NHL to SEATTLE

Measuring the sustained success of expansion franchises is… difficult.

So you have an expansion team. Your inaugural season has now come and gone.

All of the hoopla and excitement that comes with playing in front of your home fans for the first time after years of anticipation has passed. Unless your expansion team is called the Vegas Golden Knights, you probably stunk this past season.

What happens next?

Does your probably terrible team slowly grow into a borderline contender that sneaks into the playoffs for the first time after a couple years of misery, then evolve into a perennial powerhouse? Or does mismanagement, dwindling post-honeymoon excitement, and a myriad of unforeseen external factors lead your franchise down a long and dark tunnel for the better part of the next decade?
Here at NHLtoSeattle Headquarters, we wanted to try to give Seattle hockey fans a general idea of what to expect for that first decade or so after the team’s inception. So, we pulled some data, and what we found is that, well, pretty much anything can happen in those formative years.

Vegas excluded, the previous nine expansion franchises to the NHL have lived on beyond their initial attempts at fielding hockey teams to experience widely diverse levels of success. A couple of the franchises have—despite falling into significant valleys at times—proven themselves as consistent competitors and have actually claimed hockey’s ultimate prize at some point in their relatively short histories. A few more have found consistency as middle-of-the-road franchises that get to the playoffs regularly, but can’t seem to get over the hump. And then there are those that were downright bad from the beginning, failing to build a consistent contender in their first few seasons of play, and quickly alienating their fledgling fanbases.

Let’s hope that the last option doesn’t happen for the Seattle team.

To set a level playing field, we opted to completely exclude Vegas from our sample here, as it simply doesn’t make sense to factor in a team that has only played one season when trying to figure out how teams perform over time. Instead, we opted to go as far back as the entry of San Jose into the NHL in 1991-1992, when a Pat Falloon-led Sharks squad finished with an abysmal 17-58-5 record, then end the exercise with the 2000-2001 expansion class of Columbus and Minnesota. By doing this, all teams have played a minimum of seventeen seasons. It’s a bit arbitrary, but again, it gives us a relatively level playing field and plenty of sample size.

If we call “success” in the above simply making it to the NHL playoffs, then we can see that an early triumph—as in the case of the Florida Panthers, which miraculously rode a red-hot John Vanbiesbrouck and a pile of plastic rodents to the 1996 Cup Final—doesn’t necessarily lead to sustained success.

It can lead to that, as with the Sharks, but getting to the postseason earlier in life than people expect doesn’t necessarily indicate that a team will continue making it in the years that follow. We can confidently surmise, however, that Seattle’s new team, especially with the more friendly expansion rules, should be able to make the playoffs in their first five seasons, and we can all comfortably maintain hope that it happens way earlier than that.

It’s also interesting to note that certain teams like the Ottawa Senators, which by the metric of “making the playoffs” were very successful in their first seventeen seasons, also seem to be in the proverbial gutter today. Meanwhile, other franchises like the Jets (formerly known as the Thrashers) and Lightning, which had minimal regular season success in the early going, have since solidified themselves as some of the better franchises in hockey.

But what if just “making the playoffs” isn’t good enough, and it turns out we actually want deep playoff runs in the Emerald City? Well, that’s great! Set your sights high, Seattle, because it is totally possible that a deep playoff run or two can happen in the first decade. A Stanley Cup will probably take much longer, as Tampa Bay was the fastest of the group to accomplish the feat and it still took twelve seasons. On top of that, Anaheim remains the only other team of the nine examined to hoist said coveted trophy.

But still, dreams are free!

Taking a look at the chart below of cumulative playoff series wins gives us a better understanding of true postseason success, as opposed to just regular season success like in the previous model. Here we can see that a couple of the top-notch expansion franchises in Anaheim and San Jose saw their playoff accomplishments grow steadily over time. It’s no coincidence that these teams have maintained presences near the top of the NHL standings throughout their tenures, and the new Seattle squad should try to model itself after them. Then there’s the opposite end of the spectrum, where playoff wins never came in those first seventeen seasons (the Jets finally won a couple this past season, whereas the Blue Jackets are still searching).

That sounds painful, doesn’t it? Yeah, let’s stay away from that end of the range.

So, what can we expect in the years after Seattle’s inaugural season? Well, that’s anyone’s guess. But what we can determine from the data is that in the worst-case scenario, the team makes the playoffs a couple times, but never finds sustained success. In the best-case scenario, the team gives us a little taste of winning a few seasons in, fostering excitement and belief throughout the region, and then builds on that success to find continuous growth over time.

Or, the new norm is the Vegas Golden Knights, who do look primed for continued success for years to come, in which case all of this is completely moot.