Tuesday, May 22, 2018

On the Vegas Golden Knights

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 5-21-2018

The Buffalo Sabres and Vancouver Canucks entered the NHL for the 1970-71 season in a league that had just recently expanded from the Original Six NHL teams to twelve. Buffalo won two spins of the wheel that year as they won the rights to select first in the expansion draft and to select first -overall in the NHL Entry Draft where they selected Hall of Famer Gilbert Perreault.

Five years later the Sabres were in the Stanley Cup Final, eventually losing to the Philadelphia Flyers in a series dominated by Flyers goalie Bernie Parent, who, by the way, was selected second overall by Philadelphia from the Boston Bruins in the '67 Expansion Draft.

Buffalo has been to the Finals only one more time since 1975, losing to the Dallas Stars in 1999.

The Las Vegas Golden Knights just punched their ticket to the Stanley Cup Finals yesterday when they eliminated the Winnipeg Jets in five games. They also took down the Los Angeles Kings in the first round and San Jose Sharks in the second. Oh, and did I mention that Vegas is an expansion team?

It's an unprecedented run in the four major North American sports and not many people know what to think of it. Even with favorable expansion draft rules no one could have seen this coming for a team filled mostly with bottom-half talent. But from the beginning the Golden Knights started proving everybody wrong as they shot out of the gate to an 8-1 record. They never lost momentum throughout the season and into the playoffs and now they're four wins away from capturing the Stanley Cup, a trophy that's widely regarded has the hardest to win in sports.

Do they deserve to be in this position?

Hell yeah they do.

Vegas is an expansion team built with players that the other 30 NHL teams wouldn't/couldn't protect. Golden Knights owner Bill Foley paid a rather hefty sum of $500 million to join the NHL and the league gave them somewhat favorable expansion rules compared to years past. Back in 1970 when the Sabres came into the league, the 12 teams were allowed to protect two goalies and 15 skaters (as shown by this chart from historicalhockey blogspot.) In the early 90's teams were allowed to protect one goalie, five defensemen and nine forwards then in the late 90's and into 2000 an option was added to those rules where they could stick with that format or protect two goalies, three defenseman and seven forwards.

The 30 NHL teams in last year's expansion draft were allowed to protect either one goaltender, three defensemen and seven forwards or one goaltender and eight skaters. That format allowed the Golden Knights to pilfer some pretty good players which ended up being cornerstones to their success. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and his three Stanley Cup rings came to Vegas from the Pittsburgh Penguins after the two-time defending Cup Champions opted to protect the younger Matt Murray who was the primary starter in Pittsburgh's back-to-back Cup wins in 2016 and 2017.

Vegas and the expansion draft rules forced the Florida into a corner when they had the difficult choice of exposing defenseman Mark Pysyk or forward Jonathan Marchessault. The Cats went with the eight-skater format which allowed them to protect Pysyk and three other defenseman while allowing a 30-goal scorer to be plucked. Florida, rather quizzically, sent forward Reilly Smith and his overblown $5 million contract as part of the deal for Vegas to select Marchessault.

There was also plenty of talent outside the protected list that Vegas GM George McPhee had to chose from. McPhee had deals everywhere with teams where he'd agree to select a certain player...for a price. It happened with the Columbus Blue Jackets, a team flush with young talent. The Jackets couldn't protect everyone they wanted and agreed to a deal where they Golden Knights would select forward William Karlsson plus take on David Clarkson's egregious $5.25 million cap-hit in exchange for the Jackets' 2017 first and second round picks.

In Buffalo's case, the Sabres sent a sixth round pick to Vegas to keep them from selecting goalie Linus Ullmark. The Golden Knights selected forward William Carrier from the Sabres.

Those were just the players for Vegas, but the biggest coup might have been the availability of coach Gerard Gallant whom McPhee hired. Gallant had spent the previous 2 1/2 seasons with Florida leading them to a team record 103-point season in 2015-16 but found himself on the outs in an analytics move by the Panthers. He was kicked to the curb (literally and figuratively) after a loss in Carolina on November 28, 2016. On April 12, 2017 Vegas made Gallant the first coach of the Golden Knights franchise.

Gallant, the ultimate castaway, was like King Moonracer on the Island of Misfit Toys and he used the narrative as an extreme motivational tool for his team. As noted, there were players that teams surely wanted to retain and couldn't because of the draft rules but that rallying cry which turned into a self-reference of "Golden Misfits," served them extremely well.

Nobody from owner Bill Foley to the odds-makers in Vegas, who put them at 250-1 to make it to the Stanley Cup Finals and 500-1 to win it, thought the Golden Knights would get this far. USA Today referenced and ESPN article from an August, 2017 interview with Foley concerning his expectations for his team. "What is a win for you this year?" he was asked by ESPN, to which Foley responded, "We don't have high expectations for this year. We're going to be competitive. If we're going to lose a game, we'd like to lose by a goal or two, not lose by five or six. We don't want to be a walkover team. We want to be competitive, we want to be entertaining on the ice, we want to score some goals."

They did much more than that finishing the regular season with a 51-24-7 record and a league fifth-best 109 points.  Their +44 goal differential was sixth-best in the league while their 29-10-2 home record was amongst the best in the league.

This Golden Knights team has been successful and extremely entertaining as Gallant has them playing in overdrive every shift of every game. In fact the entire experience at their T-Mobile Arena looks like a blast, even with that somewhat cheesy pregame showdown between the Golden Knight and his competitor (but hey, it's Vegas.) Inside the arena is a fun atmosphere with fans having a ball and outside in the arena in the hot desert evening during the playoffs, it's been a party.

What more could fans ask for?

For those of us in Buffalo who've been watching the disaster, both self-imposed and not, that's been the Sabres for the last five seasons, the success of Vegas seems to make many Sabres fans envious at best, jealous at worst and it would probably be the sentiment league-wide. How can an expansion team have some much success in one season while we've been through the ringer for years, even decades?

There's only one way to approach this--roll with it.

This Vegas run looks to be an extreme aberration, the case of a team catching lightening in a bottle that would make Thor envious. What Foley said after laying out his modest expectations is also very true, "We have some really good players, but we're not deep like a lot of teams are in terms of four lines of forwards and two or three lines of defensemen" he said to ESPN. "But we got some really good players in the expansion draft."

The Golden Knights started with low expectations and with each win have been adding to the house money they've been playing with and they accumulated quite the bankroll as they romp through the playoffs. Yet if talent truly wins out, which is the norm, then they'll be up against some stiff talent in either the Tampa Bay Lightning or Washington Capitals. Both the Caps and Lightning are loaded with upper-level talent, are deep and they each have some of the best goaltending the playoffs have to offer.

Then again, you never know.

Most everyone across the NHL has been predicting the Golden Knights demise dating back to their hot start and in the playoffs it was said that they can't beat Los Angeles, then Anaheim and certainly not the Winnipeg Jets who iced a deep team with some top-notch talent. Yet Vegas dispatched each of those teams and lost only three games in the process.

When a team comes this far, especially and expansion team, this isn't about the expansion draft rules or foolish GM's making dumb trades which allowed them to stock their team with good talent. It's way beyond that at this point. This is a club that has seen everything fall into place for them, not out of luck, but out of hard work and drive pushing their talent-level (however individually limited it may have been) to an extreme. It's about a goaltender who welcomed the move to Vegas with open arms and showed why he was the first overall pick in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft. It's about a 30-goal scorer who just might be the real deal and 43-goal scorer in Vegas who scored only 50 points in his first 173 NHL games.

And it's about all the other players on the team who used that "Golden Misfits" chip on their shoulder as an extreme motivational tool to prove everybody wrong.

It's a great story. Period. Only jealousy and envy would blind a person to that story.

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