Hockey News and Discussions
Well the Vegas Golden Knights are going to the Stanley Cup Final and it’s probably the most unlikely story in NHL (if not all of sports) history.
At the beginning of the season, plenty of analysts had the Knights among the bottom 5 teams in the league. I didn’t have this blog back then, but I personally had them missing the playoffs by a few points (maybe like 5 off of the last wild card spot). And boy were we all wrong. DEAD WRONG.
So to answer the question everyone has been asking how did Vegas get this good? How did we get to this point?
Contrary to the countless conspiracy theories I’ve heard thrown around by casual fans, the success of the Knights boils down to a colossal, league-wide series of mistakes and the best General Management I’ve personally ever seen.
Consider this: In almost every trade or draft choice, someone will be a winner and someone will be a loser. The teams that do well are the teams that tend to consistently end up on the winning side. See the Nashville Predators (Eeli Tolvanen, Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg, Kyle Turris, PK Subban) as the perfect example. Similarly, the Knights took advantage of every opportunity and that’s why they are Western Conference Champions right now.
In order to analyze their success we need to look at how they did it:
1.Beneficial Draft Lottery
Vegas benefitted from being the only team included in this year’s expansion draft. As a result, they were able to take one player from all 30 other teams. This allowed them to maximize their depth.
Moreover, in 2017, the NHL implemented a new draft lottery system, allowing every team to choose between 2 protection options for players with three years of professional experience or more.
Option 1: Seven forwards, three defenseman, and one goalie
Option 2: Eight Skaters (forward or defense) and one goalie
Comparatively, when the Minnesota Wild entered into the league in 2000, their lottery was much tougher. Minnesota was competing with their co-expansionmates the Columbus Blue Jackets. Back then, other teams were allowed to protect the following players with a minimum games played requirement:
Option A: Nine forwards, five defensemen, and one goalie*1
Option B: Seven forwards, three defensemen, and two goalies,
With restrictions like that, it’s impossible for other teams to save everyone, especially since the NHL has arguably never been this deep league-wide. Vegas was destined to get some good players.
2: Putting the right people in charge
Vegas benefitted from the pool of front office talent available at the time and they ultimately choose General Manager George McPhee to lead their team. McPhee, who was fired after years of disappointment with the Washington Capitals, was responsible for drafting and assembling the great DC teams of the regular season, comprised of Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, John Carlson, Mike Green, Braden Holtby, Semyon Varlamov, Dmitry Orlov, and Karl Alzner.
McPhee has an eye for talent and he sure showed it during the expansion draft. He was able to build his team in his fashion.
3: The Florida Panthers
The first of many mistakes from Florida was having short-lived General Manager Tom Rowe fire one of the premier coaches in the league, Gerard Gallant. Known for getting the most out of young talent, Gallant took the 2015-16 Panthers to the playoffs, in what looked like the beginning of a legitimate contender. Under Gallant, Reilly Smith, Vincent Trocheck, Alex Barkov, Aaron Ekblad, and Jonathan Huberdeau took huge strides in their careers. These were all attributes that he would bring with him to Las Vegas and Gallant deserves a lot of credit for their success.
Next, the Panthers made two gigantic mistakes during the expansion draft. They chose to protect 4 defensemen (Mark Pysyk, Aaron Ekblad, Keith Yandle, and Alex Petrovic) and left Jonathan Marchessault (who was fresh off a 30 goal campaign) exposed.*2
At the draft, the Panthers made matters worse by trading Reilly Smith to Vegas for a 4th round draft pick, a move designed to increase their cap space.
In hindsight and at the time, all of these moves looked detrimental, allowing for Vegas to benefit from Florida’s moves.
4: Favorable Trades
Teams trying to protect certain players had no choice but to concede assets to George McPhee. The biggest victims were Columbus, Anaheim, and Minnesota.
At the time, the Columbus move seemed alright. The Jackets agreed to move the LTIR cap hit of David Clarkson to Vegas along with a 1st round pick and a 2nd round pick in order for Vegas to select William Karlsson. Karlsson, a former second round choice of the Ducks, was already with his second team. While he had previously showed bits of potential here and there, he never scored more than 9 goals or 25 points in any one NHL season before joining the Knights. It was almost unforeseeable that Karlsson would develop into a 40 goal scorer and number one center, yet when combined with the two Panthers (Smith and Marchessault) he became part of one of the deadliest lines in hockey. Unfortunately for the Jackets, it turned out to be the biggest blunder of the draft.
With the Wild, it was different. They needed to protect their group of defensemen and made a major trade to do it. Minnesota moved Erik Haula and Alex Tuch to Vegas to protect Jonas Brodin and Matt Dumba.
The result? Tuch produced 37 points in his rookie season, while Haula produced 55 during the regular season (including 29 goals).
Enter the playoffs and Tuch has 9 points in 15 games, while Haula has 7 points in 15 games.
Similar to the Wild, the Ducks needed to protect some major defensemen, but it came at a cost. The Ducks traded budding star defensemen Shea Theodore in order to have Vegas select the contract of Clayton Stoner. Theodore produced 29 points in 61 games with the Knights and has played a big part in their Finals run, adding 7 points in 15 games.
5: Smart Pick-ups Who Have Paid Off in the Playoffs
Then there’s the actual expansion draft, where the biggest victims were paid a huge price.
Pittsburgh Penguins lost G Marc-Andre Fleury who has an unreal 12-3 record with a .945 sv percentage and 1.68 GAA in the post-season. By the way, he’s a Conn Smythe frontrunner and I think he could win it even if Vegas doesn’t win the Cup (see J.S. Giguere with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in 2003).
The Washington Capitals lost D Nate Schmidt who has 6 points in 15 games and is +7.
The Nashville Predators lost F James Neal who has 8 points in 15 games.
Then the Boston Bruins lost D Colin Miller who has 3 points in 15 games, +7 and scored 41 points during the regular season.
This group has had an identity since game one. They call themselves the “Golden Misfits” and its easy to see why. Entering the 2018 season, I can imagine each Vegas player felt both disappointment in not being protected by their original squad, but at the same time, excitement to start a new legacy with a brand-new organization. Because the Vegas players are just so likeable, it’s easy to root for the individual players regardless of your stance on Vegas as a team.
My ending verdict is that the Knights aren’t just a Cinderella team, at least in the same vein as the 2006 Edmonton Oilers or the 2003 Mighty Ducks. The Knights are here to stay and their success should be a huge wakeup call to every other GM in the league.
There are always going to be winners and losers, and every action in sports has a consequence. It’s just that this time, the adage proved true:
The odds are better in Vegas.
Stats from NHL.com and Hockey-reference.com