SEATTLE — Seattle’s NHL expansion team is unafraid to follow the Vegas Golden Knights.
“Anyone who would ever resent someone else’s success because you’re worried if you can replicate it, shame on you,” NHL Seattle CEO Tod Leiweke said. “I’m inspired by what they did. I think it’s cool.”
The Golden Knights blew away expectations in their 2017-18 inaugural season.
They created a unique Vegas experience inside sold-out T-Mobile Arena, built a strong connection to the community, shattered records for first-year teams, finished fifth in the NHL standings and made the Stanley Cup Final.
The joke around the NHL is that the Seattle general manager job will be the worst in hockey, because teams learned from their experience in the expansion draft and it will be so hard to match what Vegas did.
But Leiweke has vast experience in building organizations in professional sports leagues, including the NHL. The Golden Knights learned from teams he led.
Seattle will have the advantages Vegas did: strong ownership, the NHL salary cap and expansion draft rules more favorable than in the past. The rules will be the same as for Vegas, except the Golden Knights will be exempt.
That is a big reason why former NHL player and coach Dave Tippett decided to join NHL Seattle as a senior adviser. It could help lure talent from the general manager on down. If they have a choice, people don’t want to go somewhere they think they will have to lose for years. Once the players arrive, it could help them believe too.
“I think if you’re scared of the situation, it would be [hard to follow Vegas],” Tippett said. “But I think it sets the bar very high, which I like, because in the past expansions, the bar has been set so low. … You should have a chance to be competitive. I think what Vegas did just puts an exclamation point on that.”
One of Tippett’s first duties for NHL Seattle was to study Vegas’ success and present his findings to ownership.
“I think they can look at what Vegas did and get excited,” said Golden Knights general manager George McPhee, who worked with Leiweke for the Vancouver Canucks in the 1990s. “You never know. It was a really positive experience in hockey, for the NHL, for Vegas, for hockey all over the world. It was a really neat story. And why can’t it be done again?”
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Leiweke is following Vegas, but Vegas followed him in some ways.
Golden Knights president Kerry Bubolz read the book “How to Bake an NHL Franchise from Scratch: The First Era of the Minnesota Wild” by Tom Lynn, the assistant GM of the Wild when they joined the NHL in 2000-01.
Leiweke was president of that team.
“There were some lessons in there that we pulled out in terms of the business side and the hockey side,” Bubolz said. “I know George talked to some of those folks. All that ties back to Tod.”
When Bubolz thought of NHL teams Vegas should aspire to be like, he focused on the Nashville Predators and Tampa Bay Lightning. Each was in a small, non-traditional hockey market. The Predators became part of the entertainment scene in Nashville. The Lightning stitched themselves into the fabric of Tampa Bay after owner Jeff Vinik bought them in 2010.
Leiweke was CEO of Tampa Bay Sports & Entertainment from 2010-15.
The Lightning went from 3,000 season tickets to 13,000 in that period. Among the many things they did was add an organ, local artwork, a party deck, a spectacular scoreboard, Tesla coils that made real lightning, and new uniforms. They created the Lightning Community Hero program, which donates $50,000 to charity each game.
“When I think of best in class in the NHL in terms of community connection, it’s the Lightning,” Bubolz said. “It’s just amazing.”
Leiweke will tailor the same principles to Seattle, as he has before.
He was CEO of the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks from 2003-2010 and Major League Soccer’s Seattle Sounders from 2007-10. The Seahawks began a sellout streak that is at 135 games. The Sounders led MLS in attendance their first eight years after beginning play as an expansion team in 2009.
“I think Tod is uniquely positioned to take advantage of that opportunity or that challenge, because he knows the market,” Bubolz said.
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McPhee sat down for an interview with longtime NHL executive Brian Burke at the PrimeTime Sports Management Conference in Toronto on Nov. 12.
He told Burke the first pillar in Vegas was hiring the right people — the best hard-working, low-ego people for each position in the organization. The second was culture. He called it “an invisible difference-maker or the ultimate competitive advantage.”
The Golden Knights had two objectives: to build the best team they could right away and to stockpile surplus draft picks. He and assistant GM Kelly McCrimmon split the NHL in half. McPhee took the East, McCrimmon the West. They hired a software engineer, used the tools he developed and ran many mock drafts.
McPhee was most worried about a redistribution of players as teams maneuvered ahead of the expansion draft. To disrupt it, he made secret, conditional deals with about 10 teams. That froze the market, and the Golden Knights ended up with some good players they wouldn’t have otherwise.
“You totally screwed Seattle,” Burke told McPhee. “When they come in, nobody’s going to make any deals. They’re going to say, ‘Take whoever you want. We’re not making any side deals.'”
There is truth to that.
“Probably less deals,” Calgary Flames GM Brad Treliving said. “People will just say, ‘Here’s the guys that I’m protecting, and have at ‘er.'”
The Florida Panthers lost forward Jonathan Marchessault in the expansion draft and traded forward Reilly Smith to Vegas for a fourth-round pick in the 2018 NHL Draft. Afterward, GM Dale Tallon said the trade was to free up cap space. Smith was about to start a five-year contract extension.
Marchessault and Smith ended up on Vegas’ first line. Marchessault had 75 points (27 goals, 48 points) in 77 games and signed a six-year, $30 million contract with Vegas on Jan. 3. Smith had 60 points (22 goals, 38 assists) in 67 games.
“I’m sure I’ll do things differently than I did the first time,” Tallon said. “We decided to protect our young [defensemen]. Maybe in hindsight I probably would have left one defenseman unprotected. Who knows? You never know at the time. I think long term it’s going to benefit us, but short term, it hurt us a little bit. We’ll be much more prepared.”
Teams also will have plenty of time to prepare with Seattle starting play in 2021-22.
But McPhee said Seattle would learn from Vegas’ experience as well. He already has met with Leiweke at least once to catch up and compare notes, and they have plans to meet again.
When Tippett studied Vegas, these were his takeaways: The Golden Knights had a strong identity and hired people who fit it. McPhee and McCrimmon hired an excellent coach in Gerard Gallant and did an amazing job of building a team, not just collecting assets. They took some players with the intention of trading them but kept them because of the team’s success. They targeted others on second contracts in their mid-20s looking for more opportunity. Everyone united after the mass shooting on the Strip on Oct. 1, 2017.
Yes, teams might not make as many side deals ahead of the next expansion draft. But some teams still might want to trade, if only to shed contracts, and simply picking players can be valuable under these rules.
“I think it’ll be harder,” Tippett said. “I still think that there’s going to be teams that have real good players available.”
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Seattle is different than Vegas in many ways, and not just in terms of rain vs. desert, grunge vs. glitz. It is a bigger city. It has major league sports already, so the love affair might not be quite the same as it was for Las Vegas’ first major league sports team.
But in the end, Seattle will be like Vegas in the most important ways.
“The market looks like a very good sports market, and they’re going to enjoy NHL hockey,” McPhee said. “They’re going to see something that the Vegas fans have seen. If they didn’t know hockey, they’re going to fall in love with it. If they do know hockey, they’re going to appreciate hockey at this level.
“The game has never been better. The players are quality human beings. And they can expect a team that can compete. The League has done a very good thing for all sports and certainly the NHL by giving a team a chance to win and be successful. …
“The big hurdle is getting the right people in the front office. They will do that, and as a result, they’re going to execute it well.”
For all the success the Golden Knights had immediately, they are trying to build for the long term. Seattle is too. Tippett talks of building a “legacy” team in the mold of the Original Six.
“I think the complete story of an expansion franchise is not written in its first year,” said Doug Risebrough, the GM of the Wild under Leiweke when they entered the NHL. “If Tod was asking me, I’d say, ‘Yeah, you’ve got the Vegas first year. Let’s see how it measures out in three years.’
“I think they’ll produce a competitive team. Will they be able to replicate the magic of what went on in Vegas? I don’t know. But I know they’re going to produce a lot of excitement for their fans in the building with the rink and the games.
“Knowing Tod, it’s going to be a wonderful fan experience. Knowing Tod, everybody that’s connected to that franchise in terms of sponsors, season ticket holders, at the end of the year, they’re going to feel very satisfied that they were a part of it.”