by Rob Joyce
When expansion teams come into the league they typically aren’t any good. Because of the nature of the process – teams make their best players unavailable in a draft, thus leaving franchises to pick up off the scrap heap – it typically takes a few years for a franchise to become a playoff contender. Or so we thought.
Past the quarter mark of the NHL season it’s becoming clear that the Vegas Golden Knights might be for real. The expansion team enters Tuesday in second place in the Pacific Division, four points back of the Kings with two games in hand. Boasting the league’s fourth best scoring team, Vegas looks poised to make a run at the playoffs in their inaugural season. Only time will tell, but the Knights are on their way of joining this list of the all-time best expansion franchises in sports:
5) 1961 Los Angeles Angels:
The original Los Angeles Angels weren’t soul-crushers by any respect, but at 70-91 they weren’t the worst team in baseball, either. Leon Wagner, Ken Hunt, Lee Thomas, Earl Averill and Steve Bilko all hit 20-or-more home runs, Ken McBride was their ace, and they finished nine games better than both the Washington Senators and Kansas City Athletics in the American League. They look even better when compared to the 1962 expansion Mets, who finished 40-120.
4) 1967-68 St. Louis Blues:
This comes with a bit of an asterisk. When the NHL expanded from six teams to 12, the league was split into two divisions: the Eastern (with the Original 6) and Western (with all six expansions). That meant someone had to come out of the group of newbies, and in this case it was St. Louis. They finished third in the West, three points behind the Flyers and two behind the Kings.
In the first round of the playoffs they’d take down the Flyers in seven games. Then they’d do it again against the North Stars, winning three overtime contests, including Ron Schock’s series-clincher in Game 7 to move on to the Finals, where the magic ran out. Against the Jean Beliveau/Henri Richard/Yvan Cournoyer/Gump Worsley Canadiens, St. Louis held their own but were ultimately swept. All four games were decided by one goal, including two overtime games.
3) 1966-67 Chicago Bulls:
Despite finishing 15 games below .500 (33-48) the Bulls actually made the playoffs in their debut season. Hall of Famer Guy Rodgers was their stud, averaging 18 points and 11 assists per game, but you also may recognize their 24-year-old guard, Jerry Sloan. He averaged 17 points a game in his sophomore season, before going on a Hall of Fame career as a coach that saw him win 1,221 games.
2) 1995 Carolina Panthers:
Starting 0-5 ended any playoff hopes before they ever came to be, but Carolina finished the ’95 season strong. A four-game win streak followed, as 23-year-old Kerry Collins took over for Frank Reich at quarterback and finished 7-6 as a starter.
1) 1993-94 Florida Panthers:
The Panthers fell just one point short of making the playoffs in their debut season. At 33-34-17 the Panthers won just two of their first 10 games as an expansion team. But behind goaltender John Vanbiesbrouck, Florida started playing well, sitting at 77 points with nine games to play. They’d go winless (0-4-4) in their next eight, and a season finale win over the Islanders wouldn’t be enough to get them into the playoffs. Still, the Panthers are the standard-bearers for modern-day expansion franchises.