The immediate success of the Vegas Golden Knights in their inaugural NHL season lasted all season and has carried the team to the Western Conference Final on a fairly easy playoff run; the Golden Knights have only played 10 of a possible 14 games through two rounds, sweeping the Los Angeles Kings and shutting out the San Jose Sharks in two of their four second-round wins. Vegas faces its toughest challenge yet in the Conference Finals against the Winnipeg Jets, but every step of the way, the expansion team has defied expectations.
General manager George McPhee, head coach Gerard Gallant, and their players have reinvented what NHL fans can expect out of expansion franchises. The NHL’s 2017 Expansion Draft made it easier for Vegas to acquire quality players than past expansion teams by lowering the number of players existing teams could ‘protect’ in the draft, sure, but the roster McPhee gathered through his expansion draft picks and trades is near unstoppable, never losing more than three games in a row this season. Few thought the Golden Knights would be good. No one imagined they would be this good.
In fact, the team’s success has even raised odd questions at times: is it bad for the NHL if Vegas wins the Stanley Cup in their first season? Is it bad for the team’s fans if their brand-new team knows no struggle its first season? Thirteen NHL teams have never won the Stanley Cup. The Toronto Maple Leafs last won the Cup in 1967. Fans of nearly half the league’s teams have learned the virtues of patience and the terrors of heartbreak as their favorite teams’ Cup runs were met with failure over the years.
A first-year Vegas Golden Knights fan with little prior NHL knowledge has seen the team’s creation, organization, and success all the way to the Western Conference Finals in hardly a year. How can they go on if their team wins the championship? Fans cannot expect a Stanley Cup every year, and when the Golden Knights likely regress, fans could quickly walk away because they held higher expectations. The National Football League, too, will expand to Vegas by 2020 – Vegas does not want to lose fans to the more popular NFL.
It's rare a team in any sport is berated for winning. Sure, Vegas’ success does not fit the NHL’s traditional ‘expansion’ model, but that was partially by design. That traditional model involves being bad for several years.
Four of the NHL’s most recent expansion franchises prior to Vegas – Nashville, Winnipeg/Atlanta, Columbus, and Minnesota – each struggled for years. The Thrashers were a failed experiment, making the playoffs only once in 11 seasons in Atlanta and eventually moving to hockey hotbed Winnipeg, where the Jets have made the playoffs only twice since and finally reached past the first round this season. Nashville and Columbus struggled to make the playoffs and build a fanbase for years and only in the 2010s have both teams carved out a true competitive identity in the NHL. The Wild even retired number 1 as a tribute to their fans – a constant reminder of how poorly the team built through the draft in their early years.
For Vegas, its early experience has been the complete opposite of recent expansion teams; they acquired several young players that were given a chance to flourish where they may not have on their former teams, a star goaltender in Marc-André Fleury, and they are four wins from reaching the Stanley Cup Finals.
Sure, the Golden Knights likely will not find success so easily in their second, third, or fourth seasons. William Karlsson probably won’t sustain his 23.4 shooting percentage from 2017-2018. Marchessault may not prove a 70+ point player every year. Unrestricted free agents James Neal David Perron could walk away this summer. Fleury’s contract expires in 2019, which could leave goaltending in the hands of 24-year-old Malcom Subban.
Despite all that, Vegas’ 2017 first-round picks Nick Suzuki and Cody Glass still look like strong prospects one year after their draft and will likely see NHL time sooner rather than later. Golden Knights fans will not have to fret long about the team’s long-term success, regardless of a Cup victory this season – they will be fine.