So, the Vegas Golden Knights made the Stanley Cup Final. It still feels odd, doesn’t it? Not only did they make it that far, but it wasn’t even some kind of stroke of luck. They didn’t have to just pick the right time to get hot, because they were on fire all season long. They started out strong, and never looked back. But a Stanley Cup Final? Only once in the history of the National Hockey League (the 1967-68 St. Louis Blues) has an expansion team reached the Cup Final, and that was because they were in a division that consisted only of new teams. For the Knights to get this far, they had to get past long-established teams, two of which had reached Stanley Cup Final in the past five years. It is completely unheard of for an expansion team to be so effective in their first year, and in the face of established opposition.
Of course, one of the biggest advantages that the Golden Knights had in their expansion draft were the rather lenient rules that were applied for their expansion draft. Teams were allowed to follow one of two protection sets: either of seven forwards, three defensemen, and one goalie, or eight skaters and one goalie. This allowed the Knights to get some solid talent right off the bat; not only could they get a strong goaltender or two, but they stood a chance at getting some top-six forwards, depending on the expansion rules teams decided to abide by. Whether it was because the NHL wanted to see this new team be somewhat competitive in their maiden campaign, or because of the massive expansion fee that Vegas ponied up ($500 million), the Knights stood to benefit in a way that previous new teams didn’t.
The immediate thought in my mind was to wonder about the potential results if a team from the past was afforded the same expansion rules as the Knights were. One team that could have used them more than any other was the 1999 Atlanta Thrashers. The Thrashers were okay for a while, but a lack of playoff appearances and general apathy from ownership eventually saw the team move to Winnipeg to become the revived Jets. Could things have been different with a new set of draft rules?
WHAT IF THE ATLANTA THRASHERS HAD THE SAME EXPANSION RULES AS THE VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS?
Firstly, some history. Atlanta’s growth as a sports city started in the 1966, when two professional clubs both came to the area. The Atlanta Falcons were an expansion side in the National Football League, while the Milwaukee Braves moved to Atlanta to become the city’s first Major League Baseball franchise. A couple of years later, the St. Louis Hawks of the NBA moved operations to Atlanta, giving the team a third team to cheer for. It was only a matter of time before the NHL took notice of the city, and eventually, Hawks’ owner Tom Cousins was awarded an expansion team, the Atlanta Flames.
The Flames began play in 1972, and started off comfortably above the 10,000 number in terms of attendance. They would never drop below five digits in terms of average attendance per season, but the Omni Coliseum’s shortage of luxury boxes proved a major problem for the club. The Flames would move to Calgary in 1980, and the city would not see NHL hockey until another expansion franchise was granted to Time Warner. The team would be known as the Atlanta Thrashers, and with a new arena, the problem of luxury boxes was no longer an issue. Attendance wouldn’t be one, either, considering the Flames never had the poor attendance of teams such as Cleveland or Kansas City.
The Thrashers, like their predecessors, started off well; in their debut season, they managed to have a better average attendance than even the defending Stanley Cup champions, the Dallas Stars. The positives wouldn’t last, as the team found themselves unable to grab a winning record in their first five years, let alone a playoff spot. They finally did manage to make it into the post-season in the 2006-07 season, only to be swept by the New York Rangers in four straight. From then on, the Thrashers returned to being Southeastern doormats, and their attendance steadily suffered. Fans were tuning out, and Atlanta Spirit, LLC (who bought the team from Time Warner in 2003) seemed to be desperate to wash their hands of the team. Atlanta Spirit would sell the team to a group led by Winnipeg investor Mark Chipman, who moved the Thrashers to his home city.
Though the team looked promising in terms of attendance at first, the lack of real success definitely hurt them. Not only was the team unable to manage over 40 wins in their first five years, but a continuous pattern of bad drafting in the late rounds prevented the team from advancing up the rankings permanently. They started from the bottom, and never really went anywhere. With more talent available to them from the start, could the Thrashers have made themselves a playoff contender earlier on? Could they have stopped themselves from being moved to Winnipeg in the end?
RULE CHANGES: The original rules in 1999 stated that teams could make one of two choices in terms of protecting players. They could either choose to protect nine forwards, five defensemen, and one goalie, or seven forwards, three defensemen, and two goalies. Teams that wanted to protect an extra goaltender would potentially have to sacrifice a third-line forward or second-pairing blue-liner. In this revised draft, the rules from the Vegas draft in 2017 are used: teams may either protect seven forwards, three defensemen, and one goalie, or eight total skaters and one goalie. All but five teams now run the risk of losing a back-up goalie; having lost goalkeepers in the previous expansion draft the year prior, Anaheim, Los Angeles, Montreal, New Jersey, and the New York Rangers were exempt from losing a goalie this time around. (In order to determine who was protected, I used the lists on this site as a guide, and tweaked the lists at my own discretion.)
Another important rule is that players with two years or less of North American professional playing experience (i.e. NHL/AHL/other minor pro hockey) were exempt from selection, as were unsigned draftees. These restrictions were applied once more in 2017, and thus are unchanged this time around. Teams must also allow one player with 40 games played the previous year (or 75 games played in the past two seasons) to be exposed.
Finally, it is routine for expansion teams to make trades with other franchises in order for those established clubs to not lose a certain key player. The picks I make will be made under the assumption that no “future considerations” deals are made; the Thrashers simply pick the best player available, either in terms of current play or future potential. (Trades not involving “future considerations” are still made, and as such, Atlanta still trades a conditional pick in 2000 to the Nashville Predators for Andrew Brunette.)
With all this in mind, who does this hypothetical new Atlanta draft?
- MIKE VERNON (San Jose Sharks) – The Sharks have a choice to make: either protect long-serving NHL netminder Mike Vernon, or Steve Shields, who finished his first year in San Jose with outstanding numbers (39 games played, .921 SV%, 2.22 GAA). Despite playing more games, Vernon, at 36, is less valuable going forward, and is made available for selection. Even considering his advancing age, Vernon is still solid starting material, and probably will be for a couple of years.
- RON TUGNUTT (Ottawa Senators) – The Sens have a quandary of their own to deal with in goal. Their starter from the previous year, Ron Tugnutt, was exceptional, with 22 wins and a .925 SV% in 43 games. Unfortunately, the Sens’ goalie of the future, Patrick Lalime, was also eligible for drafting, and the Senators thus use their goalie slot on him, rather than Tugnutt. The Thrashers have another 1a fall right into their lap, and happily grab Tugnutt with their Ottawa pick.
- COREY SCHWAB (Tampa Bay Lightning) – The Lightning were utter trash in the 98-99 season. Utter. Trash. They managed to finish well behind even the expansion Nashville Predators in the overall standings. As such, they had virtually no good talent available in the expansion draft. Corey Schwab played 40 games of sub-par hockey for the Lightning, but he at least has enough experience to be a reliable third-stringer. If either of Vernon or Tugnutt is injured, Schwab can at least step in for a few contests.
- DARRYL SHANNON (Buffalo Sabres) – Shannon, like Corey Schwab before him, is one of a few players who was taken by the Thrashers in real life. Buffalo gambles a bit, having to expose players like Martin Biron and Geoff Sanderson, but a shut-down defenseman with a +28 the previous year is just too good to pass up.
- GORD MURPHY (Florida Panthers) – The Panthers have a good selection of talent that is exempt from the draft, including Mark Parrish, Jaroslav Spacek, and Dan Boyle. The ranks of the unprotected are rather thin, with the big choice being between three names: forward Johan Garpenlov, and blue-liners Terry Carkner and Gord Murphy. Though he played only 51 games the previous year, Murphy still served well as a defensive defender, and will likely serve in a depth role on his new club.
- JASON MARSHALL (Mighty Ducks of Anaheim) – The choice for the Thrashers lies between one of two defensive D-men. Both Marshall and Jamie Pushor are in consideration here, and offer different dimensions. Pushor is much more combative, racking up 11 fighting majors, but his -20 rating makes him much less attractive as an option. Marshall, as a result, is the man chosen here. In getting Marshall, the Thrashers also pass on centreman Travis Green.
- CRAIG RIVET (Montreal Canadiens) – The Habs are in a pickle here. They have several defensemen they have to protect, and if they choose the option of protecting eight skaters, they risk losing a potential impact forward. In the end, Montreal takes a risk in leaving all of Patrice Brisebois, Stephane Quintal, and Craig Rivet available. At 24, Rivet has some good years ahead of him, and he is expected to be someone the Thrashers can rely on for quite a while.
- ERIC CAIRNS (New York Islanders) – Much like Rivet, Cairns is a young blue-liner that can potentially be effective for many seasons yet. He is left unprotected by a team that has young D-men to spare; the likes of Eric Brewer and Zdeno Chara are both exempt.
- STEVE DUCHESNE (Philadelphia Flyers) – As a late-season rental, Steve Duchesne was never meant to be a high priority for protection by the Flyers. Even at 33, however, Duchesne is a solid offensive blue-liner, something that the Thrashers have lacked so far in their expansion draft.
- KEITH CARNEY (Phoenix Coyotes) – The Coyotes find themselves having to scramble to protect players. Sure, they can use the eight-skater option and hold on to Carney, but that means having to risk the likes of Shane Doan, who would soon break out and become a genuine top-6 forward. The Yotes take their gamble, exposing Carney to the draft. The Thrashers are happy to take Carney, adding to their ensemble of defensive D-men.
- DARIUS KASPARAITIS (Pittsburgh Penguins) – The notoriously hard-hitting Kasparaitis adds yet more edge to an already dangerous Atlanta blue line. Kasparaitis is the unfortunate victim of a numbers game, cast out in favour of the likes of Jiri Slegr, Brad Werenka, and Kevin Hatcher. If they protected Darius as well, the Penguins risked losing 23-year-old Jan Hrdina, who had notched a 42-point season in his rookie year.
- JAMIE ALLISON (Chicago Blackhawks) – The choice for the Thrashers here is between two D-men, Jamie Allison and Dave Manson. Manson has been around a while, and certainly is still NHL quality, but Allison, at 24, is far more attractive to a team that has enough veteran blue-liners already. Atlanta passes up on Manson to take Allison, who should be ready to step in full-time at any moment.
- SHELDON SOURAY (New Jersey Devils) – The Devils have several top-end blue-liners on payroll, and have to make some tough choices. Of all people, Ken Daneyko, “Mr. Devil” himself, is left exposed, as is young blue-liner Sheldon Souray. Souray, at only 23, adds yet another young piece in the Thrashers’ cupboard to start off, and could likely be in the Atlanta line-up on opening day.
- ROB DiMAIO (Boston Bruins) – The Bruins are the only team in this draft that take the eight-skater option; with the likes of Sergei Samsonov and Joe Thornton exempt, losing a poor depth forward is preferable to losing a serviceable blue-liner like Darren Van Impe. Van Impe is protected as the eighth skater, leaving DiMaio exposed.
- MARTIN GELINAS (Carolina Hurricanes) – The choice for Carolina boils down to Gelinas and Andrei Kovalenko, both solid wingers under 30 with good seasons in their past. Kovalenko’s scoring rate in his short time with Carolina in 98-99 (12 points in only 18 games) makes him a little bit more valuable, leaving Gelinas to be claimed by the Thrashers.
- STEPHANE YELLE (Colorado Avalanche) – Yelle has spent four years as a depth forward for the Avalanche at this point, and is only 25 at the time of the draft. His relative youth makes him an important choice for Atlanta, who could use depth all across the line-up.
- PAT VERBEEK (Dallas Stars) – The defending Stanley Cup champs make an important trade before the expansion draft, sending Roman Turek to St. Louis in order to make sure they don’t have to leave him unprotected. This leaves Atlanta with a choice of veteran forwards; taking a chance on an impending free agent, the Thrashers decide to go with Pat Verbeek, once a point-a-game player, and still a decent depth option.
- KRIS DRAPER (Detroit Red Wings) – Detroit is a team with several good players available at the expansion draft, with the likes of Igor Larionov and Wendel Clark both potentially up for grabs. The Thrashers go for a younger player, instead, using the pick on defensive forward Kris Draper. A player in his prime, Atlanta will get much more out of Draper, even in a bottom-6 role.
- REM MURRAY (Edmonton Oilers) – This one is tough for Edmonton, as they have to put a few young players up for grabs. Though Rem Murray is not quite as NHL-experienced as fellow Oilers forward Pat Falloon, the fact that Murray broke the 20-goal mark makes him slightly more attractive to Atlanta, giving them someone who can be immediately effective.
- IAN LAPERRIERE (Los Angeles Kings) – Los Angeles makes a trade just before the expansion draft that brings in the likes of Ziggy Palffy and Bryan Smolinski, and with them now in tow for the Kings, Laperriere is one of a few decent players left unprotected. The Thrashers add another younger depth piece to their line-up, getting Laperriere in the expansion draft.
- ANDREW CASSELS (Calgary Flames) – The Flames play a very risky game in the expansion draft, exposing three different, but equally valuable players. There’s Phil Housley, a future Hall-of-Fame offensive defenseman, with a couple good years left in the tank. There’s Andrew Cassels, approaching 30, and still valuable enough as a 2nd-line centreman. And then there’s Hnat Domenichelli, a skilled young forward who has lots of time to be an impact player in the NHL. In the end, the Flames take a chance on a pending UFA, and draft Cassels.
- ERIC LACROIX (New York Rangers) – The Rangers are lucky enough to have a gap between their protected talent and their exposed players. Two good young forwards, Marc Savard and Manny Malhotra, are both exempt, while Wayne Gretzky has already announced his retirement, and there would be no point in taking him. The Thrashers are stuck grabbing winger Eric Lacroix, who does have three seasons with 15+ goals to his name.
- JIM CAMPBELL (St. Louis Blues) – A former Calder Trophy nominee, Campbell is coming off of a somewhat poor season, notching 25 points in 55 games. Prior to that year, however, he put up two straight campaigns with 20+ goals, and even in his “down year”, he managed 21 assists. If he can get back to form, he can be a good depth player for the Thrashers.
- FREDRIK MODIN (Toronto Maple Leafs) – Toronto is a team rife with in-their-prime forwards; somebody is going to have to be exposed. The last-season acquisition of Yanic Perreault means that the Leafs have to risk giving up a good young forward, and the unfortunate victim of the numbers game is Fredrik Modin. Already with two 16-goal seasons to his name, Modin has lots of time to get even better.
- TRENT KLATT (Vancouver Canucks) – Despite flirting with taking the eight-skater route in the protection stage, the Canucks decide to hold on to seven forwards in order to not lose players like Dave Scatchard or Brad May. This leaves the Thrashers to grab Trent Klatt from the players available. Prior to the 1998-99 season, Klatt had two seasons with 40 or more points.
- CHRIS SIMON (Washington Capitals) – The Capitals have choices to make with their young forwards, and may lose a good prospect depending on their decisions. Washington ultimately chooses to hold on to Jaroslav Svejkovsky and Richard Zednik; Svejkovsky is a former 1st-Rounder with considerable promise, while Zednik has already made some impact at the NHL level. This leaves the more experienced Simon to be claimed by the Thrashers, giving the new club a powerful enforcer.
Of the 26 players, 3 goalies, 10 defenders, and 13 forwards are taken. This means that Atlanta has a few vacancies to deal with; in order to shore up their attack, the Thrashers use the 1999 Entry Draft and free agency.
Among the players brought in:
- ANDREW BRUNETTE – Not a free agent, Brunette is instead the very first player in Atlanta Thrashers history. He is acquired in a pre-draft deal for a 2000 conditional pick. Brunette is coming off his first full season in the NHL, having played 77 games with the Nashville Predators. Though he managed only 31 points, his 97-98 season (23 points in 28 games) leaves room for considerable promise.
- RAY FERRARO – Formerly of Los Angeles, Ferraro goes into the Thrashers’ opening game having turned 35 less than two months earlier. Despite his age, he is still a valuable contributor, and has eight seasons to his name with 50 or more points. He projects to be a top-two centreman on this Atlanta team, battling for first-line ice time with Andrew Cassels.
- NELSON EMERSON – Having turned 32 in August, Emerson is starting to be caught by Father Time as well. He has registered more than 30 points in every full season he has played, and has two years to his name with 70+ points. He spent time with Carolina, Chicago, and Ottawa in 1998-99.
- VLADIMIR VUJTEK – Vujtek has not spent too much time in the NHL, having played only played 102 games at the highest level to this point. He comes to Atlanta having led his Czech team, Vitkovice HC, in points in the 98-99 season with 55. There’s always a chance he could find a regular spot with the Thrashers, and Atlanta is willing to take a flyer on him.
- PATRIK STEFAN – Stefan is the 1st Overall Pick in the 1999 NHL Draft, and comes with serious promise. Even as a 17-year-old playing against adults, he managed just over a point a game (35 points in 33 games) in the International Hockey League; his experience playing against grown men (including some more than twice his age) suggests that he can do the same at the NHL level.
After all of the off-season moves are made, Atlanta has their opening day roster set. The depth chart looks something like this:
Fredrik Modin – Ray Ferraro – Pat Verbeek
Andrew Brunette – Andrew Cassels – Nelson Emerson
Martin Gelinas – Patrik Stefan – Chris Simon
Rob DiMaio – Ian Laperriere – Kris Draper
Darryl Shannon – Steve Duchesne
Keith Carney – Gord Murphy
Craig Rivet – Darius Kasparaitis
As expected, the Thrashers are pretty deep on the blue line. Jamie Allison, Jason Marshall, and Sheldon Souray all find themselves unable to crack the starting line-up right out of the gate. The goalie tandem of Tugnutt and Vernon can easily act as a 1a-1b, with Corey Schwab serving as a credible replacement in the case of an injury. Of course, the forward core is uncertain; sure, there’s pretty good depth, but there’s no true game-changer at this point. Nonetheless, Don Waddell goes into the first regular season in franchise history pretty confident in his group. After all, Atlanta may not have anyone that can single-handedly win a game, but with this line-up, they’re going to put up a good fight every time they take the ice.
So, with all of the players they have acquired, how does this new hypothetical Thrashers team do? Will they make more than one playoff appearance? Will they actually win a game? Will they still move to Winnipeg? Tune in next week for your answer.
And though this isn’t technically a Big “What If” article, I’m always open to suggestions you guys might have for ones that I could examine in further detail.