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Q&A: Bill Torrey Talks Expansion Drafts

by Staff @FlaPanthers /

SUNRISE, Fla. - The architect of two of the most successful expansion franchises in NHL history, Florida Panthers Alternate Governor Bill Torrey certainly knows what it takes to bake an NHL team from scratch.

After briefly serving as general manager of the Oakland Seals, Torrey went on to oversee the creation of both the New York Islanders (1972) and the Panthers (1993).

In New York, Torrey's Islanders won six Patrick Division titles and won four Stanley Cup championships in a row from 1980-83. By drafting future Hall of Famers such as Denis Potvin, Bryan Trottier and Mike Bossy, the Islanders became one of the league's best teams for more than a decade, putting together fourteen consecutive winning seasons between 1975 and 1988.

In Florida, Torrey's Panthers set an NHL record for first-year teams by winning 33 games and collecting 83 points. In just the third year of their existence, the Panthers were already competing for a Stanley Cup, becoming the fastest an expansion team to ever reach the Stanley Cup Finals.

For his contributions to hockey, Torrey was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1995.

Last June, Las Vegas was awarded the league's 31st franchise, bringing about the NHL's first expansion draft in 17 years, when both the Columbus Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild came into existence.

Now, the Golden Knights are preparing to select one player from each team (30 players total) and those selections will be revealed during the NHL Awards on June 21 at 8 p.m. ET on NBC Sports Network.

So what's the key to finding success as an expansion franchise? We asked the expert. In each of your expansion drafts as general manager, you were drafting against another team. What advantages does Las Vegas have by entering the league by itself?

BILL TORREY: Yeah, certainly for Vegas they have a big advantage because it's a single-team expansion. The other expansions have been multiple teams. So you had competition between the other teams coming in together amongst themselves, plus the competition that goes on for players with other teams in the league. So, this is a little different. The rules have changed. As you pointed out, the rules certainly have changed, such as teams being able to protect fewer players now. With more talent to choose from, how does that make things different for Vegas?

TORREY: It's only one team, but they've had a longer time to work with the other teams in the league, to try and make deals, even though [the window] to actually do something is just coming up next week. But on the other hand, they've had a lot of time to lay groundwork and they also don't have the problem of another team cutting off what they might be trying to do. So, it's going to be rather unique in that regard. And, of course, there's the locale, the interest. I think there's probably more pre-expansion draft interest in this one because it's in Vegas. You mentioned before that when the Islanders came into the league they were already competing with New York's incumbent team, the Rangers. What does it mean for Vegas to not have a similar geographical competition?

TORREY: Well, we also had to compete when we came in the league. There was two of us coming in at the same time, so they have a lot of advantages there, and the rules for players were much stricter for us. This draft is much more generous for [Vegas] than for when there were two teams. When you're drafting an expansion team, how do you value short-term success versus long-term success?

TORREY: Well we went through the draft for two reasons. First of all, we had competition right from the get-go with the Rangers in the same area, so we were competing in that sense. Not only that, but there were two divisions. You had a Western Division and the East. We were put in the East with Montreal, Boston, more of the established original six teams were in that division than the Western Division that Atlanta went into. I could see very clearly that for us to make any sort of an imprint on the ice, that first couple of years it wasn't going to happen. Out of the drafts, we got three players that had NHL experience. Vegas this year could get 30 players with NHL experience. But the other thing that made me think that this was, I don't want to say it was a rigged deal but it was rigged against us, because the draft, the teams that were protecting players, they could, if somebody drafted a player, say, off Montreal, they could then add another player that was not protected to their list. So [Vegas] has a ton of advantages going into it. It's not even close (to how it used to be). With an expansion team, how aware are you that you're not only building a new hockey team, but also often going into a brand new market?

TORREY: Well each market is different, you know? You could go right back to the '67 draft when six teams came in, but none of them came in in the same market, so they weren't competing against each other for the market. It's a significant difference. What did you learn from your time as the general manager of the Oakland Seals that helped you later build the Islanders and the Panthers from the ground up?

TORREY: Well, again, the rules are different, the markets are different, and the one thing that I could see, because the amateur draft, as it was called then, is different than the amateur draft today. You couldn't draft a player until he passed his 20th birthday. Today, we're drafting 17 and 18 year olds. Huge difference. What led you to your first expansion team, the Islanders?

TORREY: Well, a very wise man. When Atlanta and [the Islanders] came in, I was also rumored to [be up for the Atlanta job]. I didn't meet with Atlanta, but I did meet with [the Islanders] before I made up my mind where I preferred to go. I had a good friend in Pittsburgh, Art Rooney, who started the Steelers. He called me on the phone and said, "I hear you're possibly going to Atlanta. Let me tell you something, it's my own opinion, go to Long Island. Atlanta is a southern city, they don't know anything about hockey, so you're going to have to build a team and develop the market. In New York you're not going to have to build up the market. New York is New York." So, I did heed his advice. As with any expansion team, obstacles are to be expected. What challenges do you see Las Vegas facing over its first three seasons?

TORREY: Vegas has the attraction of entertainment and a lot of other things that has obviously helped them. They sold out their seats and early ticket sales are good. The one thing that I've learned, no matter what advantages you have, winning long-term is a must. Sooner or later, people won't support bad teams. So you don't know whether they're going to be as good as everybody thinks they're going to be, and it depends on the approach they take and how long do they think in their market will they have to put a contending team on the ice. So they should know the market, and they've had a whole year to prepare. When we came in [to South Florida], we were not given the green light by the commissioner that we were definitely going until five-and-a-half months prior to the [expansion] draft. We didn't have a pencil. We had no ice. We had no practice rink. Nothing. It's like, in the '67 draft, those guys had a year and a half to get ready. We had five-and-a-half months. How would you compare the early success of the Islanders compared to the Panthers?

TORREY: Well, the significance was that our assessment of the amateur draft proved to be correct. We [the Islanders] felt that the amateur draft for three years was going to be extremely strong. We had success in winning the cup in eight years [with the Islanders]. We obviously got to the finals quicker with the Panthers, but we didn't win it. What does it mean to you that Florida's 1996 Stanley Cup Final team, consisting of mostly of expansion players, is still held in high regard today?

TORREY: Again, the draft was different. We looked at available players, and while there weren't fifty goal scorers left open, there were really good, solid veteran players, both defensively and in all-around play. And quite frankly, the team we put on the ice right from the very beginning, each night they could compete. We didn't score a lot of goals, but we had good goaltending. We had a solid veteran defense; we were strong defensively in center ice, which is crucial. We were also fortunate that Roger Nielsen, who we selected as our first coach, those kinds of players were tailor made for him. He was considered, and he certainly was, the type of coach that could get the most out of the kind of players that we were able to draft. It fit. The difference between the first year of the Islanders and the first year of the Panthers was significantly different in terms of experience and veterans. Again, the first team that [the Islanders] put on the ice we had three players with NHL experience. And there was no Mike Bossy on that Panthers team either.

TORREY: No, no. You know Mike Bossy's average scoring in junior? He played four years of junior and he averaged 75 goals a year. What advice would you have for the Las Vegas staff?

TORREY: They have to decide if they think what they're going to compete now. Then that will affect the path they choose. If their ownership feels that Vegas is a city that can put up with losing for a year or two to get better players a little further down the line, that's an assessment they're going to have to make when they see who the other teams make available. See, the other thing, when we drafted that first Panthers team, in the expansion draft not the amateur draft, they were not only more experienced and solid, but psychologically they had a more veteran attitude. They had an attitude that they were really pissed off, those players, that they were left open. We had a bunch of them come down during the summer to do some promotions in Miami, such as roller-skating on the streets. These guys, I could tell, had a bear up their [expletive]. They were insulted. With guys like Brian Skrudland, coming from a Stanley Cup championship team in Montreal, they were ready to go. They had a record in the league and they were insulted that they were left open. Everybody says, "Hockey in Florida? No way. Who cares?" But their attitude from the get-go was to show everybody that they'd made a big mistake. It was a big advantage. So that was a factor in our getting off to a reasonably good start. I think it was a matter of pride to them.

Thomas Harding & Jameson Olive contributed to this article

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