For the 1967-68 season, the National Hockey League doubled its number of teams. The teams that are today fondly called The Original Six–Detroit Red Wings, Chicago Black Hawks*, New York Rangers, Boston Bruins, Montreal Canadiens, and Toronto Maple Leafs–were joined by six new teams**.
*They weren’t the Blackhawks until 1986.
**One of the new teams, the Oakland Seals, is the last major North American professional sports team (outside of Major League Soccer) to contract.
To ensure the new teams’ fans kept interest, the NHL placed the six original teams in one conference and the newbies in another, thus ensuring that one of the expansion teams would make the Stanley Cup finals.
And so the St. Louis Blues made the first of three consecutive trips to the Stanley Cup in the team’s inaugural season.
Against the Canadiens that first season, the Blues were swept.
Against the Canadiens the following season, the Blues were swept.
Against the Bruins the third season, the Blues were swept.
And the St. Louis Blues have not returned to the Stanley Cup since.
Now, fifty years later, after only one game, the Vegas Golden Knights already have more wins in the Stanley Cup finals than the Blues. The Blues just wrapped the franchise’s 50th season. Vegas just wrapped their first.
And this time, an expansion team playing for Lord Stanley’s Cup is no gimmick. The Golden Knights were not dumped into a conference that had only a bunch of other new teams to make sure that one of them made it to the finals. No, this time, the Golden Knights toppled veteran, proven teams such as the Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks.
In 2018–unlike 1968–the expansion team playing for the league’s title is legit.
Make no mistake: what Vegas is doing is unprecedented. No team has won a league championship in major North American sports* history in its first year. Hell, no team has even made it that far. And from looking at the number of teams discussed below, only one recent expansion team** has ever won a championship after starting operations with an expansion draft***.
*Leagues examined: MLB, NBA, NFL, NHL, MLS.
**From 1995 until 2018.
***This excludes the Baltimore Ravens, who, while viewed as an expansion team, did not begin operations with an expansion draft.
Now, to really appreciate what the Golden Knights have accomplished, let’s take a look at recent expansion teams in the MLB, NBA, NFL, NHL and MLS, how each fared that initial season, and how each has fared in the years since.
Major League Baseball
Arizona Diamondbacks, 1998
Tampa Bay Devil Rays, 1998
Neither the Diamondbacks nor the Devil Rays did much in 1998: Arizona went 65-97 while Tampa Bay went 63-99. Beginning the following season, the organizations would diverge on strikingly different paths.
In the desert, the Diamondbacks, boosted by the free agent signing of Randy Johnson, won 100 games, winning the National League West by a whopping 14 games over the Giants. That year, however, ended with a quick playoff exit. But in 2001, just the team’s fourth season of existence, the Diamondbacks defeated the New York Yankees in the World Series.
On the bay, the Devil Rays would go on to post losing seasons every year through 2007. At that point, Tampa Bay dropped the “Devil” from the team nickname, and promptly won the pennant in 2008 before falling to the Phillies in the World Series.
National Basketball Association
Vancouver Grizzlies, 1995-1996
Toronto Raptors, 1995-1996
Charlotte Bobcats, 2004-2005
The NBA’s venture into Canada, beginning in 1995-1996, didn’t start well. That first year, the Grizzlies managed only a 15-67 record while the Raptors didn’t fare much better, going 21-61. While the Raptors would make the playoffs in the 1999-2000 season, the Grizzlies wouldn’t reach the post-season until 2003-2004. And by that point, the franchise was in its third year in Memphis, Tennessee.
Just shy of a decade later, the Charlotte Bobcats came into existence, managing an 18-64 record. The team would finally post a winning record in 2009-2010, but this Charlotte organization–re-branded as the Hornets before 2014-2015–still has yet to make it out of the first round of the playoffs.
Kareem Rush of the Charlotte Bobcats; Getty Images
National Football League
Carolina Panthers, 1995
Jacksonville Jaguars, 1995
Cleveland Browns, 1999
Houston Texans, 2002
The Panthers and the Jaguars both made the playoffs in their second seasons, in 1996, both losing their respective Conference Championship games. Jacksonville would go on to make the playoffs for the next three years while Carolina wouldn’t return to the post-season until 2003, when they made their first of two Super Bowls.
Mark Brunell, QB of the Early Jaguars Teams; Sporting News
Things haven’t gone so well for the other two expansion teams. While the Browns have a storied history, their owner moved the team to Baltimore after the 1995 season, and Cleveland was without football until 1999. That year, the Browns went 2-14. Since then, Cleveland has posted only two winning seasons (2002 and 2007), reaching the playoffs only once (2002).
The Houston Texans began 4-12 in 2002, bottomed out at 2-14 in 2005, and finally posted a winning record in 2009. The franchise’s first playoff berth came in 2011, and three more have followed.
Alas, between these four teams, there are zero Super Bowl titles.
National Hockey League
Nashville Predators, 1998-1999
Atlanta Thrashers, 1999-2000
Minnesota Wild, 2000-2001
Columbus Blue Jackets, 2000-2001
Before the Golden Knights, the previous four NHL expansion teams all suffered horrible first years. Among these four, the Blue Jackets fared the best, posting 71 points on a 28-39-9-6 record. Unsurprisingly, the Atlanta Thrashers (now the second incarnation of the Winnipeg Jets) did the worst, managing only 14 wins and 39 points in 1999-2000.
An Extinct Species: The Atlanta Thrasher; Wikipedia
Until recently, none of these teams had done much since their creations. But last year, the Predators made the Stanley Cup finals while the Thrashers/Jets lost in the Western Conference Finals this year to–wait for it–the Golden Knights.
Though the team hasn’t done much once in the playoffs, the Wild have made it to the post-season six straight years. In Ohio, the Blue Jackets reached the playoffs for consecutive seasons for the first time in franchise history.
Major League Soccer
Orlando City SC, 2015
Minnesota United, 2017
Atlanta United, 2017
The MLS is exploding, having added numerous teams in recent years. For the sake of this article, only the most recent five are being examined.
Of those five, Orlando City SC has done the worst, having never made the MLS playoffs. Minnesota is close behind, missing out last year, and not projected to make it this season, either.
NYCFC‘s first season was a disappointment, but the team rebounded with a winning record in 2016, reaching the playoffs. Currently, the squad is only one point behind the Eastern Conference leaders.
Atlanta, on the other hand, reached the post-season in its first season, losing in the Knockout Round on penalty kicks to Columbus. This year, as of the writing of this article, Atlanta is atop the Eastern Conference standings, and is the front-runner for the Supporters’ Shield.
Then there is the other expansion team currently looking to the make the playoffs in 2018. LAFC is 6-3-3, good for 21 points and sole possession of 2nd place in the Western Conference. While the season is still young, it just may be that the Vegas Golden Knights won’t be the only expansion team in 2018 to make its league’s championship.
Before the Vegas Golden Knights, the Arizona Diamondbacks were the gold standard for expansion teams: draft smart, add a superstar early, and win fairly early. But if Vegas can win three more games against the Washington Capitals, then everything changes. Suddenly, fans in cities that are about to get a team in any league will be pining for ownership to make smart front-office hires, hire the best available coaches, and be ready to pony up the cash from Day One. No longer are teams like the Vancouver Grizzlies or Tampa Bay Devil Rays acceptable. Teams will be expected to compete from the time before they’re even named!
And that is excellent. In the age of tearing-it-down-to-nothing, nothing is better than expecting greatness and competition from the start.
Here’s to the Vegas Golden Knights. Even if they fall to Washington, they’ve forever changed how expansion (and re-building) teams will be viewed.
Las Vegas Review-Journal