Why are the Vegas Golden Knights so damn good?
This is the obvious question being bandied about the NHL circles. They are brand new this year — aren’t they supposed to be struggling? Aren’t they supposed to be working out the issues? Trading away players? Setting themselves up to draft hot young shots in the coming year and just calling this an “okay” year to start with? A “Better luck next year, rookie” kind of an idea. Why are the Golden Knights in playoff contention? Better yet, why are they currently sitting with the best record in the West and second-best overall. Well, let’s take a second and think about it before we all get angry about the Knights destroying everyone.
The Personal Expansion Draft
They got this advantage that only two other new teams have ever gotten in the history of the NHL. What is an expansion draft? In it’s most simplistic terms, the Golden Knights got to draft players from all of the other teams in existence. The only two previous teams to have this kind of advantage were the Atlanta Thrashers in 1999 and the Nashville Predators in 1998. Both of those teams finished with some of the worst records in the league in their first seasons. Now, this isn’t to say that the Golden Knights got whoever they wanted. The Capitals weren’t going to lose Ovechkin, the Predators wouldn’t tolerate giving up P.K. Subban, etc. In the draft, the existing teams could protect certain players from being drafted by the incoming Knights. These rules made a huge difference for the Vegas Golden Knights versus the Predators and Thrashers in their expansion drafts.
For the 2017 expansion, any existing NHL team could protect either one goalie, seven forwards and three defensemen or one goalie and eight skaters of any position. Additionally, two forwards and one defenseman per team who have played a minimum of forty games in the previous season were exposed. Meaning an integral three skaters became available for poaching. In the previous one-team expansion drafts of 1998 and 1999, the protected players were either one goaltender, five defensemen and nine forwards or two goaltenders, three defensemen and seven forwards. That math alone is a huge difference. The 2017 draft had a team protecting anywhere from nine to eleven players total while the two earlier draft was protecting twelve to fifteen players. The almost three additional players left exposed could change everything. The options were more plentiful and former stars, up and coming youth, and older (but tried and true) players were all left exposed as each team had to make hard choices. Great players were thrown out into the open to be snatched away.
Center Jonathan Marchessault is a great example.
The young 27-year-old posted a 30-goal season with the Florida Panthers last season. He is exactly the kind of hot young prospect that was forced into the open by these rules. Even with his -21 plus/minus rating in Florida last year, the kid could clearly score. He is now already at 40 points in 38 games and is cruising at a +17 plus/minus rating. And he was only their seventh pick out of thirty. William Karlsson with his first double-digit point season at 25-years-old is another. James Neal, who had a strong run at the Stanley Cup in Nashville last year (and several years of strong hockey before that) is another. But when forced to protect so few on your roster that just made it so close last year, he was lost. Luca Sbisa and Brayden McNabb in the back are strong defensemen no one would ever want to give up. And the list goes on and on. Vegas pulled exactly the mix of talented young players as well as seasoned, strong, and smart vets to make a competitive team, something past teams in a solo expansion draft have failed to do.
As you may have noticed, teams could only protect one goalie in the 2017 expansion draft. In past drafts, there was the option to protect two. With that not being the case, a very important player was lost by a very important team. Last year, the Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup not only because they had a young star, Matt Murray, but they also had Stanley Cup winning Marc-Andre Fleury as a back up in times of need. Their goaltenders were the key to their success last year against hard hitters like the Nashville Predators. The Penguins could only pick to protect one. After much deliberation and talking behind the scenes between players and the team, the Penguins made their choice. They exposed Fleury.
With a history of injuries and inconsistencies at times but overall solid play, they exposed a goalie who had been on their team for three Stanley Cups and was a fan favorite in Pittsburgh to keep the up-and-comer with them. And of course, he was snatched up. Despite some more injuries, he has been a game changer for the Knights this year. As they cultivate the promising young Malcolm Subban, they have a seasoned, highly competitive Fleury to put in between the pipes when needed. They not only took the player, they took the page right out of the Penguins playbook.
What does this all add up to?
Beyond the draft, the trades the Golden Knights have made, the acquisitions and changes throughout the season have shown a clear understanding of what it takes to establish a team for the long term. Every day, a new article is written with a headline like “This Manager is the reason the Knights are winning” or “Will the Knights win a Stanley Cup in their first year” or “Are they the best expansion team ever?” And that’s because they have so many things that are working for them right now. They’ve earned every headline they get. And in a town that has been crying for professional sports for years, they have been welcomed with open arms, rabid fans, and a wave of positive support pushing them forward.
So why are they so good? Because they did everything right and are continuing to do it right. How far will they go? Only time will tell. If this momentum continues, we may see a new kind of history in the playoffs this year.