I would be remiss not to use a terrible pun to begin this: the NHL took a huge gamble adding an expansion team in Las Vegas, Nevada and they hit the jackpot. Hockey is thriving in Sin City, thanks mainly to the success of the Golden Knights on the ice.
They sit atop the entire NHL with 82 points (39-16-4) through 59 games. Through 20 games? Just a fluke. Through 40? They can’t keep this up all year. But, through 59? They are legitimately good.
They are running away with the Pacific Division, and, with their endless dominant stretch, they could be the favorite to go the Stanley Cup Final from the Western Conference.
Since we are talking about Vegas, we might as well look at the Stanley Cup odds for the Golden Knights. At the start of their season, their chances were set at 500-1. Those odds have risen to 7-1, the second highest of any team.
So how did a team that started from scratch last spring turn themselves into one of the NHL’s elite teams?
In the offseason, Vegas was able to select an unprotected player from each of the other 30 clubs in the league in its Expansion Draft. Each of these teams had the opportunity to protect seven forwards, three defensemen and a goaltender or four forwards, four defensemen and a goaltender. First and second year players, along with unsigned draft choices, were exempt from the draft.
While these standards are not too far off from expansion drafts of the past, they were geared more in the Golden Knights’ favor. The protection list left many young growing talents available, rather than just the usual fading veterans. The rules set by the league made it nearly impossible for deeper teams to keep all of its important pieces.
Expanding to a non traditional hockey market, the NHL wanted to make sure their experiment would work. They did not want the Golden Knights to be in the league’s basement like most expansion teams of the past. After all, they were taking a major risk adding a team in a city that symbolizes gambling, something that sports have tried to avoid immensely throughout history.
The advantage to this, of course, was reaping the rewards of an untapped market. People in Vegas have been exposed to little hockey before, so they were not going to be instant loyal fans if the team was putrid. Sure, a destination city like Las Vegas could remain afloat just from the influx of visiting fans coming to their arena. But the league did not want to leave Vegas stuck in that mentality, as it envisioned the Golden Knights owning the city. Being the first sports franchise to settle there would be a key part of the team’s identity and a shining token for the NHL, if the team was successful in all facets.
Despite the help of a limited protection system, no one anticipated the Golden Knights playing this well. At best, they thought, Vegas would be on the bubble of making the playoffs, beginning to garner some intrigue from its new market. Instead, they will almost definitely become the first expansion team ever to complete its first season with a winning record.
General Manager George McPhee has built an elite team without any superstar. Since the institution of the organization last year, he has made numerous savvy selections, trades and signings to make this team one of the best. Choosing underrated players like Jonathan Marchessault, who leads the team with 58 points, William Karlsson, David Perron and Nate Schmidt have made them an instant contender.
Fans of teams like the Arizona Coyotes and Buffalo Sabres, who are enduring everlasting playoff droughts, must be quite envious of the league’s new toy. They have been suffering for years, but meanwhile, Vegas pops into the league and is instantly formidable. Is this a sign that the NHL made it too easy for Vegas? Or does it just represent the strength of the Golden Knights’ front office and tribulations of the Buffalo and Arizona ones? Most likely, it is the latter.
Regardless, what the Vegas Golden Knights have built in under a year is truly remarkable and something that sports has never seen before. They are the best expansion team ever and fans will be eager to see how far they may go. Could an expansion team actually win the championship in its first season? Let’s see.
Dylan Barrett is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.