Last summer, following the expansion draft for the Vegas Golden Knights, I wrote a blog about how putting a hockey team in Vegas was a dumb idea and how the Golden Knights were going to be terrible, describing the team like this:
“I’ll be blunt, the Golden Knights are going to be awful this season, and maybe for several seasons. Looking at their division the only teams they have a prayer of competing with are Vancouver, who are currently suffocating under the weight of the Sedin twins’ contracts and poor management, and Arizona, who are a dumpster fire unto themselves.”
Ten months later, the Golden Knights just completed a four game sweep of the Los Angeles Kings in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs after winning their division with the fifth best record in the entire NHL (51 wins, 24 regulation losses, 7 overtime losses).
My reasoning was more or less that a team full of every NHL team’s 8th best player, many of who they traded for draft picks, would struggle immensely both because of the quality of the players and trying to build team chemistry completed from scratch.
Vegas, I owe you an apology.
In this week’s blog, I’ll be taking a look at what went right this season for the Golden Knights that made me so so wrong.
Vegas Benefited From Other Teams Problems and Stupidity
So in retrospect I was certainly too hard on the Golden Knights’ performance in the expansion draft. Yes, they did get a lot of fairly average players but they were able to draft some top-level talent.
Marc-Andre Fleury has proven to be everything Vegas could have hoped for. Although he missed some time this season with injury, he posted the third best goals-against-average in the NHL over the 46 games he started in the regular season and was sixth best in save percentage. Matt Murray, the young goaltender the Penguins kept while giving up Fleury, was 35th and 41st respectively in those categories this season (Note: there are only 31 teams; yikes). While I absolutely think this was the right decision by the Penguins in the long term (they still might win the Stanley Cup this year) Fleury has had a phenomenal first season in Vegas.
James Neal, the disgruntled former Penguin and Predator, showed those teams exactly what they were missing for not thinking particularly highly of him, as he has a productive season with 25 goals and 19 assists.
However, the stupidest thing another team did to help out the Golden Knights was Florida not protecting Jonathan Marchessault from the expansion draft. Last year he had 30 goals and 21 assists for the Panthers, the team’s leading goal scorer. What the hell was Florida thinking? It was a career year for him, so maybe they thought they were selling high? That didn’t work out so well this season as he scored 27 goals while providing 48 assists along with a +/- of +36 (second best in the NHL). If you’re as bad a the Panthers are, you should hold on desperately to any player who shows signs of real talent.
The Panthers also traded winger Reilly Smith to the Golden Knights, who was the team’s fourth leading scorer with 22 goals and 38 assists.
The funniest part of all this? The Smith trade and the $5 million salary cap hit that came with him was supposed to be the trade-off for the Panthers leaving Marchessault unprotected.
Basically, the Panthers told the Knights they would give them their top scorer for free, but only if they also took Smith, whom they thought they were overpaying.
Turns out he’s totally worth that 5-mil, Marchessault is a stud, and the Panthers missed the playoffs (again).
The Knights Found Some Diamonds in the Rough
In his last two seasons for the Columbus Blue Jackets in which he played 81 games each, William Karlsson had 20 and 25 point seasons. Thus, it was totally understandable when they did not protect him from the expansion draft. I don’t know what the Golden Knights saw in him, but holy sh!t was that an unbelievably good decision to take him.
This season, Karlsson led the Golden Knights in scoring with 43 goals (third best in the entire NHL) and 35 assists. He also led the NHL with a +49 plus/minus.
Karlsson was far from the only player to have a career year this season for Vegas.
Erik Haula, formerly of the Minnesota Wild, posted a 55 point season when his previous high was 34 two years ago.
David Perron, who’s been bouncing around the NHL for the last several years, may have finally found a new home in Vegas following a career year at age 29, leading the team with 50 assists.
Colin Miller, Alex Tuch (who played just 6 games for Minnesota last year and didn’t score), Nate Schmidt, Shea Theodore, Deryk Engelland, Brad Hunt, and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare all also posted career highs in points.
Turns out Vegas knew (or at least had a good idea of) exactly which player on every team was poised for a breakout year.
Solid Backup Goaltending When Needed
As a Blackhawks fan, I can attest to how important having a reliable backup goaltender can be to a championship run (Antti Niemi who ended up starting in the playoffs, Ray Emery, Scott Darling, Antti Raanta).
Marc-Andre Fleury missed two months early in the season with a concussion, and up stepped Malcolm Subban, the little brother of PK, who led the Knights to a 13 and 4 record.
The rest of the team certainly deserves credit as well, clearly motivated to pick up the slack as the face of their franchise was sidelined.
As well as the team has played, a phenomenal amount of credit for the Golden Knights’ success is owed to their head coach Gerard Gallant. To take a team of guys who had (mostly) never played together before, particularly a lot of younger players without much experience, and to have them gel together so quickly and be able to win is incredibly impressive.
This might be the second best coaching job of a ragtag group of hockey players since the 1980 US Olympic Team. This team had one giant chip on its shoulder this whole season and they played like it.
If Gallant can bring this group of players this far in one season, watch out when all those draft picks they stock-piled after the expansion draft start coming through the system. This team is poised to get both younger and more talented in the next few years, a scary thought for the rest of the NHL.
A Supportive Fanbase
Yes, sports (other than the NFL) often work on the premise of “if you win it, they will come” so I’m not going to ignore the cause and effect relationship between being good and fans showing up. However, the way the fans in Vegas have gotten behind this team is incredible.
It is tragic, however, how this relationship became so strong so quickly. The Golden Knights’ first game came just days after a gunman murdered 58 people and injured 850 others at a music festival on the Las Vegas Strip.
Before the game, Deryk Engelland (a former resident of Las Vegas while playing for the now-defunct AHL affiliate of the Calgary Flames) delivered an emotional speech to the crowd, thanking the first responders and doctors who had saved so many lives (some of whom were on the ice for the pre game ceremonies) and assuring the crowd “We are Vegas Strong!” There is now a banner hanging in the rafters of T-Mobile Arena with 58 stars on it, one for every person killed in the shooting, and the team retired the number 58.
This tragedy became the foundation for a special team/fan relationship that is admirable for any team but especially for one that a year ago existed in name only. By percentage of seats filled on average for each game, Vegas had the fourth best attendance in the NHL this season only surpassed by the Blackhawks, Wild and Capitals.
The Knights also do some really elaborate and cheezy pregame stuff that is part Cirque du Soleil part Medieval Times. For example here’s what they did last week before Game 1 of their series with the Kings:
This team is fun. This team is really good. I owe this team a huge apology and hope they win the Stanley Cup.
OTHER PLAYOFF HOCKEY STUFF
While we’re here, I figured I’d check in on the first round series as they stand and give some predictions for the rest of the playoffs. (****as of Friday afternoon*****)
Las Vegas Golden Knights vs Los Angeles Kings: Golden Knights win series 4-0
This was not the type of LA team that was going to go anywhere as an 8 seed. To make matters worse for them they ran into the hype machine that is the Golden Knights and were pummeled.
Anaheim Ducks vs San Jose Sharks: Sharks win series 4-0
Do you know what’s even better than the Kings getting swept in the first round? The Kings and the Ducks both getting swept in the first round! The Evander Kane trade is paying off at the perfect time for the Sharks and Martin Jones was a stud in net in this series.
Nashville Predators vs Colorado Avalanche: Predators lead 3-1
Gotta give it to the Avs, they’ve fought really hard in this series. Star goaltender Semyon Varlamov has been out since the end of March and in response the Avs are racheting up the offense. Nate McKinnon has been unstoppable this season and trading Matt Duchene to Ottawa looks better every day. The only problem is they are playing the Preds, who have insane amounts of depth and probably haven’t even shifted out of second gear yet. Game 5 is tonight (Friday) in Nashville and I expect the Preds to end it.
Winnipeg Jets vs Minnesota Wild: Jets lead 3-1
If if wasn’t for the Golden Knights the Jets would have been a shoe-in for most fun team this season. It looked the Wild gave everything they had in Game 3 when they won 6-2 before getting shut out at home in Game 4 2-0. The series shifts back to Winnipeg tonight and I think we’ll be seeing yet another first round exit for the Wild (currently on a streak of five consecutive first round playoff exits).
Boston Bruins vs Toronto Maple Leafs: Bruins lead series 3-1
The revamped, Auston Matthews-led Leafs aren’t quite there yet. They’ve also had the misfortune of being matched up with arguably the hottest team in the NHL at the moment. The turnaround this year for the Bruins has been remarkable (take notes, Blackhawks) and the line of Bergeron (currently day-to-day with an upper body injury), Marchand and Pastrnak is terrifying right now for opposing defenses and goaltenders. Oh, and they also signed Rick Nash. Sorry Toronto, better luck next year.
Tampa Bay Lightning vs New Jersey Devils: Lightning lead series 3-1
Where the hell did the Devils come from this season? Taylor Hall has been one of the best players in the league this year (93 points) and is finally showing all the talent the Oilers hoped he would bring them. As great as it is to see New Jersey back in the playoffs the fact of the matter is the Lightning just score too much for them to keep up. Kucherov has scored in every game and has 9 points to lead the team, and Alex Killorn has added four goals himself. This offensive juggernaut is headed to the second round.
Washington Capitals vs Columbus Blue Jackets: Series tied 2-2
Finally! A series that I don’t think will end in its next game because it can’t. It was pretty hilarious as a neutral to watch the Capitals lose both Games 1 and 2 at home to the Jackets who looked on their way to a sweep. Then Columbus lost a heartbreaker in double overtime in Game 3 before being outplayed for all 60 minutes in a 4-1 Game 4 loss. If I’m Columbus, I’m pressing the panic button. If they aren’t careful this could get ugly quick. Personally, I think it will. Caps in 6.
Pittsburgh Penguins vs Philadelphia Flyers: Penguins lead series 3-1
Every game in this series has been a blowout. 7-0 Penguins, 5-1 Flyers, 5-1 Penguins, 5-0 Penguins. Sidney Crosby leads the playoffs with five goals and looks to be at the height of his powers. Matt Murray is the new Corey Crawford, playing phenomenally in the playoffs after a just ok season. Eventually someone is gonna figure out how to slow this team down, but that team is probably not the Flyers. Penguins will move on tonight.
Vegas Golden Knights vs San Jose Sharks
This series is going to be really tight. Fleury and Jones have both been great in goal and both teams are coming off sweeps of very physical teams. I think this goes back and forth but eventually the Knights keep rolling. Vegas in 7.
Nashville Predators vs Winnipeg Jets
The Jets are fun and all, but Nashville has been here before. As I said, I think the Preds have a whole other level they can go to. Their one potential downfall is if Pekka Rinne struggles, but I’m not too concerned about that. Winnipeg puts up a good fight but i think the Jets run out of gas. Nashville in 6.
Tampa Bay Lightning vs Boston Bruins
If only this could be the Stanley Cup. These were the best two teams all year, but because of the changes a few years ago to the NHL playoff structure they play each other in the second round. I think this will be an incredible series, and I’m going to go with Boston as the hot hand. I still think we’ll look back and think we should have just ended the playoffs here. Boston in 7.
Pittsburgh Penguins vs Washington Capitals
History repeats itself. Penguins in 6.
Nashville Predators vs Vegas Golden Knights
This is where I think the Vegas fairytale meets its end. You’ve got a team that does not have a whole lot of playoff experience outside of Fleury and Neal and I just don’t think they’re ready to make the jump to winning a Cup this fast. They won’t go down without a fight, though. Nashville in 7.
Boston Bruins vs Pittsburgh Penguins
The Penguins will not win their third straight Stanley Cup. It’s incredibly impressive in the modern NHL to win two in a row and be as good as they are again without being smothered by the Salary Cap, but I think the quest for another ends against Boston. The Bruins are just playing so damn well right now I can’t bring myself to bet against them. Pastrnak is well on his way to a Conn Smythe.
Stanley Cup: Nashville Predators vs Boston Bruins
The last team to win both the President’s Trophy and the Stanley Cup in the same season was the Blackhawks in the shortened season of 2012/13. Before that, you have to go back to the 2007/08 Red Wings. It just doesn’t happen. Thus, for the second straight year, the Nashville Predators will lose in the Stanley Cup Final. Boston is my pick and I’m sticking to it. Nashville has a really really good team and I do think this core of players is good enough to win a Cup. They’ll just have to wait a little longer. Boston in 6