Five stages of the Vegas Golden Knights’ unfathomable first season

Gary Lawless joins Hockey Central at Noon to discuss if the Vegas Golden Knights have enough magic left in the tank to get by the Winnipeg Jets.

The Vegas Golden Knights were poked fun at for dropping “Las” from their name, and sticking with a two-word nickname that the U.S. Army formally opposed in trademark applications. The name and logo unveiling came with a technological glitch and overall wasn’t as crisp as the team’s in-game presentations turned out to be. And the new colour scheme, before the jerseys were unveiled, seemed incompatible.

Yet the Golden Knights turned into easily the best story of the NHL season.

Here is how their first year unfolded, in five stages.

BAD EXPANSION DRAFT

In the beginning, the Vegas Golden Knights weren’t getting good reviews for their work in the expansion draft.

With rules that undoubtedly set up this expansion team better than others that came before it, the Golden Knights had plenty of options and avenues they could have taken. For instance, the thinking went, they could have gone all-in on trying to be competitive and make the playoffs right out of the gate. This would have come at the expense of making other trades to acquire draft picks and prospects, which would probably send them to the bottom of the standings shortly after.

Another line of thinking had Vegas taking calculated risks on players like Charles Hudon, low entry draft picks who had shown well in the AHL, but nothing close to an NHL breakout yet. These players would form the back bone of what was believed had to be a weak forward group — and if they ended up hitting, it would push Vegas further along.

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The majority certainly believed that Vegas absolutely had to build this thing through the entry draft, rather than rush it with the expansion draft. The crux of Vegas’ plans had to be to accumulate assets, either to flip in trade or in the form of futures to hang on to.

And Vegas did go big on the entry draft, coming out of the expansion process with three first-rounders in 2017 and loading up on seconds and thirds for years. But still the conclusion was McPhee missed out on some opportunities to make his roster better out of the gate, or to at least scoop up other players with more trade value. For instance, Petr Mrazek was passed over to be a back up one year removed from a stellar season. They took Deryk Engelland from Calgary one week before he was able to test the UFA market and passed over a veteran like Matt Stajan, or one of those shot-in-the-dark youngsters like Brett Kulak. There were a few examples along these lines.

Most thought McPhee could have gotten more bang out of the expansion draft process. There were extremely few anywhere in the hockey community who viewed McPhee’s expansion draft as a success. The overarching belief was that the Golden Knights were losers in their own draft.

Owner Bill Foley certainly didn’t see this year’s success coming. He said a lot of people called him crazy for his initial timeline of success for the Golden Knights: playoffs in three years, Stanley Cup in six.

“We don’t have high expectations for this year,” Foley told ESPN.com back in August. “We’re going to be competitive. If we’re going to lose a game, we’d like to lose by a goal or two, not lose by five or six. We don’t want to be a walkover team. We want to be competitive, we want to be entertaining on the ice, we want to score some goals.

“We have some really good players, but we’re not deep like a lot of teams are in terms of four lines of forwards and two or three lines of defencemen. But we got some really good players in the expansion draft. So we just need do well for a couple years, then make the playoffs in three years as we start transitioning in some of these younger guys — like Shea Theodore and Alex Tuch and Jake Bischoff. We’ll be pretty good in three years and we’ll make a run in five or six.”

McPhee was interviewed by Bob McCown and Damien Cox on Prime Time Sports after the entry draft had concluded, where the Golden Knights nabbed Cody Glass sixth, Nick Suzuki 13th and Erik Brannstrom 15th. Nic Hague and Jake Leschyshyn went to Vegas in the second round. McPhee talked about needing impact players and game breakers and how important it is to find those types through the draft, which is where he hoped Vegas could start making up ground on the rest of the NHL.

“Time will tell whether we can pull that off through the draft. We tried to accumulate a lot of picks to be able to hit on a lot of those,” the GM said. “We’ll do our best to do it through the draft. If there’s another way to do it at some point we’ll have to try that as well. Because as we all know those guys are the real difference makers and if you can get those guys in the right positions you can win.”

Vegas did, of course, pick up some impact players in the expansion draft. Jonathan Marchessault, David Perron and James Neal all qualified as such, but each were heading into the last year of their contracts before becoming UFA eligible. Far from being viewed as impact players for Vegas conventional wisdom had them being used as trade bait for the Golden Knights to acquire more draft picks and prospects.

“The players Vegas drafts, not all of them are going to play for Vegas. It’s not so much an expansion draft for them as it is an accumulation of assets,” Calgary Flames GM Brad Treliving said at the time. He, like many, saw Vegas’ draft as an opportunity to better their own lot. “How can we get a player through Vegas? How do we capitalize on an opportunity here?”

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MAYBE THEY’RE OK BUT THEY SHOULD STILL TRADE PLAYERS OUT, RIGHT?

As we know, Vegas sent shockwaves through the NHL with their fast start when they were almost unbeatable at home. At Christmas the Golden Knights were 23-9-2 and stood as the best team in the Western Conference and second best overall.

After nearly three months of this talk was beginning to turn to trade deadline strategy. Surely this flash-in-the-pan success couldn’t change the inevitable, that Vegas was to trade its expiring contracts and players of interest to playoff-bound teams willing to give up futures for a shot in the arm, right?

“I don’t think this really changes any of it,” Misha Donskov, Vegas’ director of hockey operations, said on Sportsnet’s Tape to Tape Podcast in December. “When you look back at our expansion draft and the process and strategy that we had going into expansion, we wanted to acquire the best players, the best assets in the short-term and long-term. We wanted to be competitive right away. … We wanted to do our best to win hockey games.

“We’re having some early success now. That doesn’t change our mindset and how we’re going to look to the future. We still know what the importance is in young players, we know what the importance is in picks and we know how key that is to ultimately having long-term success for the franchise.

“We’ll let this play out here until after Christmas and see where we we are, but we’re not going to do anything major at this point based on the success we’re having and the strategy that we have in place for the long-term success of our team.”

Tape to Tape
High-flying Islanders ft. Arthur Staple
December 15 2017

Despite all their early success, the vast majority was still expecting a down turn at some point. All the wins in the first three months made it evermore likely the Golden Knights would claim the title of best expansion team ever eventually, but it was still hard to imagine them standing pat or buying at the deadline and then reaching the post-season.

But the owner was singing a bit of a different, more immediately optimistic tune.

“Every game that we win makes me a little more impatient, I have to say,” Foley said in late-December. “I had a timeline of playoffs in three and Stanley Cup in six. I felt like that was very achievable. I felt like we put ourselves in a position to do that with the draft and the draft for the coming years. I have to say I think I moved up our timeline a little bit because we are doing so well. The guys on the ice are gelling so well together.

“Now we have a situation where we need to get some unrestricted free agents signed up to make sure we keep the core of this team in place.”

Vegas returned from the Christmas break to win its first four in a row and six of seven. Then on Jan. 3 they re-signed one of their big pending UFAs, locking in Jonathan Marchessault for six years and a $5-million cap hit. It was the first turn towards trying to make the playoffs right away and step away from selling off at the deadline.

“We’re first place in the Western Conference, we’re an expansion team,” Vegas reporter Gary Lawless said. “It’s blow-your-mind shocking.

“The prevailing question prior to the season was ‘how bad is Vegas going to be?’ And now all of a sudden the question is ‘how far can they go?’ It’s been a dramatic change in fortunes.”

It was still hard to belive that what Vegas was doing was sustainable even for the rest of the season.

“The first half means nothing if you don’t pick it up in the second half and you don’t go to the ultimate goal,” Vegas coach Gerard Gallant said in January. “Keep working hard, playing hard, and get as many points as we can, and we’ll see where it takes us.”

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THE DEADLINE COMES AND VEGAS ARE … BUYERS

On Feb. 1 the Vegas Golden Knights won their 34th game — against the Winnipeg Jets — to set a new wins record for a team in its inaugural season.

While Marchessault was now under contract, Perron and Neal still were not. On the day of the trade deadline the Golden Knights were 41-16-4 and still the best team in the Western Conference, one point shy of the league-leading Tampa Bay Lightning. The deadline presented McPhee with some unprecedented questions, but we maybe shouldn’t have been surprised by how he reacted, given what he said about the situation at the end of November.

“We do have a master plan, but if this team is in the hunt way down the road, way down the road, in March, then we’ll stay in the hunt. I wouldn’t derail it. It’s not fair to this team or this community.”

The Golden Knights ended up being buyers at the deadline, acquiring Tomas Tatar from Detroit for their first-rounder in 2018 and two other picks in 2019 and 2020. Like his expansion draft results, McPhee’s trade was mostly met with skepticism and maybe this time we were right. Tatar, 27, had just six points in 20 regular season games and is scoreless in four post-season games while making $5.3 million against the cap through 2021.

But the Golden Knights could have gone even bigger than that. As trade deadline day rumours swirled, Vegas was linked constantly to Erik Karlsson.

CONGRATULATIONS ON MAKING THE PLAYOFFS, BUT YOUR LUCK RUNS OUT HERE

Even after winning the Pacific, finishing third in the West and fifth overall, no one was picking the Golden Knights to win the Stanley Cup. Heck, they were a popular upset pick in Round 1 against the Los Angeles Kings — who, of course, they swept.

“People said we were going to lose in the first round, the second round and now they’re saying we’re definitely going to lose this round,” Luca Sbisa said this week. But we don’t listen to those outsiders. It’s been a fun trip. [We are] misfits that no one really wanted or people gave up on. And look where we are now.”

Four wins away from reaching the Stanley Cup Final.

YEAR 1 WAS AN UNABASHED SUCCESS, SO WHAT’S NEXT?

Vegas has roughly $25 million in projected cap space this summer with a number of players to re-sign or let go. UFAs Perron and Neal are still the most impactful players without a contract. Sbisa and Clayton Stoner are also UFAs likely to leave, as is Jason Garrison.

Breakout star William Karlsson is the leading RFA, which should be a fascinating negotiation given how due for regression he seems to be. Theodore, averaging 22:26 of ice time per night in the playoffs, is also an RFA and could be the one with the most lasting impact on this roster in the years to come.

But at the core, Vegas should return just as capable of competing as this season. Marc-Andre Fleury is signed for another season. The top line figures to be intact. And, especially after such a successful inaugural season, the city of Vegas could very well be an attractive destination for star free agents (John Tavares?) or a trade partner willing and able to make a splash (revisit Karlsson talks, or enter Drew Doughty discussions?).

And as for their three first-round picks from last summer: Glass scored 102 points in 64 WHL games, Nick Suzuki hit 100 in 64 OHL games and defenceman Brannstrom scored 15 points in 44 Swedish League games. Glass, especially, could possibly make Vegas’ lineup next season.

Can they replicate their Year 1 success and win another division title?

No one is betting against Vegas anymore.

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