Golden Knights & Entry Draft Success

With the circus buzz of the Stanley Cup Final now in the history books, the NHL is preparing to welcome a new generation of players in next week’s Entry Draft in Dallas.

One year ago, the Vegas Golden Knights participated in their first Entry Draft in franchise history. After their expansion draft, which saw them assembling what would later become a historical team, the Knights began their process of building for the future in the draft.

George McPhee Golden Knights
Vegas Golden Knights general manager George McPhee announces the number six overall pick in the first round of the 2017 NHL Draft at the United Center. (David Banks-USA TODAY Sports)

In a league with so much parity, building through the draft is critical for future success. Over the years, when expansion teams have entered the league, history has shown that their early drafts as a franchise result in drafting future stars that play a crucial role in the team having long-term favourable outcomes. Let’s take a look at some of these great picks by newly-formed expansion teams.

Minnesota Wild Build Through Offence

Before the Golden Knights, the last major expansion was in 2000. The league jumped to 30 teams by adding the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Minnesota Wild.

Marian Gaborik Minnesota Wild
Marian Gaborik (Source: Resolute, via Wikipedia Commons.)

In the 2000 Entry Draft, the Wild went third overall in the first round. Recognizing the need to draft a foundational, franchise player, Minnesota drafted Slovak forward Marian Gaborik.

Gaborik’s top asset is his speed and high hockey IQ. He is great on the forecheck with sneaky one-on-one moves and has a forceful slapshot.

In eight seasons with the Wild, the Slovak offensive star racked up 219 goals and 218 assists. Within two years of getting drafted, Marian took the Wild to the postseason, losing in the Western Conference Final to the Anaheim Ducks. He would get to the postseason two more times before reaching unrestricted free agency and signing with the New York Rangers, demonstrating the immediate impact he made for a team that desperately needed offensive prowess.

Shutdown Defense Recipe for Blue Jackets’ Success

The Blue Jackets went right after the Wild at fourth overall. Instead of going with an offensive threat, Columbus sought Czech defenseman Rostislav Klesla.

Klesla is the epitome of a physical defenseman. At 6-foot-3 and 216 pounds, his solid hockey knowledge and positional skills made him an effective shutdown defenseman in the Jackets’ own zone.

Rostislav Klasla Columbus Blue Jackets
Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Rostislav Klesla (Photo by Dave Gainer/The Hockey Writers)

While his statistics were not as flashy as other defensemen in his draft class, Klesla played a critical role as the anchor of the Blue Jackets defense in the 11 seasons he played with the club.

Unlike the Wild, the Jackets underwent a long, patient build to become a postseason team. When Klesla was in his eighth season with the team, they finally made the playoffs, demonstrating how the investment into a solid defensive core had finally paid off. The Blue Jackets needed to be patient in those early years but having a shutdown defenseman like Klesla went a long way for this team finally generating success.

Kariya Takes Ducks from Expansion to Cup Final

Canadian Paul Kariya was a rising junior star on the University of Maine when his dream to become an NHL player came true. In the 1993 Entry Draft, he would be drafted by the newly-formed Anaheim Ducks, the second NHL team in the Los Angeles area.

While his effortless skating and brilliant no-look passes made him an offensive threat, the Ducks were in the bottom tier of the league for the franchise’s first few years of existence.

In the 1996-97 season, Kariya’s 44 goals and 55 assists propelled the team to get to its first postseason in franchise history. They would lose to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings in four games.

Paul Kariya
Marleau is looking to pass Karina on the all-time list. (Photo by: Brian Bahr/Getty Images/NHLI)

The assiduity that is often possessed by many expansion teams is inspiring, as they persevere to try and build a team that can compete for a championship. In landing Adam Oates and Petr Sykora in the offseason, the Ducks finally received the good fortune they deserved in reaching the franchise’s first Stanley Cup Final.

While they would eventually lose to the New Jersey Devils in seven games, and Kariya would no longer be a member of the team the following season, he was determined throughout his tenure to stick to the process to help his team get to the promised land. He departed Anaheim as the team’s all-time leader at the time in games played (606), goals (300), assists (369) and points (669), demonstrating the impact he made as a first-round draft pick on an expansion team.

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Too Early to Tell Success of Knights 2017 Draft Picks

In the 2017 Entry Draft, the Golden Knights had three first-round picks, drafting center Cody Glass from the Portland Winterhawks, Nick Suzuki from the Owen Sound Attack, and Swedish defenseman Erik Brannstrom.

None of these players played for the Knights this year in the NHL. In 64 games played for the Winterhawks, Glass tallied 37 goals and 65 assists. After a successful season with the Attack, Suzuki will begin the upcoming season in the AHL with the Chicago Wolves.

Given no previous NHL experience, it is too early to tell if these picks will be stars or busts for the Knights. But this is a reality every team faces when drafting players high in the draft. Despite the scouting reports of high draft picks that often perpetuate a favourable future, there is always the risk that they do not perform to expectations.

As we saw with Gaborik, Klesla, and Kariya, they ended up being foundational players for their expansion teams to get to the playoffs. Given the success of the Golden Knights’ first-round picks for their junior teams, it would be no surprise if they make Vegas not just a one-hit wonder but a perennial contender for years to come.

Because as we have seen already, it is a safe bet to expect the unexpected with the Golden Knights.