When the expansion rules came out last year after Las Vegas was awarded the NHL’s 31st franchise, Bob Strumm couldn’t help but be envious.
“Where were those rules when we needed them?” he probably asked himself.
Strumm, the former general manager of the Las Vegas Thunder of the International Hockey League, was working as a pro scout for the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2000, the last time the NHL expanded. And when the league unveils the Golden Knights’ picks Wednesday at T-Mobile Arena, it will be under far different circumstances.
“The biggest difference is there’s only one team,” Strumm said. “Back in 2000, it was us at Minny (Minnesota Wild). And there were only 26 teams to choose from because Nashville and Atlanta were exempt.”
Doug Risebrough was thinking the same thing. He was the Wild’s first general manager and he would love to have had George McPhee’s leverage when it came to building a team from scratch.
“The biggest thing was dealing with the uncertainty,” he said. “Our singular focus was to get the expansion draft right and quickly turn around and focus on the entry draft.”
Though both teams finished last in their respective divisions in their inaugural season, the Blue Jackets fared slightly better than the Wild.
Columbus had 71 points to Minnesota’s 68. But overall, the Wild have been the more successful franchise, having made the conference finals in only their third season (2003) and notching eight postseason appearances overall. The Blue Jackets didn’t make the playoffs until their eighth season and have never made it past the first round in their three postseason appearances.
The two markets were vastly different. Columbus was considered a non-traditional hockey market and the Blue Jackets would be the city’s first major league team. Minnesota already had an NHL team, the North Stars, and hockey is part of the state’s sports culture. In Columbus, the game had to be explained; in the Twin Cities, everyone grew up either playing or watching the sport.
“We knew our fan base was sophisticated,” said Risebrough. “So we knew it was important for us to put a competitive team on the ice right away. We wanted a team that could skate and if we could do that, the fans would say, ‘That’s what we want to see.’ ”
Salary cap constraints
There was one other important difference between what the Wild and the Blue Jackets went through compared to the Golden Knights: salary cap. When Minnesota and Columbus joined the NHL, there was no cap. Teams could spend what you needed to try to compete. The Knights are working with a $75 million cap for their inaugural season.
“They have a choice to make,” Strumm said of the Knights. “Do they try and compete right away by spending money on older, more experienced players? Or do they try and stockpile draft picks and be patient?”
Risebrough, who is currently a consultant and a pro scout for the New York Rangers, talked to McPhee. His advice was to get guys with a highly competitive nature and try to avoid establishing a losing culture for the entire organization.
“I told George it was important that the team competes right away because it helps keep the mood up in the (locker) room,” Risebrough said.
He also had some unsolicited advice for owner Bill Foley, who wants to win a Stanley Cup as quickly as possible. The fact both Minnesota and Columbus have never even made the Finals in their 17 years of existence shows it’s a difficult task for any expansion team.
“There’s no easy points in this league,” Risebrough said. “It’s very balanced. That’s why it has got to be more than about the wins and the losses. It’s about how hard are you going to be competing. That’s the key.”
Strumm, who works for Avenir Sports’ Bill Gallacher, who owns the Portland Winter Hawks of the Western Hockey League and Lausanne HC of the Swiss League, said it’s exciting for the city to have an NHL team. And he’s proud of the early contribution he made to Las Vegas with the Thunder.
“We exposed a lot of people to the sport and they’re still fans to this day,” he said. “It’s great for Vegas to have the NHL and I believe they have a chance to be very successful.”
Contact Steve Carp at email@example.com or 702-387-2913. Follow @stevecarprj on Twitter.