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As most of you probably know, the newly anointed Knights of Vegas are amongst the best teams in the NHL so far this season, switching best-record honors with Tampa Bay this past week. In addition, as of right now, Vegas has the best expansion team record of all time, in any major sport. Not too shabby for an NHL expansion team, right? Wrong. The NHL did a poor job of planning for long-term league-health in their latest expansion endeavor, and here’s why.
The Burgeoning Bubble
For Vegas fans, they are living in the best of times, but the reality is, there’s nowhere to go but down from here. Vegas fans, new to hockey, or transplanted hockey fans from afar, have enjoyed a great first half of the season, but it won’t always be like that. The blistering success of the Knights in their inaugural season will eventually lead to unrealistic expectations and empty seats once adversity sets in. The fact of the matter is, the real judge of expansion success will come when the first .500 season lands in “Sin City”. Will we see a resemblance to Carolina? Florida? Arizona?….
The Message Conveyed
If the League is looking to include Stanley Cups with each $500 million expansion fee, the cost to the rest of the League will be more damaging. It’s not only an insult to existing franchise cities, fighting year-in and year-out to fill arenas and win hockey games, but it sends a poor message to NHL fans everywhere. “Money buys success” was supposed to be somewhat eradicated with the salary cap. I mean, what other business do you start out on top before even opening the doors for business?
The NHL’s “Must Win Now” Strategy
There is little question the NHL enabled the Vegas franchise to fill a roster with the best talent off all time, when it comes to other expansion drafts.
It’s clear the league is primarily concerned about the start of a new franchise, and believes immediate winning is essential to long-term success. The fact is, that’s not an accurate take.
Consider the paths of previous expansion teams. Most started out at or around a .400 winning percentage in their first season, but showed steady improvement over their first 15 seasons.
As the saying goes, “slow and steady wins the race”. Should the Knights go on to win the Stanley Cup, I’ll be the first to mandate an asterisk in the record books.
As I mentioned in the start, the real measure of the success of this specific expansion will be gauged when adversity strikes the Knights. Success needs to be measured over a longer term, with various peaks and valleys along the way. Will casual fans choose the casinos over a .500 team? There is a ton of entertainment options in Sin City.
It’s true that the “must win immediately ” philosophy sells tickets in year one, but it wont do much for building the hard-core fanbase, or ensure long-term value and success in Las Vegas. If the NHL continues to believe in this process, I’d take Seattle and the “over” in the next expansion season.
Bottom line, it should be an “earn your stripes” league, for the good of the league. The challenge of building a championship-caliber team through the management of draft picks, development of prospects and management of the salary cap is the essence of most major sports in today’s world. The NHL is going against that model with their current expansion philosophy.
By Jon Sorensen