NHL Expansion Teams: A History of the League’s New Teams

The NHL is thriving and better than ever. With 32 teams vying for the Stanley Cup each season, fans from all over North America get a chance to see their team make a playoff run. But hockey hasn’t always been this widespread. The league has undergone multiple eras of expansion over its existence to get to where it is now, which is highlighted by its two newest franchises, the Seattle Kraken and Vegas Golden Knights. Both teams will be facing off on January 1, 2024 in the 2024 Winter Classic.

To understand how the league got to where it is, you have to go back to the beginning.

NHL Expansion History

Early Days: NHL’s First Expansion Era

In 1942, the NHL consisted of the Original Six teams: the Montréal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins, Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings, and New York Rangers. The league built up a following for the next 25 years with these six clubs. But in 1967, the league experienced its first expansion era.

It added six teams, bringing the league total to 12. The NHL added franchises in some busy cities on the East Coast and also made a push out west, as the California Seals, Los Angeles Kings, Minnesota North Stars, Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers, and the St. Louis Blues joined the ranks. This brought more notice to the league and grew the game exponentially throughout the United States.

Emergence of New Franchises: Expansion Waves and Growth

The NHL continued to branch out in the upcoming years to further give fans more teams to root for. 1970 added teams on both sides of North America with the addition of the Buffalo Sabres and the Vancouver Canucks. Two years later, the New York Islanders and the Atlanta Flames were added. The Flames lasted only eight years in Atlanta before moving to Calgary.

In 1974, the Washington Capitals and Kansas City Scouts joined the NHL. The Scouts moved to Denver in 1976 and became the Colorado Rockies for six years before moving cross country to New Jersey as the New Jersey Devils in 1982.

The era of franchise movement continued in 1976 when the Seals moved to Cleveland and merged with the North Stars two years later. The North Stars would eventually move to Dallas in 1993 and drop the “North” from their name.

In a move that ended a rival league, the NHL added four expansion teams from the World Hockey Association in 1979. The Quebec Nordiques, Hartford Whalers, Edmonton Oilers, and Winnipeg Jets became NHL franchises, bringing the total to 21 clubs at the time. Though three of these clubs would not make it to the new millennium in their cities. The Nordiques eventually brought hockey back to Denver in the form of the Colorado Avalanche in 1995. The Jets would move to Phoenix in 1996 and eventually become the Arizona Coyotes. The Whalers folded in 1997 and moved to Raleigh to become the Carolina Hurricanes.

From 1991 to 1993, the league expanded each season. In 1991, it added the San Jose Sharks. 1992 saw the birth of the Ottawa Senators and Tampa Bay Lightning. 1993 gave the NHL the Florida Panthers and Anaheim Mighty Ducks. The league wouldn’t expand again until 1998 when the Nashville Predators entered. Atlanta earned a franchise again in 1999 when the Thrashers were founded. That only lasted a little over a decade, as in 2011 the franchise  moved to Winnipeg to become the new version of the Jets.

In 2000, the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Minnesota Wild were added, bringing the league total to 30 teams.

It would be 17 years until the next expansion, when the Vegas Golden Knights joined in 2017-18 and became instant sensations, reaching the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season. and taking home the Stanley Cup five seasons later against the Florida Panthers at the end of the 2022-23 season.

In 2021, the Seattle Kraken debuted, bringing the league to its current 32 teams.

International Expansion: NHL Goes Global

The NHL is an incredibly global league, featuring players from all over the world. Hockey is one of the biggest sports in Europe and the NHL has leaned into that by playing games outside of North America. The league’s current Global Series dates back to 2017 and features teams annually playing games in Europe and Asia in the beginning of every season. 

The 2023 Global Series featured the Toronto Maple Leafs, Minnesota Wild, Ottawa Senators and Detroit Red Wings. According to recent reports, the NHL may be planning a four-team international tournament in 2025. The last time the NHL allowed its teams to play in any international tournament was in the 2014 Olympics.

The Expansion Draft: Building New Teams

So how exactly does an expansion team get players? An expansion draft takes place where players from the other teams in the league are offered up for the choosing. Each team is allotted a certain amount of protection spots, meaning the expansion team can’t select those players. But everyone who is not protected is offered up as a potential candidate for the expansion team. 

The expansion team then fills out its roster with unprotected players.

Future NHL Expansion

In the meantime, there are plenty of North American cities that would love the chance, or another one, at an NHL franchise. 

Quebec, Hartford, Atlanta, and Kansas City are four that previously had franchises that are near the top of the list. Other cities that are said to be favorites to one day land a franchise are Salt Lake City, Houston, Cincinnati, Halifax, Portland, and Milwaukee. Whether any of them pans out remains to be seen, but all have the infrastructure to potentially support an NHL club.

Get 2024 Winter Classic tickets here.

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