The inaugural season of the Vegas Golden Knights has been the greatest underdog story that the NHL has ever seen in its 100 years of existence. There were doubts at every step of the journey that they could overcome that next obstacle in their path, but each and every time they defied expectations.
When they made the playoffs in their first season as an expansion team, people believed that their flukey season would come tumbling down. But each and every time they proved doubters wrong. They swept the Los Angeles Kings in four games in the first round. Then they beat out the experienced San Jose Sharks in six games in the second. And then they took down the juggernaut of the Central Division, the Winnipeg Jets, in five games to head to the Stanley Cup Final.
Either way, history will be made when Vegas or the Washington Capitals win their first Stanley Cup.
The Golden Knights making the Stanley Cup Final in their first season is great for the NHL and for the sport of hockey, but for the 30 other teams in the league, it’s downright embarrassing that they’ve done it in their first season.
The Unexpected Success of the Golden Knights
The Golden Knights were never expected to be a playoff team and weren’t expected to finish above the basement, but here they are. So, how did this expansion team become an NHL juggernaut in its first season? For one thing, the expansion draft rules were changed for the benefit of Vegas and as a result, they were able to ice a respectable team.
The 2017 NHL Expansion Draft
The changes made a huge difference from the previous expansion teams who all came into the league with a roster filled with unwanted bottom-end players. The NHL couldn’t afford for Vegas to be terrible for a decade, like the expansion teams before them.
By changing the draft rules to either protecting seven forwards, three defensemen and one goalie or eight skaters and one goalie, teams would actually lose a good player. Vegas also made a number of trades alongside their expansion draft picks that looked to put the team on the path to success. By taking on bad contracts they received either players or draft picks in return.
But what Vegas and other teams around the NHL didn’t know was just how well these players would play in Vegas.
One standout pick, obviously, was Marc-Andre Fleury from the Pittsburgh Penguins. Fleury has been a key factor in their path to the Stanley Cup by having the best season of his career, including in the playoffs. His performance in the Final will determine whether or not Vegas wins the Cup.
Another great pick-up was from the Columbus Blue Jackets, who unwittingly gave up a superstar in William Karlsson, in addition to a 2017 first-round pick and a 2019 second-round pick, in exchange for Vegas taking on David Clarkson’s contract. Karlsson was expected to be a serviceable third-line center after putting up 25 points in the 2016-17 season and 20 points in 2015-16. Looking at his point totals from the past two years shows how surprising it was for him to tally 78 points and 43 goals this season.
Then there are the Florida Panthers, who gave Vegas three important parts to their season-long success. First, the Golden Knights signed Gerard Gallant as head coach, who had been fired by the Panthers, then they received Jonathan Marchessault for taking on Reilly Smith’s contract. Both players had a career year. Marchessault finished with an amazing 75 points and Smith with 60.
With all the picks that Vegas accumulated in the expansion draft, they looked ready to stockpile their future talent over the next few years, believing that their rise to prominence would be accelerated compared to previous expansion teams. Instead of waiting years, they drafted the roster that has brought them to the Final.
Although each general manager made the best decision for their team at the time of the expansion draft, it must burn to know that they could never unearth their player’s potential before they were picked up by Vegas. Surely a team like Columbus is kicking themselves in hindsight knowing that Karlsson had the potential to be a top-line center in the NHL.
Showing NHL Parity
What stands out about Vegas’ story is how their success shows the parity among teams in today’s NHL. It’s always talked about how NHL players are the best of the best — even the worst player in the league is a superstar next to the average hockey player. But the difference in skill between the best in the league and bottom-end players was always a chasm. At least until the last decade, when that gap seemed to get smaller and smaller.
Vegas drafted a team full of third-line players and top-four defensemen, but given the opportunity to take on a bigger role than they had with their previous teams, a few players became overnight stars. There is no better representation of this than Karlsson.
By being part of an expansion team, where there was no seniority or guaranteed spots, it meant that every player had the chance to be a star in Vegas. Of the players that played at least 40 games this season, only James Neal, Cody Eakin and Brayden McNabb didn’t have career-high point totals.
Vegas Puts the Rest of the NHL to Shame
This isn’t the first time that an expansion team has made the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season. The St. Louis Blues did it in the 1967-68 NHL season, the first NHL expansion from the Original Six when they added six new teams.
The Blues making the Final isn’t as amazing as it seems. The six new teams were all placed in the West Division while the Original Six were in the East. So, one of the expansion teams was going to make the Final regardless of how good they were. And they weren’t good – the top team in the West, the Philadelphia Flyers, finished with 73 points, three points behind the Toronto Maple Leafs, who missed the playoffs in the East.
For Vegas to make the Final in their first season is truly amazing. They competed against 30 other teams, which are all long-established teams in the NHL. In the playoffs, they competed and won against a former Stanley Cup winner in the Kings, the Sharks who made the Final two seasons ago, and the Jets who were the second-best team in the NHL.
The expansion Blues only faced 11 other teams in their inaugural season. During the playoffs, they played other expansion teams who were just as new as they were. And when they made it to the Final, they were swept in four games by the Montreal Canadiens, one of the longest-standing franchises in the league.
Vegas making the Final as an expansion team is special because they were the only expansion team in the NHL this season. So they weren’t competing against other newborn teams like the Blues did. Vegas competed against and beat the best that the NHL had to offer.
Vegas has looked unstoppable through the first three rounds of the playoffs. They seem to catch every team off guard with their speed and aggressive forecheck. The opposition struggles to make plays as Vegas always has their sticks in the way causing numerous turnovers. And if that isn’t enough, there is Fleury who looks to be playing his way to a Conn Smythe Trophy.
A lot of praise should be going to Gallant and his coaching system, but what makes it work so well is that the Knights are playing as a team. Every player came with something to prove and developed a bond since they were all joining a new organization.
Vegas vs. the NHL
Facing the Washington Capitals in the Stanley Cup Final perfectly represents how the Golden Knights have embarrassed the rest of the league.
The Capitals joined the NHL in the 1974-75 season and had just eight wins in their inaugural season. Since then, the Capitals have only made it to the Stanley Cup Final once before this season, in 1997-98 when they were swept by the Detroit Red Wings. This season was the first time that the Capitals have made it past the third round since that season and it’s the first time in Alexander Ovechkin’s career that he’s played beyond the second round.
The Capitals have struggled for so long to make it back and compete for a Stanley Cup, but they’ve kept getting knocked out early in the playoffs. And for a number of those seasons, they were the Presidents’ Trophy winner as the team with the most points in the league. The Capitals have earned their way, the hard way, but their success almost looks like an ironic joke when put up against Vegas.
Washington’s road to success started by drafting a generational scorer in Ovechkin and they continued to draft key parts of their current roster over years. They’ve had a top team for years and still couldn’t get to the Final. And this expansion team made up of the castoffs of the rest of the NHL has done in one season what its taken Washington over a decade to do.
Getting to the Final has always been portrayed as a process that takes time to achieve. From years of drafting to making the right trades, to a team losing time after time until they have the experience to go all the way. And then there’s Vegas, where everything just clicked and they’ve made the Final in their first season.
Maybe we need to look around the NHL and see how other teams might feel.
The Columbus Blue Jackets have been in the NHL since the 2000-01 season and they’ve only made the playoffs four times, losing in the first round each time. Or the Toronto Maple Leafs, who haven’t been back to the Final since they last won the Cup when there were only six teams. General managers around the NHL will surely be kicking themselves because they haven’t been able to do in years what Vegas has done in one.
The Golden Knights’ success has been the best thing for the NHL. It will help to secure deep roots in their fanbase, which usually takes time for an expansion team. It means that the NHL doesn’t have to worry about their financial stability since they have fans coming out in droves to watch the Golden Knights play. The Golden Knights are so popular that they have to limit the capacity of fans turning out to watch their practices. When has another NHL team had too many fans come out to watch them practice?
It also makes future expansion more tantalizing to investors, like Seattle, since they’ve seen how well a first-year expansion team can do in the modern NHL.
The Golden Knights’ season will go down as the greatest Cinderella story in NHL history and maybe in all of professional sports. They have raised the bar and it’s now time to see if the other NHL teams can keep up.
Toronto Maple Leafs contributor for The Hockey Writers.
I’ve been a fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs since I was a kid and have always had an interest in writing. At The Hockey Writers, I get to enjoy both of my passions as well as writing about small convoluted details in player contracts and stats.