Looking back at the players that NHL teams left “unprotected” and thereby eligible for the upstart Vegas Golden Knights to select for their expansion roster brings a great sense of irony. For example, it’s ironic that Marc-Andre Fleury, previously with the Pittsburgh Penguins, and James Neal of the Nashville Predators would both be unprotected and selected by the Golden Knights. Yet they found themselves with others unwanted by their former teams but selected by the Golden Knights.
Irony the Uniter
The irony lies in the fact that both players had recently competed in the 2017 Stanley Cup Finals. Fleury’s Penguins went on to win their second Stanley Cup in as many seasons, and Neal’s Predators staked a claim that they are a team to take seriously for the immediate future in the Western Conference.
Irony has them both on the freshly poured ice in Las Vegas as teammates, castoffs, if you will, along with a roster full of others who apparently were no longer needed by their previous teams. What began as an afterthought as well as a huge long-shot with bookmakers at having any chance at sniffing the playoffs, has turned into a team that is legitimate in its first season, and that is 12 wins away from hoisting the Stanley Cup.
What’s Happened in Vegas
Paul Newberry of the Associated Press penned it perfectly earlier today in summarizing what’s happened in Vegas. Newberry wrote, “For sure, the Golden Knights wound up with a much more talented roster than most expansion teams — partly through astute planning, partly through getting access to better players as a reward for doling out a staggering $500 million expansion fee, which was a more than six-fold increase over the $80 million required of Minnesota and Columbus to enter the league in 2000.”
“The expansion draft netted a top-line goalie in Fleury, who helped Pittsburgh win three Stanley Cups; center Jonathan Marchessault, a 30-goal scorer in Florida who was surprisingly left exposed by the Panthers; and winger James Neal, who had scored more than 20 goals in all nine of his NHL seasons. It also provided a solid group of defensemen: Colin Miller, Nate Schmidt, Deryk Engelland and Brayden McNabb.”
It is true that the Golden Knights had to fork over an enormous sum of money in order to join the ranks of the NHL. But, the pool of unprotected players they had to choose from wound up giving them an advantage right from the start when compared with that of previous expansion teams.
Iain MacIntyre wrote last week at Sportsnet that while teams like the Penguins have been able to deal with the pain of losing unprotected players – Matt Murray is still in-goal and may lead the Pens to a third Stanley Cup in a row – some teams are reeling.
MacIntyre wrote, “But then there are the Florida Panthers – the Panthers who missed the playoffs by a point after they surrendered Marchessault in the expansion draft and discarded [Reilly] Smith, giving him to Vegas for a fourth-round draft pick in order to shed the fast winger’s five-year, $25-million contract…Smith scored 60 points in 67 games playing opposite Marchessault, who produced 75 points in 78 games. The 27-year-olds, who rarely played together in Florida, gave the Knights an instant first line.”
What were castoffs or even called “misfits” by some in the hockey media have come together and done what can only be described as amazing. The Golden Knights won the Pacific Division and have just completed a sweep of the Los Angeles Kings. Fleury was able to emerge victorious over perennial elite Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick in a matchup that was as good as advertised.
Would anyone have placed a bet on either of those happening back in September and realistically thought they would win?
The Golden Knights swept the Kings
(File that under tweets nobody expected to see from this account on April 17, 2018)
— Vegas Golden Knights (@GoldenKnights) April 18, 2018
Most folks who wagered on the Golden Knights were likely thinking they were paying for a souvenir. Those folks might be laughing all the way to the bank. This season has been one unlike any other before it in the history of NHL expansion, maybe in the history of the NHL period. And it has lots of promise to continue to surprise.
Bookmakers are taking a hit as folks come to Vegas and bet on the Golden Knights, who just keep winning. T-Mobile Arena is loud and opposing teams have said it feels stifling to play in the Golden Knights’ home venue. Everything seems to be going the way of the Golden Knights in a season when nobody would have dared imagine this kind of result for the expansion team.
Twelve More Wins
As mentioned, the Golden Knights need to win 12 more games in order to win it all. Jesse Granger of the Las Vegas Sun said in a radio interview Friday that the Golden Knights should be considered to have as good a chance as any of the playoff teams to hoist the Cup. Granger said,
This team has proven everyone wrong the whole way, and in the NHL crazy things can happen. I don’t think any team has a significantly better chance than them, so why not them?
Granger is certainly hitting the nail on the head. The irony of a team that was supposed to be an expansion team like those who came before it, maybe winning here and there but eventually needing a few years to be taken seriously for the playoffs, is glaring. The notion that players who teams must not have wanted because they were allowed to be unprotected coming together and mowing through their division and the first round of the playoffs is unprecedented.
Even the way that head coach Gerard Gallant has been playing his lines has defied NHL norms. Granger wrote at the Sun on Apr. 19 that Gallant’s style breeds confidence in his players: “All season Gallant has played his third and fourth lines more than every team in the NHL, which allows top line players like William Karlsson, Reilly Smith and Jonathan Marchessault to remain fresh. It also gives fourth-liners confidence that they may not have for other coaching staffs.”
Before the Golden Knights can think about hoisting the Cup, they have to think about the San Jose Sharks. Zeke, penning here at The Hockey Writers, wrote a few days ago about the Sharks’ sweep of the Anaheim Ducks – “Overall, though, it’s really hard to give the Sharks too much credit in a four-game sweep where the Ducks embarrassingly self-destructed three times. The Sharks kept their poise while Anaheim didn’t bother to show up with any until the finale.”
This could be a key in trying to assess the upcoming second-round matchup between the Sharks and the Golden Knights. The Golden Knights swept their series, but all four games were hard-fought. Maybe this will give them the edge they need to get past the Sharks, who swept a team that was not testing them in a similar fashion. Granger said in his radio interview to expect a series with higher scoring than the Golden Knights had with the Kings. He said that the Sharks’ defensive style is to play with a lot more open ice which could lead to more scoring.
Whatever happens with the Golden Knights the rest of the way, it would not be wise to bet against them. They are in the midst of making history, and whether that run ends with them hoisting the Lord Stanley’s Cup, or going home after Round 2, they have already inked into infamy a season like non-other in the annals of NHL history. The irony will never be lost on this group that can basically look at their former teams who did not choose to protect them and just smile.
Mark lives in the Raleigh, NC area and covers the Carolina Hurricanes.