It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. The NHL’s 31st team, the Vegas Golden Knights, was a feel-good story from Day 1. GM George McPhee put together a competitive team and most, if not all, experts figured they’d be average at best. The expansion draft held last summer ensured that Vegas would be able to pluck better players than previous rookie franchises, but I’ve got to believe that even McPhee and coach Gerard Gallant had no idea their team was THIS good.
With their 2-1 win on the road Sunday, the Knights closed out the stacked Winnipeg Jets in 5 games and clinched a historic trip to the Stanley Cup final. They’ll face the winner of the Washington-Tampa series, which is currently 3-2 in favor of the Lightning. It’s a big leap from the prediction owner Bill Foley made last summer, when he said the Knights would “be pretty good in three years and we’ll make a run in five or six.”
So how did they do it? Vegas built the team around Marc-Andre Fleury, who backstopped the Penguins to three Cups but was left unprotected by Pittsburgh (who opted to stick with the younger Matt Murray). They then acquired via draft or trade a collection of players other teams gave up on: William Karlsson (who scored 43 goals), Jonathan Marchessault, James Neal, Alex Tuch, Erik Haula, Reilly Smith, David Perron, Deryk Engelland, Luca Sbisa and Cody Eakin. On paper, doesn’t inspire the same kind of fear that the Penguins, Predators or, uh, the Jets do. But here we are in the third week of May and Vegas will be one of two teams to fight for the Cup.
The team is fast, tenacious and skilled, powered by the underdog spirit that has driven them all season long. During this playoff run, Fleury has been Vegas’ best player, but the team has received contributions from just about all corners. In the conference final clincher, fourth-line grinder/tough guy Ryan Reaves scored the game- (and series-) winner with a nifty deflection.
The Knights actually aren’t the first new expansion team to make the Cup final in its first year: St. Louis did it in 1967-68. The big difference, of course, was in that first post-Original Six season, the six new teams were put in the West division, which guaranteed that an expansion club would make the final. The Blues were swept in four by Montreal, as they were the following two years by the Habs and Bruins. Back then, the expansion teams were filled with past-their-prime veterans and unproven youngsters.
As the NHL continued to expand in the following decades, there were some godawful debuts: the Capitals in 1974-75 finished 8-67-5; the Kansas City Scouts were 15-54-11 the same year; the New York Islanders in 1972-73 went 12-60-6; Atlanta’s second franchise, the Thrashers, struggled to go 14-61-7 in 1999-2000; and Ottawa went 10-70-4 in 1991-92. All of which makes the Knights’ 51-24-7 regular season finish all the more impressive as they won the Pacific Division.
With Seattle seemingly the favorite to receive a new team a few years down the line, it’s expected that the expansion draft will follow the same process that helped Vegas ice an immediate success. Whether Seattle can match Vegas remains to be seen, but they’ll be given every opportunity to do so. Of course, it’ll be interesting how the other teams deal with the expansion draft and who they give up, watching how Vegas struck gold with rejects from the Island of Misfit Hockey Players.
In the meantime, there are still games to be played by the Knights this season. Can Vegas win the Cup? At this point, how can you bet against them?