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Does an expansion franchise’s first player make a difference?

Jared Clinton
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Does an expansion franchise’s first player make a difference?

Reid Duke, the Vegas Golden Knights' first signee, was drafted by the Minnesota Wild in 2014 Author: Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images

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Does an expansion franchise’s first player make a difference?

Jared Clinton
By:

The Vegas Golden Knights signed their first player in franchise history, but recent history has shown that there’s no guarantee he’ll make an impact for the expansion franchise.

Without playing a single NHL game or registering a single point in the big league, Reid Duke etched his name into the history books when he officially became the first member of the Vegas Golden Knights on Monday.

Duke, 21, was a sixth-round pick of the Minnesota Wild, 169th overall, in 2014, but unsigned by the franchise he was eligible to be picked up by any team as a free agent. Speaking about the signing Monday evening, Vegas GM George McPhee noted that the Golden Knights’ scouting staff had their eye on Duke since rookie camps this past summer and have followed him since that point, but he had a close tie to the organization even before that point.

Playing for the Brandon Wheat Kings for the past three seasons, Duke has had the chance to learn under Wheat Kings owner, coach and GM Kelly McCrimmon. McCrimmon moved on ahead of this past season, however, leaving behind the coach and GM roles with the Wheat Kings to take the assistant GM gig with the Golden Knights.

“Kelly’s been so instrumental in my career,” Duke said in a conference call Monday evening. “He’s been such an amazing role model for me. Ever since he brought me over to the Brandon Wheat Kings, he’s really been such a great leader on and off the ice, and just being around a person like that, the character that he embodies, I’ve really learned a lot from him.”

Duke said his game is predicated on solid two-way play, and he’s shown in Brandon that he can contribute to the attack. Through 54 games this season, he has 35 goals and 67 points, and he’s registered 68 goals and 129 points in 122 games over the past two campaigns. Making the next step, though, is going to be much more difficult. He said he understands there’s still a lot of work to be done, and nothing will be guaranteed for Duke, despite the fact he’s the Golden Knights’ first player under contract. 

In fact, the modern wave of expansion teams haven’t had great luck with their first players. Take a look back at the first players in franchise history for the four most recent expansion franchises, and where they ended up post-expansion team:

Marian Cisar, Nashville Predators

Cisar was a standout as a junior in Slovakia, lighting up the U18 league for 26 goals and 43 points ahead of his draft year. His promise was enough for the Kings to select him 37th overall in the 1996 draft, but after two 30-goal seasons in the WHL, Los Angeles gave up on him as a prospect and shipped him to Nashville for future considerations. The deal fell flat for the Predators, though.

In 1998-99, Cisar made his pro debut with the then-IHL Milwaukee Admirals and netted 11 goals and 28 points and finally got his first cup of coffee in the NHL during the 1999-00 season. By 2000-01, Cisar was finally a Predators regular, scoring 12 goals and 27 points in 60 games. He suffered a hip injury in 2001-02 and was never able to recover enough to get back into the NHL. Cisar played 12 games that season, was in the Czech league by 2002-03 and finished his playing career by 2004-05 after completing a two-year stint in the German league.

Predators totals: 73 GP, 13 G, 30 Pts.

Damian Rhodes, Atlanta Thrashers

Much like Cisar, Rhodes came to be the first player on an expansion roster by way of trade. At the time, Rhodes had been locked in a goaltending duel with Ron Tugnutt in Ottawa, but the battle between the two Senators netminders wasn’t really all that much of a battle by season’s end. Tugnutt has posted a strong 1.79 goals-against average and .925 save percentage, and his numbers dwarfed Rhodes’ 2.44 GAA and .905 SP. So, with the expansion draft looming, Rhodes was shipped to the Thrashers.

The goaltending situation in Atlanta was an absolute mess that first season with four netminders appearing in at least 15 games, and Rhodes’ numbers were far from the best of the bunch. His 3.88 GAA and .874 SP were unsightly and the Thrashers finished with an abysmal 14 wins, seven ties and 61 total losses. Rhodes would manage to stick around with Atlanta until the 2001-02 season, but his numbers didn’t really improve all that much. By 2002-03, Rhodes was splitting time between the ECHL and AHL, and he called it a career at the end of the season.

Thrashers totals: 14-48-11, 3.60 GAA, .889 SP.

Steve Aronson, Minnesota Wild

Aronson’s journey to becoming the first player in Wild history was similar to Duke’s in that the Wild inked the winger when he was an unsigned college free agent. The biggest difference, though, is that Aronson was playing Div. III hockey in the NCAA, whereas Duke is plying his trade in one of the top major junior leagues in the world. 

Aronson had recently completed an impressive season with St. Thomas University when he signed with the Wild, scoring 38 goals and 91 points in 33 games, and by the next season he took his game pro and jumped into the IHL. Suiting up for the Cleveland Lumberjacks, Aronson managed nine goals and 26 points in his first season as a pro, but he was back in the ECHL by the next season. Aronson was a talented goal scorer in the ECHL, lighting the lamp 33 times in 46 games with the Louisiana IceGators, but managed only one assist in nine AHL games when he was called up.

Aronson would go on to have a short stint in the British league, now known as the EIHL, but retired thereafter. He has since stepped behind the bench, first with St. Thomas and now as a longtime assistant with Minnesota’s Minnetonka High.

Wild totals: 0 GP, 0 G, 0 Pts.

Greg Gardner, Columbus Blue Jackets

Blue Jackets fans had to be excited about the potential Gardner had when he was the first player signed by the franchise, especially as he was a highly sought after college free agent. The starting netminder for the NCAA’s Niagara University, Garder was coming off of a spectacular season in which he posted a sparkling 1.53 GAA and .936 SP in 41 games. That’s not to mention 12 shutouts, which remains an NCAA Div. I record. Gardner won player of the year, goaltender of the year and first all-star team honors in his conference.

Gardner took his game to the ECHL the following season and had some success in the minor pro league, getting several games in the AHL, as well. By 2001-02, he was splitting time between the AHL and ECHL, but he was back to full-time ECHL play the following season and finished his career in North America in 2003-04, putting in 47 games with the ECHL’s Mississippi Sea Wolves. The next two seasons were spent in Germany’s second league with the Fischtown Pinguins, and by 2006-07, Gardner had retired and become an assistant with his alma mater.

Gardner has remained in the coaching game since, moving on to Princeton in 2011-12 and Mercyhurst in 2014-15.

Blue Jackets totals: N/A.

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Does an expansion franchise’s first player make a difference?