Emotions were running high as poignancy and exuberance intertwined on the eve of the Golden Knights’ home opener on October 10th, a mere nine days after the deadliest shooting in American history took place in Las Vegas. The Golden Knights paid homage to both the heroes and victims in a ceremony that imbued their home opener with a sorrowful character, an atmosphere much different than the levity that many had expected with Vegas’ first major-league sports franchise. Their home opener was a truly historic event; it was more important than hockey.
After starting the season 2-0 thanks to back-to-back road wins, the Golden Knights were playing in front of an absolutely electric crowd when Tomas Nosek scored the first home goal in franchise history just 2:31 into the game; full-time Las Vegas resident for over a decade Deryk Engelland scored again just moments later. The crowd never quieted down, and Vegas owned a 4-0 lead before the game was ten minutes old, cruising to a 5-2 victory from there.
Vegas hockey, from management’s philosophy to on-ice play, has been defined by egoless hard work, determination, grit, and strength of character; their determined effort on the night of a home opener of weighty importance was a microcosm of what has led Vegas to such tremendous early season success. Comprised largely of cast-offs and rejects of the 30 other NHL teams, the Knights have banded together, providing immeasurable inspiration for a city in need of collective healing.
Vegas’ success as an expansion team is unprecedented. Already, Vegas has broken records, becoming the first expansion team in NHL history to win three straight games to open the season, winning eight out of their first nine games, and winning 15 times in their first 22 games. They have also recorded two separate five-game winning streaks, as well as an eight-game home winning streak; they currently sit tied for first place with the Dallas Stars for the best points percentage on home ice in the entire NHL.
The words “expansion team” are almost synonymous with “struggle,” yet Vegas is achieving historic success. Will it continue or is this an early-season anomaly that will give way to the more traditional realities of expansion? We’ve set the odds on a variety of outcomes for the team, players, and management on the city of Las Vegas’ endlessly fascinating and intriguing professional sports debut.
The best NFL expansion team in history was the 1995 Carolina Panthers at 7-9; the most successful NBA expansion team was the 1966-67 Chicago Bulls at 33-48; the best MLB expansion team was the Los Angeles Angels at 70-91; the strongest NHL expansion team was the 1993-94 Florida Panthers at 33-34-17. None of these teams even managed an above-.500 record. Meanwhile, Vegas currently sits at 16-9-1. If Vegas plays .500 hockey the rest of the way, they’ll easily eclipse the previous record set by the Panthers, and set a record that’ll be hard for any future expansion team to eclipse.
This modest projection of .500 hockey (or six wins fewer) gets increasingly likely with each passing day, and the season is now past the quarter mark. Not only does Vegas have six wins in hand, there’s a decent argument that they’ll get even better as the season wears on. Vegas has had to overcome a tremendous amount of adversity on the injury front; they’ve been without key players David Perron, Luca Sbisa, and Jonathan Marchessault for extended period of times. Plus Vadim Shipachyov, whom the Knights envisioned being their no. 1 center, went back to the KHL after a mere three games in what amounted to a very bitter and public divorce.
Most importantly, Vegas is on track to get Marc-Andre Fleury, their franchise goaltender, back from injury shortly. Vegas has compiled this impressive record without their no. 1 goaltender (Fleury), no. 2 goaltender (Malcolm Subban), and no. 3 goaltender (Oscar Dansk) for the majority of the season. What makes Vegas’ early-season success so impressive is that, for 13 games, they’ve had to rely the undrafted Maxime Lagace and his .866 save-percentage. Legace is a goaltender without any notable success at any professional level. If the Golden Knights can win with a guy who can barely provide ECHL-level goaltending, they should theoretically fare even better when backstopped by Fleury, their three-time cup winning netminder.
Gerard Gallant is getting the most out of his group on a nightly basis. Vegas’ 16 ROW (“regulation + overtime wins”; historically, an excellent indicator of overall team strength) is tied for second in the league, only behind the Tampa Bay Lightning (17). What has made the Knights so successful and put them in prime position to make the playoffs? The Coles Notes version is speed, depth, and hard work.
When GM George McPhee started charting out his roster, he had a clear vision: build the fastest team possible, one with players who could all play in a very specific way. He wanted a team that could play with relentless tenacity and pace. What he built is a squad that forces turnovers like no other thanks to an aggressive and persistent forecheck. That style of play — i.e. a quick and bruising north-south transition game — renders a team that is greater than the sum of its individual parts and makes Vegas a handful for even the NHL’s elite. Most other teams in the West play a more skilled, east-west game, and Vegas is uniquely suited to exploit them.
The Knights also have tremendous depth throughout their lineup. They roll four lines that all have a modicum of skill, and more than a modicum of quickness. Their defense moves the puck tremendously, and as stated previously, their forwards forecheck extremely effectively thanks to their above-average skating.
Vegas’ roster is mostly comprised of rejects and cast-offs from other teams in the NHL. Even Gallant was victim to perhaps the most embarrassing firing in pro-sports history last year at the hands of the Florida Panthers and former Trump underling Vinnie Viola. But McPhee knew what he was doing in the expansion draft. He carefully crafted his recipe, measured every ingredient down to the milligram, and has cooked up a team that can sustain its early-season success.
The Golden Knights have the advantage of playing in arguably the worst division in hockey; if they go through a rough patch at some point, which is likely, their division is a very forgiving one. None of these teams is going to run away and hide.
The Knights currently sit second in the Pacific Division, and could end up capturing the division title in their inaugural season. Their style of play matches up well with their slower division-mates. The Pacific and its precursor were once dominated by the Getzlaf line (Ducks), the Sedin Line (Canucks), and the Thornton line (Sharks); the fissures in their ability to keep up with the pace of the game are quickly growing into full-blown fractures.
The division is so wide open that one could make a legitimate case for any team capturing the title, but the Knights, the resurgent Los Angeles Kings, and highly talented Calgary Flames have the best shot. The Ducks look good on paper, but they’ve been hit with so many long-term injuries to key players that their chances of rebounding in time to win a division title are almost nil. The aging San Jose Sharks and mystifying Vancouver Canucks are less likely, as they would need a real shot in the arm to go on the kind of protracted win streak that division winners often do. Lastly, Edmonton might have Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, but that’s about it. In a league where speed is at such a premium, Edmonton’s wingers wouldn’t have been considered quick skaters in 1997. Combine that with highly suspect goaltending, and it gives Edmonton a very low chance of winning the Pacific, despite their sky-high preseason projections.
Vegas is a formidable force at home, but they have to contend with some true powerhouses in securing the best home record in the NHL. The Tampa Bay Lightning, Pittsburgh Penguins, Winnipeg Jets, and Nashville Predators all boast impressive home records, have a bevy of talent, and show no signs of slowing down. It’s more likely that one of these teams stakes a claim to the best home record in the NHL.
Vegas might be well-positioned to be the best expansion franchise of all time, but they’re not that impressive. The odds of them winning the President’s Trophy against teams that have been building talent their teams for decades are extremely slim.
Without a doubt, Gallant has to be the favorite. Not only are the Knights the toast of the league, but look how significantly the Florida Panthers have declined in all facets of the game since his removal. The two other likely nominations, John Stevens and Paul Maurice, have led their teams to new heights, but with significantly more talented rosters than the one Gallant has to work with. If you defy expectations exponentially and are the brains behind a team preparing itself to make professional sports history, chances are, you’re going to get recognized for it.
William Karlsson currently leads the Knights in goals with 14. While the Blue Jackets might be regretting leaving the budding Swedish star available in the expansion draft, it’s probably wise to temper expectations a bit for Karlsson. While he does have tremendous potential and is a mere 24 years old, he’s shooting at an unsustainable 25% clip, and before this season, he had only scored 18 goals total in his four previous seasons in the NHL. James Neal is A proven commodity when it comes to goal scoring in the NHL, having scored 30-plus multiple times. He sits at 12 goals, and will have plenty of opportunity and ice-time to add to that total; he is the de facto sniper and offensive catalyst of the team.
However, Jonathan Marchessault, an analytics darling, is one of many Vegas Knights enjoying an excellent season, and he did score 30 goals last year for the Panthers. He’s definitely a realistic possibility to end the season as the Knights’ leading goal scorer, especially if the injury bug hits some other skaters in Vegas’ top six. David Perron, Reilly Smith, and Erik Haula are less likely to capture the goal-scoring distinction, but all three have shown an ability to get hot and stay hot over the course of their careers, so it would be imprudent to write them off completely.
the Knights’ strength is that their whole is greater than the sum of their parts, as no player on their roster is good enough to even be under serious consideration for an end-of-year award. Their closest bet was Marc-Andre Fleury, but he’s had what could have been a remarkable season derailed by concussion issues after his unfortunate collision with Anthony Mantha’s knee. We wouldn’t bet on a Vegas Knight (other than Gallant) taking the podium at the 2018 NHL awards that are located in, well, Las Vegas.
The 2007-08 Los Angeles Kings were an absolute disaster, the played seven goaltenders over the course of the season, with six of them recording a win en route to a disastrous 32-43-7 record. Their goaltending features the likes of the totally green Jonathan Quick and Jonathan Bernier, the legendary Jason LaBarbera, flash-in-the-pan Erik Ersberg and the absolutely abysmal duo of John Sebastien-Aubin and Dan Cloutier, who gave the Kings some of the worst goaltending in modern hockey history, and both of whom would never see NHL ice again after 2008. The Kings, somehow, had worse goaltending depth than an expansion franchise; that’s some pretty epic managerial incompetence by Los Angeles.
Vegas has had four separate goalies record wins this season, and they’re starting to get healthy again. Malcolm Subban is starting again, and Fleury is days away from a return. Things looked dire for a while when they were sizing up the Zamboni driver for pads, but the ship seems to have stabilized, at least for now.
If Vegas misses the playoffs, then anything could happen at the lottery. Last year, we saw the 26th-place New Jersey Devils win the lottery, and then the 19th-place Flyers nab no. 2 overall. Since Edmonton broke the lottery, winning first overall in four out of six years, the NHL reformed the system to discourage intentional tanking. Joe Sakic looked like Rutger Hauer in Blade Runner when his Avalanche (who finished with an utterly dreadful 47 points) ended up picking fourth overall last year. He’d seen things we wouldn’t believe, that’s for sure.
We all know Edmonton will probably get first overall again, and thus that there is no such thing as karmic retribution in our formless universe.
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