The Colorado Avalanche celebrate the 1996 Stanley Cup
Expansion franchises and those that have relocated have wound up outside the playoffs more often than not, but there are several teams that have made noise in their debut season.
Heading into the expansion draft, hopes were somewhat high that the Vegas Golden Knights would be able to ice a roster that could potentially challenge for the post-season in their inaugural campaign.
Such a positive outlook wasn’t entirely without reason, either. The NHL had set up expansion draft rules that worked more in favor of the Golden Knights than any expansion team prior, with a number of quality players set to be made available. And when comparing the potential Vegas roster to those that were iced in the most recent rounds of expansion by the likes of the Nashville Predators, Atlanta Thrashers, Columbus Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild, it seemed as though the Golden Knights had an opportunity to have one of the most successful inaugural seasons in league history.
However, as the expansion draft came and went, the expectations for the franchise were tempered as deals were made that kept the Golden Knights away from some of the draft’s top talents, leaving the roster looking as though it’s going to struggle to remain in contention for the playoffs and challenging for one of the best debut campaigns seems like it’s going to be near impossible.
That said, what would it take for the Golden Knights to have one of the five best seasons ever by an NHL team that’s debuting via expansion or relocation? Here are the five best to date:
5. Phoenix Coyotes, 1996-97 — 83 points
Few will associate the Coyotes, especially modern day, with on-ice success, but the original Winnipeg Jets were starting to turn things around just as the organization was set to shift to the desert. The 1995-96 Jets, led by Keith Tkachuk, Alexei Zhamnov, Teemu Selanne and goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin, had earned the franchise’s first playoff berth in three seasons, and it was a streak that was continued in Phoenix.
However, there were some new starring members in the cast. Selanne was gone, traded to the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, and Zhamnov was shipped out to the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for Jeremy Roenick. That brought the Coyotes an all-American one-two punch of Tkahcuk and Roenick up front, and Khabibulin turned in a seven-shutout campaign en route to a 38-37-7 record, good enough for 83 points, and a points percentage of .506. That’s the sixth-best points percentage by any team that has ever come about via relocation or expansion, and it helped earn the Coyotes a playoff berth.
Phoenix would go on to another three-consecutive playoff berths, but during the entire five-year run of playoff appearances, the Jets/Coyotes were one-and-done.
4. St. Louis Blues, 1967-68 — 70 points
St. Louis’ inaugural season lands them on this list as the only expansion team, and there were certainly some talented players on the squad. Terry Crisp is one of the more notable names up front, as is Red Berenson, and the Blues had some future Hall of Famers on that initial roster, including Glenn Hall, Dickie Moore and Al Arbour, though he’d earn his way in as a legendary coach rather than an all-time great defenseman.
And some will argue that the fourth spot is an unjust ranking for the Blues given they made it all the way to the Stanley Cup final, the only expansion team to ever do so. However, while there’s some merit to that, it’s worth contextualizing how the Blues made it to the final. The league was split into two divisions and, instead of battling out against the established organizations, St. Louis found themselves fighting for divisional supremacy against the other five expansion clubs. This is to say the Blues weren’t exactly beating the cream of the crop in the post-season.
St. Louis managed to eke out seven-game series victories over the Philadelphia Flyers and Minnesota North Stars, though, before being swept in the Stanley Cup final by the Montreal Canadiens.
3. Dallas Stars, 1993-94 — 97 points
Talk about a team on the rise. When the Minnesota North Stars packed up and moved south, the franchise was two seasons removed from an appearance in the Stanley Cup final and had increased their point total in each of the past two seasons.
The rise was in part thanks to a fresh-faced sniper named Mike Modano, who was leading the charge for the North Stars and quickly establishing him as the team’s top talent. And when the move to Dallas came, Modano really turned up his game.In that first season, Modano hit the 50-goal plateau for the first time in his career and registered 93 points in 76 games.
Modano’s play, as well as that of Russ Courtnall, Dave Gagner and Neal Broten, put the Stars right in the thick of things in the ultra-competitive Central Division. Dallas played well enough to finish tied for the sixth-most points in the NHL, and the .577 points percentage is the second-best mark ever by a relocated or expansion outfit.
Dallas would have one hiccup in the years shortly after relocation, missing the playoff in 1995-96, but within a decade of moving to the Lone Star State, the Stars captured the franchise’s first Stanley Cup.
2. Calgary Flames, 1980-81 — 92 points
In the Atlanta Flames’ first four seasons in the NHL, the organization had already built itself into a perennial playoff team, consistently racking up 80-plus points yet somehow failing to ever get past what was once the preliminary round. For four years, from 1975-76 to 1978-79, the best-of-three opening round got the best of the Flames in a hurry, and in 1979-80, it took four games in the best-of-five for Atlanta to get sent packing.
Now, in the modern era, it’s incredibly difficult to fathom a perennial playoff team skipping town, but the Flames did just that ahead of the 1980-81 season due to attendance woes, heading north of the border and putting down roots in Calgary. And Atlanta’s loss was Calgary’s gain.
The year the team arrived, Kent Nilsson exploded offensively, scoring 49 goals and 131 points, and the rest of the followed. Guy Chouinard, Willi Plett and Paul Reinhart were the top scorers, Pat Riggin and Reggie Lemelin led the way in goal and when the season closed, Calgary was seventh in the entire league. The Flames got over their post-season jitters, too, sweeping the Chicago Black Hawks in the first round and downing the Philadelphia Flyers in the second before falling two wins short of a Stanley Cup berth.
1. Colorado Avalanche, 1995-96 — 104 points
After a disappointing 1993-94 season, the Quebec Nordiques were looking to bounce back and they did so in a big way. In 1994-95, the team burst out of the gate with five-straight wins and skated away with the ‘W’ in 13 of their first 15 games during the lockout-shortened season. Led by Joe Sakic, Owen Nolan and Peter Forsberg, the Nordiques were an offensive juggernaut. But despite the on-ice success, nothing could be done to keep the team in Quebec.
That’s why, on July 1, 1995, the team was officially sold and relocated to Denver, where they would announce, on August 10, 1995, that they were to become the Colorado Avalanche. And when it comes to NHL debuts, no team — relocation, expansion or otherwise — has done it better than the Avs.
In 1995-96, the Avalanche were outstanding, leaping out to a 16-7-4 record through the early part of the season with the same stars leading the way. But on December 6, 1995, Colorado sealed the deal on arguably the biggest trade in franchise history, acquiring Patrick Roy from the Montreal Canadiens. The deal immediately shored up the Avalanche’s goaltending, which was considered their weak point, and Roy was dynamite in Colorado. That held especially true in the playoffs, where Roy reached another level. In 22 games, he posted a 16-6 record, three shutouts, .921 save percentage and 2.10 goals-against average en route to the Avalanche winning the Stanley Cup.
The Avalanche would remain atop the league for several seasons, winning another Stanley Cup in 2000-01.
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