Time for another Guest Post. Today’s submission comes all the way from the other side of the country in this magical place called New Jersey. Our guy Chris was able to track down former Rangers and Panthers goaltender John Vanbiesbrouck and ask some questions about expansion, Vegas, and more. Written by Chris Rauch.
“They are set up to have a lot of success.”
Let’s face it: when expansion teams get off the ground they are usually abysmal. The Washington Capitals won 8 games their first year in the league. It took the Columbus Blue Jackets nearly 10 years to make the playoffs for the first time. One exception to the futility rule are the Florida Panthers. It took only three years for the team to reach the Stanley Cup finals – thanks, in part, to the first player chosen in the 1993 expansion draft: goaltender John “The Beezer” Vanbiesbrouck.
The days of terrible expansion teams may be in the rear view mirror thanks to the new NHL draft rules which will give the Golden Knights access to the best talent pool an expansion team has ever seen. General manager George McPhee will have a lot on his plate, and Vanbiesbrouck is confident that the team is in good hands with McPhee at the helm.
Vanbiesbrouck and McPhee have also known each other for a long time. The two played for the New York Rangers back in the ‘80s. Currently, Vanbiesbrouck is the General Manager for the United States Hockey League’s (USHL) Muskegon Lumberjacks, a top Tier 1 junior team in Western Michigan.
“Look at the job he’s done with the Capitals,” says Vanbiesbrouck, “That still lives on with that team right now. I just believe that George and his crew…are set up to have a lot of success. His Director of Scouting [Scott Luce] is one of the best in the game. I’ve known him for a long time and he’s great at finding great talent.”
Drafting in a salary cap era may be tricky, but “The Beezer” feels there will be enough talent to go around when the draft gets underway in June – especially for goaltenders. “They are probably going to start with a goalie. If a guy like (Marc-Andre) Fleury is available with Stanley Cup winning experience and a lot of gas still in the tank it will be hard to look past him.”
Vanbiesbrouck feels the Knights can potentially mimic the early success of the Panthers. In order for that to happen, he says they need a good mix of young talent and older experienced players. He says that system worked well when he started with the team.
“Guys like myself and Scott Mellanby, Brian Skrudland that started the core of the Panthers, we were the 30 and over crew and looked at on the downside of the hockey scale. You want to build that nucleus that could sustain growth and consistency. Because consistency is what really is going to matter. I mean 80 games, you’re only going to play on emotion for so many games and then you have to look to experience and consistency to take over. And I think that that’s where the Panthers started their build and we had some success with that.”
Vanbiesbrouck gives a lot of the credit to the team’s coach. “Roger Nielsen did a nice job of creating [a hockey] environment in a non-hockey environment in Florida,” recalled Vanbiesbrouck.
When it comes to the so called “non-traditional” hockey markets, like Florida and Las Vegas, Vanbiesbrouck hopes the term will become old hat and every city could be a hockey city. Vegas could be the catalyst.
It’s been proven over the years that the sport grows where an NHL team is planted. Florida has become a booming hockey market in the nearly three decades since the Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning first started playing. According to USA Hockey, the Southeast region last year had 49,000 registered players -13,000 of them are in Florida. In 1990 before Sunbelt expansion, the Southeast had around 4,500 registered players. Could Nevada be next? Vanbiesbrouck says, “Why not?”
“There is a nice nucleus in Vegas already established by Kirk Brooks who owns the Tri City team in the USHL. So there is some underbelly foundation work going on there,” said Vanbiesbrouck.
Once the Golden Knights have a team in place, the next phase will be promoting and marketing the players. While it may be a simple task since they have done a great job of generating publicity even before the NHL officially granted the city a team, it may pale in comparison to what the Panthers did almost 25 years ago- before the Internet was widely available.
Without social media or email, the team had to literally make their faces seen. Players went to malls to meet fans and made videos explaining the rules of the game. Vanbiesbrouck even posed for glamour shots on a beach in full goalie gear and sunglasses.
“We laugh about it today because he had too. We had to get to the malls and get to the different places in order to get to know people. I look back on those times and I get a big smile on my face. I don’t think it’s going to be that way in Las Vegas, just click a button and send out social media stuff and everybody is going to come. I think that they have done a lot of work and knowing George McPhee and all his guys they work tirelessly and they are going to do a great job there.”
The Golden Knights expansion draft picks will be made public as part of a nationally televised event on June 21 on the NBC Sports Network.
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