The National Hockey League experienced something new this year, something that was a couple years in the making. The league saw an expansion team come to fruition, as the Vegas Golden Knights played their first season. There’s just one glaring difference. They’re SUCCEEDING.
The team is going to the Stanley Cup Finals, in their very first season. This is something that hasn’t been done since the St. Louis Blues were playing their first season. Of course, the Blues didn’t come close to the success that Vegas is currently experiencing. The biggest question that needs to be asked is, of course, how did this happen?
The simple answer? Vegas took a team of outcasts, as these were players their original teams didn’t bother to keep, followed through on some phenomenal coaching, and were incredibly lucky. The lucky aspect can be boiled down to how the NHL handled their expansion, as every team was only able to protect 11 skaters at the most, while previous years saw up to 15 skaters protected. Being the only expansion team helps as well. But that is only one aspect of their success.
Diving deep, it’s incredible to see how that entire first line of Vegas was created. The line features William “Wild Bill” Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith. In the regular season, this line combined for 92 goals, 121 assists, and 213 points. That’s a pretty impressive season for the first line, but their numbers are more impressive when it’s considered HOW they came to Vegas.
Let’s start with the Golden Knight’s leading goal scorer, Karlsson. He was an expansion draft choice from the Columbus Blue Jackets. That would have been bad enough, but the Golden Knight’s front office also swung a deal to take on the contract of David Clarkson, as Columbus needed to shed salary.
Vegas took that on, and also received a 2017 first-round pick and a 2019 second-round pick. So, in short, Columbus gave up a guy who posted 43 goals and 78 points, a first-round draft pick AND a future second-round draft pick. All in an attempt to shed salary. Yikes.
However, not to be outdone, the Florida Panthers also looked foolish. Marchessault was the Golden Knight’s selection in the expansion draft, as Florida left him unprotected despite a 30-goal season. If that wasn’t bad enough, Florida also swung a deal to entice Vegas to taking Marchessault, by trading Smith for a 2018 fourth-round pick.
So at the time, Florida gave up a 30-goal scorer and a near 40-point scorer, just to receive a fourth-round pick? How has that worked out?Marchessault and Smith have put up 75 and 60 point seasons, respectively, and all it cost Vegas was a fourth-round pick. Meanwhile, Florida didn’t make the postseason, despite putting up 96 points. Ouch.
Diving deeper, the Pittsburgh Penguins also needed to shed salary. So they persuaded Vegas to take on the contract of Marc-Andre Fleury as they were going to stick with Matt Murray. How has that worked out? Fleury posted a record of 29 wins against 13 losses, a .927 save percentage, and has been LIGHTS OUT in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
What about Pittsburgh? They also made the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but eventually lost in the second round to the Washington Capitals. Oh, and Vegas received Pittsburgh’s second-round pick in 2020 as an added bonus. Not bad, Vegas.
However, that was the expansion draft. No team gets through the grind of an 82-game season without a little luck involved. It’s unlikely that anyone saw Karlsson posting a 43-goal season, especially considering his previous career high was nine. Marchessault’s career year in Florida was marred by the fact he had a -21 +/- rating, but that jumped up to a plus-36 for this season. Smith had a couple 50-point seasons under his belt, but he also went from a 37-point season to a 60-point one.
That was just the first line. The entire roster of Vegas has played phenomenally, and that can be attributed to how they are coached. Gerard Gallant, Vegas’ head coach, has gotten this group to mesh together, and they have responded.
The bottom line is this: Vegas had a team of outcasts, made some incredibly savvy moves to get players they wanted, were coached brilliantly, and are now rewarded with a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals. Will they win it? It’s entirely possible, and if that happens, they will be the blueprint for success in the NHL. Then we can hear about how the NHL conspired to let Vegas win.