This wasn’t the plan.
Expansion teams lose. The Vegas Golden Knights should have been no different. You lose just enough to earn yourselves an enviable draft position but not so much as to turn people off the product. Wash, rinse, repeat for a handful of seasons, and then, and only then, can you begin to think about making some noise in the postseason.
Golden Knights owner Bill Foley would hear nothing of that plan. He didn’t hide that his vision included the Vegas franchise reaching the playoffs by year three and capturing a Stanley Cup by year six. In the weeks leading up to Vegas’ inaugural season, general manager George McPhee didn’t trash his bosses’ plan. He also didn’t co-sign.
So here we are, a quarter of the way through the 2017-18 season and Vegas absolutely is a playoff team. That’s if they want to be. It’s okay if you’re not sold yet. I get it. But I’ve run out of excuses for success.
The best I can come up with is the strength of their schedule. Vegas ranks last in the Western Conference in that regard and 19th league-wide. But, I’ve decided that’s not enough to ignore that the Golden Knights are spectacular at home, competent on the road and seem to be able to win regardless of who is in net.
All of which is to say, they’ve got some difficult decisions to make between now and the trade deadline. I sometimes wonder if, in his heart of hearts, McPhee wishes his club would take its foot off the gas to make his job a little bit easier. The “plan” that many talking heads seemed so convinced was the only way to move up in the Western Conference hasn’t made its way to the players.
Vegas is in a puzzling place but it’s a good problem to have.
How Do You Solve a Problem Like James Neal?
The Golden Knights roster is littered with guys putting together career seasons in Vegas.
Expectations were high for Neal since his relocation to Southern Nevada, and it wasn’t foolish to believe that his time in a Golden Knights sweater would be brief. He started fast. Through 20 games he’s racked up 11 goals and 6 assists. Those numbers are comparable to his last two seasons in Nashville.
Those seasons ended differently, though. Last year with the Predators, Neal cooled off. Ten goals and five assists through 20 games turned into 23 goals and 18 assists by season’s end. Granted he lost a dozen games due to injury.
The season before, Neal started hot and ended hot. He played in all 82 games and collected 31 goals, the second-best effort of his ten seasons in the NHL. In fact, he elevated his game at the end of that season, scoring eight goals and nine assists in the final 12 games of the regular season.
This is the final year of Neal’s contract and, at this point, it looks like he would make a fantastic addition to any team gearing up for a playoff run. Vegas’ success means Neal’s stock is high and it wouldn’t be surprising if the list of suitors is long and the offers attractive. It’s not easy for McPhee. Neal will fetch a lot, but he’s essential if Vegas is going to shoot for the postseason. Yes, he might cool off and the price may drop but he’s also a fan favorite. These are difficult waters to navigate.
Or David Perron For That Matter?
Like Neal, David Perron’s contract is coming to an end. Also like Neal, Perron is having a career year and could aid a playoff push.
His ceiling, as far as scoring punch goes, does not rival Neal’s but he’s intriguing to teams on the postseason bubble. Through 20 games, he’s on pace to have the top scoring season since entering the NHL in 2007, by a wide margin.
The irony here is that McPhee’s decision to trade Neal or Perron is made easier by losing even if that means the deal isn’t as sweet. It’s unlikely that the Golden Knights plummet in the standings with the pair playing well. They play well, Vegas does well, they’re easier to trade and will bring a bigger return. But if the Knights are in the postseason hunt, moving either is basically waving a white flag. They play poorly, Vegas does poorly, and the trade value drops immensely.
McPhee’s taking calls. We know that. He doesn’t have to decide now but rest assured he and assistant general manager Kelly McCrimmon have some hard and fast dates on the calendar by when decisions will have to be made.
As naïve as it may be, and many in the media will have you believe it’s very naïve, I think it’s possible to win now and win later. Any argument that starts with there being no precedent for such a formula, I would combat with the argument that there’s never been a team like the Golden Knights.
Related: Vegas Is on Pace to Win 40+ Games
David Perron is on track to have north of 50 assists this season. Many players on the Vegas roster look poised to smash career highs in a number of statistical categories. They’re not all going to do that. But some of them will.
When the calendar turns to 2018, the Vegas schedule gets considerably more treacherous. But how many points will the Golden Knights have by then? When they host the Nashville Predators on January 2nd, are we looking at a Western Conference Finals preview or the last hurrah for what has been an awesome party in Vegas’ inaugural season? McPhee, Foley, and head coach Gerard Gallant have only known winning so far, both on and off the ice. They’ll figure out this one too.
Las Vegas local covering Golden Knights hockey since 2016.
Ball State University ’05
Credentialed NBA writer covering the Phoenix Suns,
Credentialed NCAA football writer covering the UNLV Rebels