Down Goes Brown: Pros and cons of a Golden Knights Cup win

Vegas Golden Knights GM George McPhee joins HC at Noon to discuss the fact that last year they were announcing their expansion roster, and now they're halfway through the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The Vegas Golden Knights are the talk of hockey right now, and are becoming one of the rare NHL stories that breaks through into the larger sports world. They’ll open the Western Conference Final Saturday in Winnipeg, the latest chapter in a season-long story that’s seen them go from presumed bottom-feeder to Pacific Division champion and legitimate Stanley Cup contender. They’re already the greatest expansion team in pro sports history; now the question is whether they can actually do the unthinkable and win it all.

Well, that’s one question. Here’s another: Should we want them to win? Would seeing an expansion team win the Stanley Cup be a good thing?

Plenty of fans seem to think so; the Golden Knights bandwagon filled up quickly, attracting everyone from veteran fans to little kids to folks who’d never watched hockey before. But there’s a growing sense among others that this has all gone a little too far, and that seeing the Cup paraded down the The Strip might be the wrong ending to the story.

If you’ve been a hockey fan, you already know how this will go. We’ve already got the backlash. Next will come the backlash to the backlash. Then we’ll have a backlash to that backlash, and on and on, and by the time the Knights take the ice on Saturday we’ll all be fighting in the parking lot with tridents while stepping over pieces of the smashed conch.

But maybe it doesn’t have to be that way. Maybe we can clear the air right now, with a good old-fashioned weighing of the pros and cons. Would that actually change anyone’s mind? The odds are against it. But then again, the odds don’t seem to mean much when it comes to the Golden Knights, so let’s give it a try.

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Pro: This is an all-time underdog story that anyone should be able to enjoy

Everybody loves an underdog. There’s a reason that Hollywood doesn’t make sports movies about the best player or team just steamrolling over everyone on the way to an easy championship. Nobody would want to watch that. Instead, we want to see the also-ran or the never-was, who doesn’t have a chance right up until they prove everyone wrong.

Sound familiar? The Golden Knights aren’t just a team that was supposed to be bad. They’re a team made up from the outcasts of all the other, better teams. They’re a collection of misfit toys who were all told they were expendable. And now they might win the Stanley Cup. This is a clichéd Hollywood movie, only it’s playing out in real life right in front of us.

We’re watching the real-world version of Rudy. It’s the hockey world’s retelling of Rocky. You loved those stories for a reason. It’s the same reason you should love the Golden Knights.

Con: This is not how underdog stories are supposed to work

The original Rocky was a great movie. It won Best Picture, launched careers, and set the template for every underdog story that was to come.

Do you remember how it ends? Not with Rocky winning.

That’s because even though the underdog story was inspiring, having the no-name boxer win the championship would have been too much. It would have felt silly. They didn’t get to that until the sequels, because even the ultimate underdog with a room full of Hollywood scriptwriters behind him shouldn’t win it all right away.

We all loved Rudy. But that move ends with our underdog hero getting into the game for one play. He doesn’t become a star, get picked first overall in the draft and win NFL MVP in his first year. If he had, people would have left the theatre mumbling about how stupid the whole thing was.

Underdog stories are great – up to a point. We’ve reached that point with the Golden Knights. Save something for the sequel, boys.

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Pro: The league is finally doing right by a new market

The NHL’s track record when it comes to welcoming new markets to the fold isn’t very strong. Until the Knights came along, the league’s standard operating procedure involved cashing the expansion check, showing up for the ribbon-cutting at the new arena, and then leaving a team to flounder for years before it’s ever worth watching.

Not surprisingly, that often didn’t work all that well. Markets from Oakland to Kansas City to Ottawa to Atlanta to Nashville to Columbus either struggled or failed outright in large part because the teams weren’t competitive until years down the line. Florida fell into that trap too after its early success, as did relocated teams like Carolina and Phoenix. Big-market fans would scoff at half-empty buildings, but really, what would we expect? Nobody wants to pay to watch a team finish last every year.

The league clearly didn’t want to see that happen in Vegas. They reworked the expansion draft rules to give the team a better initial roster, and served up an easy October schedule to make sure they’d get a few early wins under their belt. Nobody thought it would go like this, of course, but the Knights’ success has ensured that they’ll have a far better shot at building for the long term than just about any expansion team that’s come before.

Right now, Las Vegas is in love with hockey, and with its team. The franchise, and by extension the league, will benefit from that for years to come.

Con: Wait, is this good for the market?

In the short term, sure, the Knights are pulling in fans left and right. But if they actually win it all, what do you do for an encore?

Part of being a hockey fan is suffering through the bad. There’s a reason that drought-busting Cup wins like the Rangers in 1994 and the Blackhawks in 2010 resonate so much – their fans had paid more than their fair share of dues to get to that point. Losing is never fun, but sticking through the tough times is part of what builds the long-term bond between a team and its most loyal fans.

Vegas is skipping all of that. It’s fun now, but what happens when the team misses the playoffs for the first time? Are fans who’ve been spoiled by a championship in Year 1 going to patiently wait their way through a rebuild, or will they wander off to find the latest rush somewhere else?

We don’t know, because we’ve never had to face this question before in any sport. Maybe all these new Knights fans will turn out to be diehards. They sure look (and sound) the part right now. But tempering that bond with a little bit of adversity might do more to build a long-term fan base than skipping straight to the parade in Year 1.

Pro: It’s not just that they’re winning, but how they’re doing it

If someone had come up to you in June, 2017, and explained that they were bringing news from a future where the Golden Knights were contending for a Stanley Cup, you wouldn’t have believed them. But if they managed to convince you they were telling the truth, you probably would have assumed that the Knights were winning the way the Panthers did back in the mid-’90s: With strong goaltending, a defence-first mentality, plenty of clutch-and-grab, and a commitment to boring everyone to death if it meant a 1-0 win.

But apart from the goaltending, that’s not what the Knights have done here. Instead, they packed the team with plenty of speed and as much skill as they could cobble together, and they let it loose on the league. And somehow, it worked. They finished the season ranked fourth in goals scored, tied with the star-studded Pittsburgh Penguins.

That could end up being important. Those mid-’90s Panthers were one of several teams of the era that helped shape the next two decades of NHL hockey. Suddenly, owners were wondering why they should pay big bucks for offensive-minded superstars when those players could be shut down by a third-line grinder playing the trap. Coaches adjusted, strategies changed, and the dead-puck era arrived. It’s still here.

Wouldn’t it be great if the Knights helped reverse that trend? We’re obviously not going to see teams abandon their defence-first philosophies overnight – they’re far too ingrained in how hockey is played today. But watching the Knights light up the scoreboard without any established stars up front might remind teams that just trying not to lose isn’t the only way. If William Karlsson can score 40 goals when you let him off the leash, what might some of the guys on your team be able to do?

We already saw a modest uptick in scoring this season; a Vegas championship might nudge us even further in that direction. And better yet, it might even have a few owners wondering why their team can’t be as much fun to watch as an expansion team.

Con: This is making the other 30 GMs look stupid

Each one of these guys had a chance to evaluate their roster, make any trades they wanted, and cut any side deals with Vegas to ensure things would go just right. And in the end they had to give up roughly their 10th best player. And then George McPhee took that crew of rejects and built what might be a Stanley Cup winner out of it.

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That would seem to suggest that nobody in this league actually knows what they’re doing. Is that supposed to be funny?

Pro: This is making the other 30 GMs look stupid

Honestly, it is kind of funny, yeah.

Con: None of this is fun for long-suffering fans of other teams

If you’re a Vegas fan, you’re loving all of this. If you’re relatively new to hockey fandom in general, the Knights are easy to root for. And if you’re a fan of the Penguins or Blackhawks or some other team that recently won a Cup of their own, the Knights might seem like as good an option as any to join you.

But most fans don’t fall into those categories. It’s more likely that you root for a team that’s never won a Cup, like the Sabres or Blues or Canucks. Or you root for a team stuck in a long title drought, like the Leafs or Oilers or Flyers or Islanders. Even the storied Canadiens have now gone a quarter-century without so much as an appearance in the final.

And all of those teams have, at some point or other, tried to commit to a long-term plan to get back to the promised land. They’ve done the teardown, they’ve done the rebuild, they’ve crossed their fingers over draft lotteries. Let’s be honest, they’ve probably tanked. And they’ve been reassured that this was the way champions get built – piece by piece, patiently, and with lots of pain along the way.

Now the Knights show up and have a shot at winning it all in Year 1, and those fans are supposed to be happy for them? Are you nuts?

Look, call it jealousy or bitterness or whatever you want, but it’s the reality. Nobody wants to scratch and claw their way through a marathon and still barely have the finish line in sight, only to get passed by some giggling toddler on a Segway. Forget that. Somebody run that little brat into a ditch.

And sure, you can roll your eyes at those fans. But there are 18 teams in this league who have a Cup drought that stretches 25 years and/or the entire history of the franchise. That’s 60 per cent of the rest of the league. That’s a lot of sour faces in your audience. And in the extreme cases, maybe a few of them start to wonder if it’s even worth the wait.

Pro: A Golden Knights Cup win would be proof that anything can happen in the modern NHL

OK, so let’s flip that last argument around. Let’s say you’re a fan of some long-suffering franchise. You’ve never seen your team win a Cup in your lifetime. You’ve been through the ups and downs. And there’s probably a point or two along the way where you’ve been tempted to just give up hope. Why do you keep doing this to yourself? It’s never going to happen.

That’s just about the absolute worst feeling that a sports fan can have. So good news: If the Knights win it all, it will be just about impossible for NHL fans to ever feel that way again.

Look, none of this makes any sense. Even the most generous reading of the Vegas roster doesn’t add up to anything close to a Cup contender. And yet here we are. They might actually do it. And if they can, why couldn’t your team?

Sure, the odds will always be stacked against you – it’s a 31-team league now, so most of us will be lucky to see one or two championships in our lives. But hopeless? Nothing can be hopeless anymore. If an expansion team can win the Stanley Cup, anybody can. Yes, even your team.

That’s an extreme version of the message the NHL has been trying to sell for years. Gary Bettman has been beating the parity drum for a decade, with the league constantly hitting us over the head with just how unpredictable the league is these days. They love to tell us about playoff turnover, and big upsets, and teams making jumps up and down the standings. They practically grab you by the lapel and scream “Anything can happen in the NHL!” in your face.

And for the most part, they’re right. But then we get to the end of the playoffs, and for most of the last decade it’s been the same teams winning every year. The Penguins, Blackhawks and Kings took eight of the last nine Stanley Cups. So maybe all this precious competitive balance was overrated. Your terrible team could make the playoffs and even win a round or two, but there was something about that ultimate goal of winning the Stanley Cup that stayed out of reach for all but a precious few.

Or maybe not. If the Knights win, all bets are off. Anything really will be able to happen, and you’ll never be able to say never again.

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Con: There might be such a thing as too much parity.

We’ve hit on this theme before, but there are times when the NHL starts to feel like it’s dangerously close to turning into the National Coin-Flipping League. And nobody would want to watch that.

Some parity is good. If half the league’s fan bases know their teams have zero chance before the season even starts, you don’t have a product worth watching. Bad teams should have hope, at least a little. Good teams should have doubts, at least a few. Upsets are fun. Underdog stories are fun. Any worthwhile league needs some of that.

But there’s a point where we go beyond parity, and the results start to feel random. An upset isn’t an upset if everyone is basically equal, and there are no underdogs in a league where everyone’s got about the same chance at winning. “Anything can happen” is nice up to a point, but if we’re just rerolling the same fistful of dice every night and nothing that happened yesterday will matter tomorrow, there’s really no point in caring about any of it.

The NHL hasn’t reached that point, yet. But some nights it’s not far off. And having an expansion team show up and win the Stanley Cup in its very first season might end up feeling like a tipping point.

This league is already far more random and luck-based than any of us want to admit. And that’s OK. It’s probably even part of what makes being a hockey fan so much fun. But we have to be able to pretend that there’s something more at play. All that stuff we do when we’re not watching games – making up fake trades, obsessing over prospects or future draft picks, looking years ahead at the salary cap picture – only matters if building a Cup winner really is a long-term process.

Finding out it can all be done in one year even if you’re starting from scratch would kind of give the game away. At least let us pretend.

Even if it’s only until Seattle arrives and we do this all over again.

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