Getting an expansion franchise is like working really, really hard to start a relationship that will suck and has a non-zero chance of disintegrating without there being any happiness. All the years of planning and analysis and work on the arena and doing market research and getting the public and political support in line. Getting the finances in order for the expansion fees. Hiring a terrible graphic artist to come up with this shit:
You’ve done all the research! If it’s a traditional market, you’ve supposedly got built-in interest. If not, you’ve presumably got enough grass-roots efforts and expats to have a solid season-ticket base, The fans are excited! They want NHL hockey!
And you get it! Yay! The expansion draft happens, and you get the kind of players that end up in the expansion draft. But! You also get a super high draft pick! Yay! The kind of generational talent that defines a franchise. Like Pat Falloon! Or Patrik Stefan! Or Alexandre Daigle! Wait, what???
Hmm, maybe this isn’t quite what you were expecting. The best case scenario is that your rag-tag bunch of castoffs and young shitheads miraculously comes together to do something like eliminate the Red Wings in the first round.
People still talk about that team with a sense of wonder and awe. And that counts for a lot, giving a new franchise’s fans a taste of success. That kind of season can turn a lot of casual fans into hardcore fans.
But, it also totally fucks up your ability to get over the mediocrity barrier most NHL teams face. The 1994 Sharks were magical, true underdogs that came within a post clang of reaching the Conference Finals despite having a top line that was in open revolt against the head coach and a roster constructed out of cardboard and snot. That magic vanished the second Toronto eliminated them, and the Sharks slid back to being awful. And they still had dysfunctional management, not enough roster talent, not enough good prospects, and a director of player development who was so far up his own ass he had no memory of ever seeing daylight.
It’s a catch 22. To get over the hump, you need to suck, a lot, for a long period of time, so you can stockpile prospects to help you years down the road. Will that kill the will of your fans? Will that turn toxic in your organization, so you bleed management and coaching talent? If so, you’ve just gone into a death spiral where you can’t scout or draft well enough to take advantage of the sucking years to give your fans a sense of hope. Other, better managed teams will take advantage of you (cough Blue Jackets cough) and take your decent prospects and players when you finally decide to do something. Your budget has to be low because you’re not making enough revenue to run the kind of losses you’ve sustained. You’re, in a word, fucked.
Then the NHL steps in and says they’re “concerned” about the health of your franchise. In the case of Atlanta, the NHL takes away your franchise. Again.
This is the funniest part of the cycle, to me. In a grim, Cormac McCarthy, ebony black humor kind of way. There was maybe a year or two of excitement, and then it’s just a huge slog of suck for years and years, and at the end you’ve got an empty arena and a bunch of instant throw-back merchandise, and that’s it.
Sharks @ Kings
7:30 PM Pacific
Prediction: the NHL flicks a cigarette at hockey fans in Las Vegas, then sets fire to their condo.