – 10

Hull was acquired extremely early on as an offseason free agent signing in 1993 (before Florida ever hit the ice), and both Barnes and Smith were acquired in the first two months of Florida’s inaugural season.

And of their expansion draft picks (Phase II losses removed completely):

  • Traded without playing a game (Milan Tichy) – 1
  • Never played a game (Steve Bancroft, Gord Hynes, Marc LaBelle, Pete Stauber) – 4
  • Didn’t play on Florida after 1993-94 (Doug Barrault, Randy Gilhen, Alexander Godynyuk, Scott Levins) – 4
  • Played with the team in 1994-95 (Jesse Belanger, Joe Cirella, Tom Fitzgerald, Mark Fitzpatrick, Mike Hough, Paul Laus, Bill Lindsay, Andrei Lomakin, Dave Lowry, Scott Mellanby, Gord Murphy, Stephane Richer, Brian Skrudland, John Vanbiesbrouck) – 14

Florida had 14 expansion draft picks play with the team in their second year.  That first-year team finished with 83 points, just one point out of a playoff spot.  This clearly shows exactly how much of a difference there was in available talent between the 1992 and 1993 expansion drafts.  Florida’s second year featured more expansion draft picks carrying over than Ottawa’s and Tampa’s second-year teams combined, after Florida’s first year team racked up more points in the standings than Ottawa’s and Tampa’s first-year teams combined.

Of course, Florida wasn’t the only expansion team in 1993-94.  Anaheim was part of the club now too, and their 24 drafted players (with Phase II losses removed):

  • Traded without playing a game – 0
  • Never played a game (Trevor Halverson) – 1
  • Didn’t play on Anaheim after 1993-94 (Robin Bawa, Sean Hill, Bill Houlder, Alexei Kasatonov, Lonnie Loach, Troy Loney, Jarrod Skalde, Jim Thomson, Ron Tugnutt, Terry Yake) – 10
  • Played with the team in 1994-95 (Bob Corkum, Bobby Dollas, Mark Ferner, Stu Grimson, Guy Hebert, Steven King*, Randy Ladouceur, Joe Sacco, Anatoli Semenov, Tim Sweeney, David Williams) – 11

Anaheim made the playoffs for the first time in their fourth year, the 1996-97 season.  The 24 players that suited up came to the team in the following ways:

  • Signed as free agents (Jari Kurri, Sean Pronger, Warren Rychel, Dan Trebil) – 4
  • Acquired in trade (Ken Baumgartner, Brian Bellows, JJ Daigneault, Ted Drury, Mark Janssens, Dave Karpa, Jason Marshall, Dmitri Mironov, Richard Park, Teemu Selanne, Darren Van Impe, ) – 11
  • Claimed off waivers (Kevin Todd) – 1
  • Entry draft (Paul Kariya, Mikhail Shtalenkov) – 2
  • Expansion draft (Bobby Dollas, Guy Hebert, Mike LeClerc, Igor Nikulin, Joe Sacco) – 5
  • Supplemental draft (Steve Rucchin) – 1

This is how much of an impact the structure of the expansion draft can make.  The 1991 and 1992 draft formats were drawn up by the old guard and led by former league presidents John Ziegler and Gil Stein; the 1993 and later drafts, which were much more fruitful, came after Gary Bettman took over.

Hockey has a rich history and a glorious tradition.  But to me, the 1991 and 1992 expansion drafts perfectly crystallize everything that was wrong with the old league, and the seismic shift that took place with the 1993 expansion draft marked the beginning not so much of a modernization, but of simple common sense beginning to take hold.

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