For a quarter of a century, the NHL was a six team league. As the 1960s rumbled on, the NHL and the ‘original six’ teams decided (or relented, depending on how you look at it) that it was time to expand. Next year the NHL expands again as the Las Vegas
Desert, Black, Silver, Something Knights will join, the first expansion team in 16 years. So, ahead of that, we’ll be taking a look at the teams that have joined the league over the years.
With the addition of the six new teams, the league was split into the East and West divisions. The East consisted of the ‘original six’, the West of the expansion teams.
The NHL’s expansion into California gave access to two of America’s more populous cities. The California Seals made the move from the Western Hockey League as part of the expansion. This in itself was a bad decision, one of many that would beset the Seals. The team had performed fairly well in the WHL, but the standard of the NHL competition was too much. Despite two playoff appearances (as the Oakland Seals), six playoff-free seasons (as the California Seals – again) and dwindling attendance would ultimately call time on the team, who relocated in 1976 and became the Cleveland Barons. The best contribution the Seals ever made to the NHL was gifting Guy Lafleur to the Montreal Canadiens. But that’s a whole other story.
While the Seals have long since fallen by the wayside, the LA Kings are still going strong. The Kings played well and made the playoffs more often than not. But it wasn’t until 1993 that the team would make the Stanley Cup final for the first time. The Kings’ loss to the Canadiens in ’93 crippled the team for a long time, and over the next 17 seasons, the Kings made the postseason just six times. The 2011/12 season was a turn-around, and after seeing off the Vancouver Canucks, St. Louis Blues and Arizona Coyotes, the Kings beat the New Jersey Devils to lift the team’s first Stanley Cup. Dustin Brown captained the team to victory, while superstar goalie Jonathan Quick made the difference in net.
The Kings only lost two games en-route to 2011/12’s finals, but 2013/14 would prove more difficult. The series played against the San Jose Sharks, Anaheim Ducks and Chicago Blackhawks would each go to a game seven decider. The New York Rangers however, did not put up the same level of fight in the finals, losing the series 4-1 to the Kings.
Minnesota North Stars
While the Minnesota North Stars never met the same levels of success as other expansion teams, they did make the Stanley Cup playoffs 17 times in their 26 season tenure in Minnesota. Like the LA Kings, the North Stars initially struggled to make a serious dent in the playoffs for some time.
The 1980/81 season was the first time that Minnesota would make the Stanley Cup finals, and having made the semi-finals the season before, the team had a good chance at bringing silverware home. The Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres and newly relocated Calgary Flames rolled over for Minnesota. The New York Islanders, who used to be good back then, would win the final series 4-1, lifting the second of four consecutive cups.
Ten years later, the North Stars would make the finals again, seeing off the Chicago Blackhawks, St. Louis Blues and Edmonton Oilers en-route to a final series against fellow expansion team the Pittsburgh Penguins. Prior to the 1990/91 season the Penguins had never won a thing, and the 1980s had been a decade to forget, but powered by Mario Lemieux, Ulf Samuelsson and a then middle-aged Jaromir Jagr, the Pens won the series 4-2.
The North Stars lost the final game of that series 8-0, and that marked the beginning of the end for the team. Poor attendance and arena issues saw the team move to Dallas after the conclusion of the 1992/93 season.
As mentioned above, the Penguins were never contenders, they had a few tastes of playoff hockey, but for over 20 seasons, never progressed past the second round. That ties nicely into our next expansion team, the Pittsburgh Penguins, the team that in 2016 proved that you don’t need to pay goalies crazy money in order to win stuff. The Pens have lifted the Stanley Cup four times now, and are the most successful of the 1967 expansion teams. That success didn’t come easy though.
In order to build a team capable of winning stuff, the Penguins needed to reinforce the lines: Lemieux needed support. The free agency market was attacked, trades were made and picks drafted. This resulted in one of the best teams ever seen in the NHL and the payoff was immediate. The Pens defeated the New Jersey Devils, Washington Capitals and Boston Bruins, before beating the aforementioned North Stars to lift the franchise’s first Stanley Cup.
Pittsburgh was able to maintain that success, and saw off the Chicago Blackhawks the following season to lift the cup again. It wasn’t to last though, the hefty contracts that brought cup success almost ruined the Penguins, and despite often making the playoffs thoughout the 1990s, the team missed four consecutive postseasons at the start of the 2000s. This was the team’s worse playoff drought since the mid-80s. The second retirement of Lemieux and trade of Jagr signalled dark times ahead, but drafting Evgeni Malkin in 2004, and first overall pick Sidney Crosby gave the Pens a cornerstone to rebuild on. Pittsburgh made the 2007/08 Stanley Cup finals, but lost out to the Detroit Red Wings. Revenge was had the following season, and although it took a game seven decider, the Penguins beat the Red Wings to lift their third Stanley Cup.
The Penguins’ fourth Stanley Cup would be some time later. Considered outsiders due to injury to goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and the mid-season dismissal of head coach Mike Johnston, the pre-season addition of Phil Kessel bolstered the Penguins offence and the team marched through to 2015/16’s Stanley Cup finals, defeating the San Jose Sharks four games to two.
St. Louis Blues
The City of St. Louis hadn’t seen an NHL team since the previous iteration of the Ottawa Senators upped and relocated to Missouri in 1934. The St. Louis Eagles lasted just one season before financial issues led to the team’s demise. NHL ice hockey returned in 1967 when the St. Louis Blues took residence in the city’s St. Louis Arena.
In the team’s first three seasons, the Blues made the Stanley Cup final before being swept by the Boston Bruins in 1968 and the Montreal Canadiens in 1969 and 1970. It’s probably no surprise those appearances in the final came under head coach Scotty Bowman. Furthermore, the Blues had picked up future hall-of-famer Glenn Hall in the expansion draft, as well as Al Arbour.
If there’s a prize for consistency in the NHL, then the Blues would win it. The team had a consecutive playoff streak of 25 games, but couldn’t make it past the second round. This streak was ended by the 2004/05 lockout and when hockey returned the following season, the Blues missed three postseasons on the bounce. Last season the Blues made the Conference finals, but lost out to the San Jose Sharks.
The Philadelphia Flyers are the last of the expansion six, and like the LA Kings, have also lifted the Stanley Cup twice. But unlike the Kings, whose success has been recent, both of the Flyers’ Stanley Cups were won back in the early 1970s. The Flyers were the first expansion team to lift the cup.
With the second overall pick in the expansion draft, the Flyers picked Bernie Parent from the Boston Bruins. One of the best goalies to ever play NHL hockey, Parent would backstop the Flyers to two Stanley Cups, as well as lifting the Vezina and Conn Smythe trophies twice.
Players like Parent, Bobby Clark and Bill Barber made the Flyers one of the most formidable teams in early to mid-1970s, and enforcers like Dave Schultz sealed the team’s reputation as ‘the Broad Street Bullies’. This reputation was deserved but didn’t bring the Flyers any more cups. In the 1980s the team made the Cup final three times, but couldn’t see a way past the Edmonton Oilers (twice) and the Montreal Canadiens.
The final season of the 1980s marked a low point for the Flyers who missed the playoffs for five consecutive seasons. It was until 1997’s playoffs that the team would make the final again, losing in four games to Detroit. 2010 brought another trip to the final, but the Chicago Blackhawks would take the final series 4-2.
Of the six expansion teams, only four still play in the cities in which they were founded. The Seals are no longer with us, while the Stars relocated to Dallas. The ‘expansion four’, to coin a phrase, have contributed eight Stanley Cups, although Pittsburgh have claimed half of those and St. Louis none. Something that’s unlikely to change anytime soon.
Next time we’ll take a look at some of the teams who joined the NHL in the 1970s.