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GRINDSTONE LAKE… The NHL All Star Game has come and gone and this evening the road to the Stanley Cup is about to get tuned up about 100 notches. And wonder of wonders, one of the leading contenders is an expansion team! Yup. An expansion team. This is no ordinary expansion team though. Back in 1966-67, when I was a young punk in 7th grade, the National Hockey League had voted to expand from the “Original Six” to 12 teams by granting new franchises to 6 cities. Of course, living in St. Paul at the time and with a less than 10-minute ride out to the site where the new Minnesota club would play had me jumping for joy. This was as good of a news story that a young hockey lover could get.
The expansion fee back then was $2mil per club and in the ensuing expansion draft each player had a $50k price tag attached to them. Our team would be known as the Minnesota North Stars and in time we had a fully stocked roster and competition would commence with the 1967-68 NHL season. It was generally accepted that the expansion teams would be challenged to compete with the original six clubs, so they were placed into their own division. The playoffs were also revamped to ensure that one of the expansion teams would end up with a spot in the Stanley Cup Final. The theories regarding competitive edge came to fruition as the St. Louis franchise was the first expansion club to get into a Cup Final, and two more after that, but were promptly swept on all three occasions. They haven’t been to a Cup Final since.
Much has changed in the World of Hockey since those days. The league has had several more expansions adding 18 more teams for a total of 30. This season, in a single team expansion, the league has welcomed in the first major league sports club to be based in Las Vegas, now known as the Vegas Golden Knights, or more simply the Vegas Knights taking the number of clubs to 31. The expansion fee to the league was a cool $500mil. An expansion draft was held, the first ever in the NHL salary cap era, and the rules placed into effect for that were interesting to say the least. The considerations involved regarding protecting players that clubs wanted to hang on to and who to let go of, and the “side deals” made to convince the Knights to not take a certain player in the draft to stock the club were of a nature not seen before in this league. The process that was in place has allowed the Knights to not only begin with what has turned out to be a very surprising and competitively good roster, but they have also stockpiled a number of excellent draft positions by agreeing to lay off of other club’s players that they couldn’t protect in the expansion draft process.
Compared to what other expansion teams have started out with the Knights have commenced operations with the keys to a Mercedes as opposed to the rosters of the past. This has served to cause some rumbling around the league to say the least. I’m speaking of a small number of higher up’s in the league to some players and on down to some fans of other clubs. Was this process and the way it was mapped out too kind and benevolent to the newcomers? That is exactly how some feel. All I can say is that I have been following this team quite a bit due to some of my favorite players making it on to their roster, I am a fan of Head Coach Gerard Gallant and of GM George McPhee and there is a lot to like there. By and large this organization has done a lot of things right to kick off their inaugural season.
Since their home games take place out in the Pacific time zone, I can catch our Wild games and then flip over to the Vegas tilts. My favorite player on their club is netminder Marc Andre Fleury. This guy is not only a top-level goalie, he is an even better person. Even when his former club, the Pittsburgh Penguins, anointed current goaltender Matt Murray as the new number one out there, Fleury continued forth with his responsibilities to the team, his teammates and fans without missing a beat. I already liked him but the way he handled himself in what was probably a pretty awkward situation brought him even more admiration and a whole new group of fans. And when Murray was injured at some critical junctures of the season and in the playoffs, Fleury came in to save the day and then some. Could you ever forget his Game 7 shutout of the Washington Capitals in last years SC tourney?
The Knights also feature Minny homeboys Nate Schmidt, former Wild Center Erik Haula, and Grand Rapids native Jake Bischoff. (currently in the AHL) They also have former Wild high-end prospect Alex Tuch. All 3 players are prospering out in the desert. But here is my catch, if you listen to the players, and if you follow their in-game marketing themes and so on, they are all billing themselves as “castoffs”. That’s right. The team and the players pretty much all view themselves as beings that their former teams or rights holders no longer wanted. Is that true? I mean, this club had the most points in the league for a couple of days in the very recent past. Is this just a nifty bit of coach-speak-sports motivation going on here? It is in my view. Is Fleury a “castoff”? James Neal? Jonathan Marchesault? Are you kidding me?
What has really occurred here is that most of these players found themselves in situations where their former clubs, due to a combo platter of salary and contract matters deemed that these were the players that were expendable, that they HAD to expose to the expansion draft. They most likely didn’t have a choice for one reason or another. Haula would still look good in a Wild sweater right about now and Tuch would have made it hard for the Wild brass to keep him off the big roster another year. The Knights are going to win the Pacific, and many see them in the West Finals. Castoffs? Yeah, right…. PEACE
NEXT WEEK; The Winter Olympics kickoff in South Korea and let’s get caught up on the Minnesota Wild. Can they make their mark in this last stretch to the playoffs? OVER & OUT!