Are expansion teams now about instant gratification, or do good things still come to those who wait?
The Seattle Kraken are yet another fascinating data point on the speed at which a new franchise can become competitive. Now in its second NHL season, the team is 15-10 and ranks ninth in the league with a plus-0.44 goals-per-game differential.1 Not only is that a far cry better than last year’s horrendous showing (a 27-55 record and minus-0.84 differential), but it’s also much more in line with what we expected from Seattle going into its debut season — which itself was informed by how good the Vegas Golden Knights started out of the gate in 2017-18.
|Team||Years||Yr 1||Yr 2||Yr 1||Yr 2|
|San Jose Sharks||1992/93||.244||.143||-1.75||-2.33|
|Tampa Bay Lightning||1993/94||.315||.423||-1.04||-0.32|
|Mighty Ducks of Anaheim||1994/95||.423||.385||-0.26||-0.81|
|Columbus Blue Jackets||2001/02||.396||.317||-0.52||-1.11|
|Vegas Golden Knights||2018/19||.622||.524||+0.54||+0.23|
The timeline for a successful expansion team seemed to shrink when the Golden Knights stormed to the Stanley Cup Final during their debut campaign. Such a season would never have been possible under the traditional rules of expansion, but Vegas had access to better talent than its predecessors — in part because of new leaguewide economic conditions (a salary cap!), plus other factors that suggested the sport didn’t want its newest fan base to languish for years before cheering on a winner. With Seattle cribbing from the Vegas blueprint, too, it wasn’t outrageous to think the Kraken would also be far better than the typical expansion club right away.
Clearly, that’s not what happened. Beset by a lack of scoring firepower and some of the NHL’s most abysmal goaltending, Seattle never had a winning month and finished with the third-worst record in the league. And unlike Vegas, whose collection of surprisingly-decent-on-paper talent also performed well beyond its previous track record, Seattle’s similarly solid-looking expansion group almost uniformly disappointed. Of Seattle’s expected top 20 players last season, according to the established level of their adjusted goals above replacement2 over the previous three seasons, 17 fell short in their actual GAR production. (For Vegas in 2018, by comparison, 14 of the top 20 exceeded their established GAR levels.)
That landed Seattle pretty much in line with the typical pre-Vegas expansion team from recent NHL history — which in turn seemed to suggest that not as much had changed about new teams’ expectations as we had believed. But the twist is that this year’s Kraken are having the type of season we thought was possible last year. In fact, their winning percentage and goals-per-game differential are not only light years ahead of the pre-Vegas average for expansion teams in their second seasons, but also well ahead of where Vegas was in Year 2.
What’s the difference? Certainly, the Kraken spent their second offseason shoring up deficiencies from Year 1, perhaps most notably in the addition of talented offensive winger André Burakovsky from the reigning Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche. In terms of net adjusted GAR gained from newcomers minus GAR lost from departures, Seattle’s offseason dealings rank eighth in the league, gaining the team 14.4 net goals per 82 games. However, a much larger factor driving the Kraken’s sophomore-year improvement has been a massive 92.7 net GAR improvement by holdovers from last season’s roster, third-most in the NHL behind only the New Jersey Devils (plus-139.9 GAR per 82) and the Boston Bruins (plus-102.6).
Whether it’s original expansion draftees who are back to their old selves after a year of settling into the Pacific Northwest, or youngsters like phenom center Matty Beniers (who appeared in just 10 games last season but is on pace for 33 goals as a regular now), members of the first Kraken squad who stuck around are being rewarded for enduring all those hardships in 2022.
Seattle’s belated success has shed light on yet another possibility when it comes to a new franchise’s path to success (in any sport). We’ve seen plenty of bad expansion teams over the years; with Vegas, we saw one that was immediately good. But the Kraken are showing that sometimes a new team needs to wait an extra season before truly competing with the rest of the league.
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