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How The NHL Gift-Wrapped A Cup Contender To The Desert: An Analysis on Expansionism

I certainly don't wake up every morning with the intention on being a cynic. But sometimes people like NHL commissioner Gary Bettman come along and make it so damn hard not to be. It would be amazing if my mind could allow me to take the 2018 Vegas Golden Knights at face value: The "feel good" story of yet another tragedy-marred city rallying around its major sports franchise. The captain-less team of discarded talent. Cinderella making it to the Stanley Cup Final in under 250 days of existence. Sorry, I just can't go there. And it's a shame, too. There's not a bigger fan of goaltender, Marc-Andre Fleury.

At present, there are 32 teams in the National Football League, 31 teams in the National Hockey League, and 30 in both Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association. That's 123 if you lost count. With that, there have officially been 71 modern-era "expansion teams" into the four major North American sports leagues (MLB, NFL, NBA, NHL) — 26 in hockey, 18 in basketball, 14 in baseball, 12 in football. Only one, the California Golden Seals of the NHL, outright ceased operations. Technically speaking, their brief California-born, Ohio-raised history still lives inside the current Dallas Stars. But that's a wild story for later in this piece. 

Every other expansion team is playing to this day, in some form or fashion. Many entered and have already been renamed or altogether relocated. Only two can lay claim to joining as an expansion team and changing cities* twice: Kansas City Scouts - Colorado Rockies - New Jersey Devils (NHL), and Buffalo Braves - San Diego Clippers - Los Angeles Clippers (NBA). Talk about some failed market research. 

*The Chicago Packers/Zephyrs - Baltimore/Capital Bullets - Washington Bullets/Wizards of the NBA were not included. The 1973 relocation of Baltimore to Landover (30 miles away) kept the team in Maryland while carrying a "Capital" moniker. A year later, they changed it "Washington" to fully represent the metropolitan area. This means the subsequent move to a downtown D.C. arena (1997) should not be characterized as a city change. 

The rest of the 123 pro teams — the "Original 52" — can trace their lineage back to either charter membership in a extant league (think Cincinnati Reds, Boston Celtics, and Chicago Bears) or absorption into a present-day league from one that is now defunct (think Indiana Pacers, Edmonton Oilers, and Kansas City Chiefs). 

Of the 71 built from whole cloth, the following were the only franchises to ever enter a "Big Four" league all by themselves. Note: The number at the end is the team's winning percentage in their inaugural season:
  • 1925 - New York Giants (NFL) - .666
  • 1953 - Baltimore Colts (NFL) - .250
  • 1960 - Dallas Cowboys (NFL) - .042
  • 1961 - Chicago Packers (NBA) - .225
  • 1961 - Minnesota Vikings (NFL) - .214
  • 1966 - Chicago Bulls (NBA) - .407
  • 1966 - Atlanta Falcons (NFL) - .214
  • 1967 - New Orleans Saints (NFL) - .214
  • 1974 - New Orleans Jazz (NBA) - .280
  • 1980 - Dallas Mavericks (NBA) - .183
  • 1998 - Nashville Predators (NHL) - .346
  • 1999 - Atlanta Thrashers (NHL) - .238
  • 1999 - Cleveland Browns (NFL) - .125
  • 2002 - Houston Texans (NFL) - .250
  • 2004 - Charlotte Bobcats (NBA) - .220
  • 2017 - Vegas Golden Knights (NHL) - .665
Excluded from this group — at my discretion — are the 1991 San Jose Sharks. And here's why: Did they enter that season as the only new team in the NHL? Yes. Were they the only team to take part in a talent-redistribution draft that offseason? No. And this is where it gets fascinating. It's also where the Barons story comes full circle. Certainly not my strength, but I'll try to make this concise: 

Cleveland's own George and Gordon Gund initially held a minority stake in the California [Golden] Seals — officially born from scratch as an NHL club in 1967. From the get-go, the situation never worked in Oakland. Couldn't get an arena deal done in San Francisco. They convinced the majority owner to come "home" to Northeast Ohio in 1976. Called themselves the Cleveland Barons. Limped across the finish line in year one, dead last in their division. 

Financially, nothing was really any better after the move. Rent was "too damn high." Majority owner sold his interest to the Gunds and was out. The brothers tried to inject some into the club the following year, but results were relatively unchanged. After year two in Cleveland (Richfield to be exact), further relocation seemed imminent. But they weren't the only ones in the unstable league with that same problem. Owners in Minnesota were somehow in worse financial trouble and planned to close up shop for good. NHL president John Ziegler agreed to a plan in which the Gunds bought out the North Stars while retaining the Barons. The two rosters would then be merged into a super team — in quantity and not quality. 

The brothers felt Minnesota was the better place to base their amalgam franchise: cheaper arena to operate, deeper hockey roots, longer tenure in their city, etc. Did not have any plans to call the "new" team the Cleve-sota Star Barons like the Philly-Pitt Steagles of 1943 (total missed opportunity if you ask me). The Gunds brought along their team's history and statistics from time spent in Oakland and Cleveland, blended it with anything prior accomplished by Minnesota — who entered the league the same year as the Seals -- and carried on as the North Stars like nothing ever happened. Essentially, it revised history to say the 1967 NHL expansion only brought in five clubs (Penguins, Flyers, Blues, Kings, and North Stars) instead of six. 

The team actually got to the Stanley Cup Final three years later (1981). About this time, the brothers also bought the Cleveland Cavaliers. Not pertinent to this story, but it did save the NBA franchise from moving to Toronto. Fun fact. Times were good, but of course, they didn't last long. They needed out of the money pit that Minnesota had become. Didn't the guy you bought it from want to leave? Why would it be any different for you? Their solution: Back to Northern California. Really? You were just there and it didn't work. You moved twice just end up in the same place? 

Even though it was San Jose this time around, and not San Francisco or Oakland, Ziegler said no to that plan. If they wanted to be in the Bay Area, they had to sell the North Stars to a league-approved owner and submit a bid for an expansion team. In 1990, they did and they did. The North Stars became someone else's problem and the Gunds were granted the San Jose Sharks. Definition of irony: the Sharks played their first two seasons in an arena, called the Cow Palace, that the league deemed unfit for NHL play way back when the Seals hoped to use it. It hadn't gotten any better. But, taking a chance on an upstart Silicon Valley, 14 years after leaving the region, did prove to be the right call. They got a new arena built in 1993 and have won six division titles in the 2000s. 

Also, ditching the North Stars worked out quite well. That team had to move to Dallas in 1993 for a myriad of strange reasons you'd never believe (Anaheim was already promised to Disney so a kid's movie could be marketed, the owner's wife made him move the team due to sexual harassment charges, and there was even a good ol' fashioned Coca-Cola/Pepsi dispute). 

All these crazy, intertwined plots shed light on how volatile the National Hockey League was in the 1970s. They also explain how goaltender Gilles Meloche ranks fifth all-time in Dallas Stars' wins by playing games 250 for California, 105 for Cleveland, and 327 for Minnesota. Told you it was a good story.     

So what does any of this have to do with keeping the 1991 Sharks off the list? Well, since the sale of the North Stars and the assumption of ownership in San Jose were both being brokered by the same group, there needed to be a formal set of checks and balances. The Gunds were entitled to take members of the North Stars' roster they had constructed with them to California, but only after new ownership was given a chance to create a protected player list. Otherwise, San Jose could have run off with all the North Stars' best players (foreshadowing, Cleveland). The teleconference will forever be remembered as the "1991 NHL Dispersal and Expansion Drafts"; the first of its kind in any sport.

Minnesota roped off 14 skaters and two goalies into the untouchable zone. This included a 19 year-old Derian Hatcher and a 21 year-old Mike Modano. The Sharks then had the ability to draw that same quantity away from what was left of the North Stars' organization. After that initial redistribution of wealth, the two teams — now with an equal total of sixteen players to their names — went back-and-forth plucking unprotected players from the league's 20 other teams; traditional two-franchise expansion draft. Ergo,  San Jose never entered the NHL under the same setting as a Nashville or Atlanta, even though they were a solo expansion team. They were undermanned by having to split a talent pool just like so many before. Their inaugural season provided fans with just 17 wins (only 11 in year two), allowing the most goals and scoring the fewest. The ordeal sent a crippling blow to Minnesota as well. A year after appearing in the Stanley Cup Final, they finished with a 32-42-6 record (70 points) and lost in the first round of the 1992 playoffs. 

Meanwhile, in the NFL: The Cleveland Browns make the solo-entrant expansion team list, even though their settlement with Art Modell would have you believe otherwise. When new Cleveland ownership bought back their ancestry from Baltimore, official record keeping had to be fudged as to who was actually entering the league. The Browns had feverishly (and successfully) negotiated that it be known their "Est'd." date was to remain unchanged as 1946 — with a three season hiatus from play. But someone had to account for the expansion NFL experienced in the late '90s. The fallout from that deal is in the archives, on a page the league hopes future generations gloss right over. In their neat and tidy world, our great-grandchildren will accept that the 1996 Baltimore Ravens were the expansion team and not ask further questions. The Browns never moved; simply pushed pause to come back just the same in 1999. It is utterly ridiculous, but look it up. It makes for a hilarious disconnect from reality: Of the 57 guys that dressed for the Browns during their 1995 season, 31 appeared the following year in the purple and black of the Ravens. Talk about an expansion team with an affinity for members of one team in particular. It's like they stole the whole team. These aren't the [Browns] you're looking for. 

I guess we're also supposed to believe the team that just drafted Baker Mayfield first overall is somehow the same organization as the one that joined the NFL in 1950 — as part of a merger with the All-American Football Conference. Okay, whatever you say, Cleveland. And all Germans were on vacation from 1939-45. The Browns 2.0 were clearly the expansion team, from the draft of that same name they took part in (February 9, 1999) to the 2-14 record. I'm not going to allow the NFL to whitewash the ugliness of that franchise relocation, so for this piece, Baltimore is not going to be retroactively labeled as the franchise that popped up out of nowhere.

The 1960 Dallas Rangers (renamed the Cowboys six days after the expansion draft) were a tough call on whether to omit or keep. They were formally accepted into the NFL in January of 1960, meaning they missed out on the opportunity to select any college players. The draft was held on November 30, 1959. With twenty rounds, what could have easily become one-third of their roster went to other teams around the league. Clearly, Dallas remained on my list to bolster the sample size. But their on-field success — or lack thereof (0-11-1) — carries an asterisk.    

Major League Baseball did not have a single franchise make the list. 117 years since the American League and National joined up and never once. And kudos to them for that. Although it doesn't seem like it should be all that hard to achieve. With every sport, there always seems to be a handful of cities that are willing to bend over backwards for a professional league to come their way. From a stability/competitive balance point of view, it makes no sense to disrupt the homeostasis of an even-numbered group of participants. 

As for the NBA, it was constantly course correcting. Most instances of a single expansion team were to get the league back to even numbers after oversteering. Ironically, the 1966 Bulls righted a wrong created by a previous Chicago expansion franchise. The Packers had caused the imbalance of nine in 1961. But their move to Baltimore, three years later, left a void in the Windy City for a new team to make the NBA ten. After a couple more rounds of two-by-two expansion, the new odd number (17) came from 1970's expansion of three: Cleveland Cavaliers, Buffalo Braves, and Portland Trail Blazers. It was four years before the New Orleans Jazz came around to level the conferences.   

Four teams from the American Basketball Association (Indiana, San Antonio, New Jersey, and Denver) were swallowed up in 1976 and brought the total to 22. The league's oversight was in thinking four years was enough time to expand again. Against all better judgment — with a television ratings dip of 26% and 18 clubs losing money the prior year — Dallas and Minneapolis were both awarded expansion bids in 1980. Naturally, Minnesota fell through and the Mavericks entered by themselves. The whole ordeal was rushed and the league was left with 23, a nightmare for the OCD sufferers among us. A second Minneapolis NBA franchise wasn't ready for play until 1989. Worse, 13% of the NBA resided within a 150-mile radius in Texas — that basketball powerhouse state.

Bringing in the Charlotte Hornets and Miami Heat together was "smart", from a traditional tandem perspective. But that 1988 expansion didn't help the odd numbers any. Nor did the one the following year — the aforementioned Minnesota Timberwolves and Orlando Magic. 1995 saw the NBA double down on Canadian franchises, ushering in the short-lived Vancouver Grizzlies and long-overdue Toronto Raptors. Look it up, kids; the first professional basketball game was played in Toronto. It took the league up to 2004 to finally settle on that 30th team, the Charlotte Bobcats.    

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You can see that the Golden Knights are hardly the first to ever join a league by themselves — sixteenth, in fact. So what's my issue with them being good right away, while the others on the list get a pass? Let's first examine why three of them are denoted in bold.

Interestingly, the darkened teams only begin to show up recently on the timeline. That's because a little item known as the "hard" salary cap didn't pop up in the sports vernacular until the mid-1990s. Sure, wage ceilings date all the way back to the Great Depression. Pressures of the financial times forced owners to keep player compensation low. Even the great Babe Ruth took a major pay cut from 1931-1933. But the first league to ever implement a true league-wide sanction on spending was the National Hockey League. 

That same era of MLB belt-tightening forced the NHL to put the bar at $62,500 per team. It was a pool of money that no club could exceed, nor dedicate more than $7,000 to any single player. It was the first legislation of its kind in professional sports. 

Since the Great Depression salary cap of the NHL was necessitated by crisis rather than free will, historians tend to award the first salary cap to the National Basketball Association in 1983. And who spearheaded that initiative? None other than Gary Bettman, then the NBA's third in command — behind commissioner Larry O'Brien (current championship trophy namesake) and executive vice president David Stern (commissioner from 1984-2014). 

That cap was, and still is, "soft" for professional basketball. But it was always the desire of Bettman to get a firmer grasp on wage regulations — those that were unilaterally agreed upon by all franchise owners. In 1994, a decisive precedent was set, that would aid his long-term vision. The National Football league gave the world the first "hard" salary cap. At this point, however, Bettman had lost all authority over what the NBA could negotiate with its players' association. He was wooed into the foreign (for him) world of hockey. In 1993, the league was transitioning from a president-led system to that of a commissioner. They tabbed Bettman as their man and he won the election in a landslide.  

As chief representative of owners' interests, Bettman came in swinging with the idea of a hard salary cap. The NFL "victory" was the wind in his sails. He may not have been able to fully execute it in basketball, but had a new guinea pig in hockey. To Bettman's dismay, he was viewed as too much of an outsider — proposing too many new changes, too early on — to have any measure pass. A labor dispute cost each NHL club 36 games of the 1994-95 season, courtesy of a 104-day lockout. The players were none to pleased to hear that escalating salaries were on the chopping block. The owners were certainly all ears, though. Whenever the time for a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) rolled around, you could bet a cap was going to be high on the wish list.  

Without fail — exactly one decade later — players (and fans) lost all leverage to prevent a salary cap from coming. The entire regular season and playoffs were cancelled in 2004-05; the first year without awarding the Stanley Cup since the 1919 flu epidemic. The inability to display their talents in living rooms across the world left the NHLPA helpless. They had to concede something to owners to get the lights turned back on. Hence the relentless booing that awaits Bettman whenever he makes his annual on-ice appearance to present this year's trophy. It's become a unified, timed-honored tradition of the NHL supporter, no matter which team wins. 

The devastating low point for the sport made conditions ripe for sweeping changes to the league. Most notably, the NHL would return in 2005-06 with not just any type of salary cap, but one that is ironclad with its upper tolerance. The numbers have steadily risen over the years since, but this unwavering system is the same one in place to this day.   

This makes Vegas just the third major professional sports franchise in North American history to enter a league as the one and only expansion team and have a hard salary cap in place. That is huge. That is the piece to this discussion that everyone seems to be skimming past.

True, the Charlotte Bobcats (now Hornets, Part II) did become the NBA's newest franchise under the framework of a salary cap. However, they are not in bold over a key distinction; the league's soft cap grants numerous exemptions on spending for player retention. The NHL's salary cap, or as it is cleverly translated in lawyer prose — the "Upper Limit of the Payroll Range" — has no such wiggle room. There's no "I'll go way over the number and just pay a slap-on-the-wrist luxury tax" like there is in Major League Baseball. This is important to understand as the sports economics go on. 

Why do any of these distinctions matter? Well, when you enter a league as a new club, there's an Expansion Draft. And the salary rules and restrictions of said league will play a really big part in which names gets placed on an existing team's protected list and who is free to leave. 

As we hone in on Vegas, the 2017 Expansion Draft protection lists began to look unlike any in the history of the sport. That's partly because this was the first such draft in the league's history after the adoption of the salary cap. 

I like to examine the team that came up a game or two short of lifting Lord Stanley's Cup in the year before a new franchise entered. The timing of an Expansion Draft has to hurt this organization the most; they were arguably one small piece (or some puck luck) from a title and must forfeit a player instead. In 2017, that team was the Nashville Predators. They initiated the first of many eyebrow-raising offseason decisions that would permeate throughout the league.   

James Neal is a way better offensive talent than Calle Jarnkrok. Don't @ me; that is objective fact. At the time of Vegas' Expansion Draft, Neal — a ten-year veteran — had never not scored 20 or more goals in a season. He was still only 29 years old. In addition, the second-line winger for the reigning Western Conference Champion was a two-time NHL All-Star.  

Jarnkrok's highest goal total of his four prior seasons was 16. By Neal's age 25 season, he had already amassed 254 points. Jarnkrok had 88. So why would Nashville guard against Vegas taking Jarnkrok and expose the rights to Neal? 

The New Paradigm in Sports Business: a $5 million hit to the salary cap is why. That, and only one remaining year on Neal's contract before he hit unrestricted free agency. To lock up talent elsewhere on the payroll, Preadators' general manager David Poile had to dangle a star out there to the league as trade bait — only to watch him join the new Western Conference champions for free. Welcome to the new reality of the National Hockey League. 

If you want to make another deep run at the Cup, do you need a James Neal? Probably. But what do you do if you already know you won't be able to afford him in two years when his contract needs renewed? Without the advent of a hard cap, the Nashvilles of the world are able to hang onto more aces and kings in their hand, discarding the decent-enough 9s and 10s instead.   

So, right off the bat, we have the salary cap effect on an Expansion Draft. Vegas should have a 26 year-old, 16-goal scorer in Calle Jarnkrok and not a three-time All-Star in James Neal. The 2002-03 Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild sure had their fair share of Calle Jarnkroks. 

Nashville was hardly alone in this. The recent protected lists were jokes of obvious salary dumping. It broke the spirit of an Expansion Draft's purest intention — that of talent retention despite stocking up a new team with able bodies. Credit the inception of a salary cap for this exercise ultimately being taken in a different direction by GMs. It is now an amnesty bag of players deemed "unsignable long-term." The protected list gave management the freedom to part company with expensive talent without the same backlash a fan base would expel over a trade. Our hands were tied. We had to give up players to Vegas.

It also helps when you have an incompetent franchise in existence to prey on. Over the course of these playoffs, the casual fan has learned who Jonathan Marchessault is. Now, have those same folks answer the question: "Who is Mark Pysyk?" The former was exposed by the Florida Panthers in the 2017 Expansion Draft, became one of the Knight's alternate captains, bought himself an infamous Lamborghini, and is currently leading Vegas in postseason goals (8) and assists (11). The latter — a six-year veteran defensemen — has only 59 career points to his name, along with a cumulative -23 (with two teams) and a minuscule 0.88 hits per game average. He's not a lock-down blueline defender nor a scorer, which means he was clearly more of a cornerstone piece for the Panthers to hang onto [eye roll]. Unequivocally, Florida filled out their form with the proper intentions of staying competitive now.   

To many in the business, Marchessault was dangled out there as bait. His conditional status on the unprotected list ensured that any selection of him would also include a trade for Reilly Smith. Even though the 26 year-old forward collected 15 goals and 22 assists in his first (and only) season in Florida, the 5 yrs./$25 million about to be triggered in his contract were hardly appetizing to a team desperately trying to shed cap space. In today's NHL, the Entry Draft (the normal one, with college-aged kids) is ten players deep followed by a whole heap of question marks. Places like Florida know the best way to get better is to assure they'll end up in the "sure thing" land (pick 1-10). We give you talent. We throw in an extra player. We'll even throw in a new coach and a few assistants if you need those, too. You give us a measly fourth-round pick. We tank. You win. 

The issues arise when more than a handful of these tanking clubs decide to off load more than one valuable asset in the same Expansion Draft. Dozens of teams steered Vegas to choosing this guy over that guy, all by using additional rostered players or draft picks as incentives. After the breakout performance of Matt Murray in net, the Penguins did everything in their power to soften the dismantling of their back-to-back Cup winning teams. They threw in a second-round draft pick if Vegas went down the path of Marc-Andre Fleury instead of a skater.

Vegas essentially collected Alex Tuch from Minnesota and Shea Theodore from Anaheim as "thank you" notes for not selecting some of their better unprotected players. Boo hoo, Vegas had to settle for Erik Haula (MIN) and Clayton Stoner (ANA) by virtue of those particular package deals. So what? That's four players for the price of two. The conditions were so low-risk for the Golden Knights; they only needed 25% of that particular haul to be worth a damn. Anything beyond that was a bonus. 

These stories of bundling talent and prospects/picks to sway outcomes of Expansion Drafts are not rare in using Vegas as a case study. They are also not unique to just hockey or just the hard salary cap era. What is unique is not having to share that pool of talent with anybody else. 

And let's throw in yet another monkey wrench into this: a newer NHLPA-bartered creation, the "no-movement" clause. In instances like Ottawa, ownership would have certainly loved to rid themselves of a terrible contract given to an injury-plagued Dion Phaneuf in 2016. But, because of a no-movement clause (that each player must voluntarily waive), he could not be exposed to Vegas. That's right. The Golden Knights not only got better because teams dumped talent and draft picks in their laps, but their future opponents also had to retain dead weight to ensure that they stayed worse. In a world where you can't save everybody, it sure sucks when you're contractually obligated to save someone you'd rather not. With one less protected player to grant to defenseman Marc Methot, he became a Golden Knight for two hours, then flipped to Dallas for a goaltending prospect and a 2020 second-round pick. Ottawa is now weaker while Vegas became so awash in riches that they could flippantly take a flier on a prospect and lottery ticket. Just by existing, they earned an unjust right to have more talent than they know what to do with.  

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For perspective, we'll use the last NHL Expansion Draft prior to that of Vegas: the pre-lockout/salary cap 2002 inclusion of Columbus and Minnesota. The protection rules were the same in 2002 as they were last summer: 12 or 15 depending on what you wanted to do with your netminder situation. Teams could protect one goalie, five defenseman, and nine forwards OR two goalies, three defenseman, and seven forwards. 

However, the obvious difference was in the number of teams pulling guys away from existing clubs. 26 teams gave players; new-ish franchises, Nashville and Atlanta, had their entire rosters protected. Two teams splitting a pot of unwanted fourth-liners and platoon defensemen, since all 26 clubs that participated had no upper limit to their spending habits on existing talent. This is how God intended this process to occur. This is Noah's Ark Expansionism: everything entering two-by-two. 

Seattle wasn't ready to enter in 2018, but has already been tacitly granted the 32nd franchise for 2021. I have theories regarding collusion on this matter, as Quebec City's bid to make it a two-team Expansion Draft was conveniently deferred. Rather than wait for Seattle, Bettman & Co. pushed on ahead with imbalanced Eastern and Western Conferences. It sure felt like the league only wanted one team jockeying for the the available talent.

Las Vegas is a lucrative town, but (pun intended) it was a gamble. There's no track record there to gauge sustained professional sports interest and it is a town where the countless entertainment options put both locals and tourists into a conundrum on what to do with disposable income. If the Vegas team isn't winning, why in the world would you go? Now, that's true in every sports market, but not like Sin City. The "what else would you rather be doing" question is easier answered. In short, it needed to work in Vegas right away or it wasn't going to work at all.    

Having Seattle at the table would have put the long-term success in both cities in jeopardy. If you follow a "Best Available Player" ideology for a two-team mock draft, Vegas would have picked Marc-Andre Fleury (Pittsburgh) and Seattle would have likely grabbed a solid defenseman in Nate Schmidt (Washington). Vegas would have then reunited Fleury with former teammate James Neal (Nashville) and Seattle would have selected Jonathan Marchessault (Florida). Debate that order if you must. Either way, you see how this begins to look like two, independent 70-point teams pretty quickly? The system is ordinarily designed for cannibalization.

When the Minnesota Wild left their expansion proceedings, they walked away with 27 players and two draft picks (as a reward for not taking Evgeni Nabokov from the Sharks). All told, the Vegas Golden Knights received 37 NHL players and 12 draft picks this go 'round. I'd say that adequately stocked the shelves; quite a haul for one weekend in June. And the league was more than complicit in this. They did not want to have another Atlanta on their hands — an expansion team that required ownership change and/or relocation barely a decade into the process. 

So, is Golden Knights' general manager George McPhee really such a genius? The odds-on General Manager of the Year is being portrayed as the man who took all of his peers to the cleanersLet's pump the breaks on that talk. Even the league's worst front office should be able to find 23 players out of that deep of a pool to dress on a nightly basis.

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Some voters will anoint McPhee the league's top executive simply for the blind faith in one man: William Karlsson. The Swedish forward "flamed out" in both Anaheim and Columbus, arguably due to poor expectations management and not because he lacked the requisite skills. He was a second-round draft pick in 2011, but failed to post a double-digit goal season in any of his first four years. I'll contend that Karlsson was discarded because he never got the chance to take on the big minutes and goal-scoring responsibilities. He simply needed to get out of situations where the team he was playing for already had two cohesive, well-established, star-studded forward lines.   

In his first season, the 2014-15 Ducks won the Pacific Division and fell a win shy of the Stanley Cup Final. They were so loaded with top-line scoring (Corey Perry: 33 G, Ryan Getzlaf: 25 G, Matt Beleskey: 22 G, Ryan Kesler: 20 G, Andrew Cogliano: 15 G, Kyle Palmieri: 14 G, Jakob Silfverberg: 13 G) that they could part with offense for defense. So, Anaheim packaged their 22 year-old rookie to Columbus in a trade deadline deal for defenseman James Wisniewski.  

Life in Columbus was more of the same: a top six forward not granted the chance to crack the top six. The symmetry was uncanny. Last season, the Blue Jackets posted an almost-identical record to '14-'15 Ducks — 50 wins, 108 points vs. 51 wins, 109 points. One way Karlsson's new team did surpass those Ducks was in number of forwards over the 12-goal plateau (8) — Cam Atkinson: 35 G, Nick Foligno: 26 G, Brandon Saad: 24 G, Sam Gagner: 18 G, Boone Jenner: 18 G, Josh Anderson: 17 G, Alexander Wennberg: 13 G, Scott Hartnell: 13 G. 

But because Karlsson was not among that list, he found himself on another. Executives placed the young center in the club's pool of Expansion Draft-eligible players. 

Columbus finished 2016-17 fifth in the entire league with 3.0 goals per game. Like his time in Anaheim, the team did nearly everything right — requiring the eventual Stanley Cup champion to eliminate them. Someone please show me where there was room for more production out of Karlsson in limited third-line minutes. I'm not sure how anyone could label him a bust for either organization. 

So, to me, this Cinderella story is not as much of a scrapheap reclamation project as the national media would have you believe. Karlsson never had to carry a team in scoring; he was always on a roster with at least four guys coming off a season of 20+ goals. This just wasn't the case in Vegas. Of the bodies that broke camp with the Knights, only Jonathan Marchessault and James Neal posted a 20-goal season the year before (30 in Florida and 23 in Nashville, respectively). Someone had to step up. And it wasn't all that shocking to see "Wild Bill" Karlsson be that guy. It's not atypical to witness a 25 year-old get better, more mature. The game slows down and the change of scenery takes the pressure off. How much of the slack he picked up (43 goals; third in the league to Alex Ovechkin and Patrick Liaine)... now that was surprising.

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In writing this, I discussed its subject matter and my stance on it to several friends. Most said something to the tune of "Stop being such a Debbie Downer." Note: Their language was cleaned up and amended for print. I get it, though. I'm supposed to sit back and let this fun wave wash over me. It's a great story and putting the NHL in living rooms and parts of our country it hasn't ever been before. Insta-contenders are good for the sport... then I stop myself. 

What am I caring about any of that for? I'm a hockey lifer; spending 13 years of my childhood outside of Pittsburgh will do that to you. I would be perfectly content if hockey had a fanhood entrance exam. I'm not out to grow the sport beyond my core group of friends, former players, and diehards like me. I could care less about the casual fans who enjoy this storyline. #SorryNotSorry

With terrible hockey (and even worse finances) in places like Arizona, I still don't know why we needed a 31st franchise in the first place. Put the 30 teams we do have in their proper locations before you move on. 

I don't want any new team to jump the line and win a prize as prestigious as Lord Stanley's Cup this soon. Great Canadian Hall of Fame players are rolling over in their graves. I think of friends that live in St. Louis, my home since 2010. A modern commissioner has created an unfair formula that has repercussions felt by a century-old league. How can you hand the Cup to this city and ever show your face in a place like Buffalo? The very salary cap you put in place to help small-market clubs has backfired into a race to simply be the newest face in the crowd. Get ready for immediate success, Seattle. 

I even let my mind go to Vegas' final opponent, the Washington Capitals. Even though I despise them, I would rather see them hoist their first — in their franchise's 37th year — than have a record-setting inaugural season get even more absurd. And that makes me sad. I don't like killing fun things and always looking for the worst. This Cup victory could mean a three-peat for my favorite Penguin for nearly a decade. There's not a guy on Vegas I don't like. But that clouds the objective judgment that this is all wrong.

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