The Vegas Golden Knights are one loss away from being eliminated from the Western Conference Final, but the fact that the club is even in this position in Year 3 is impressive. The NHL's newest franchise has the sixth best winning percentage in the NHL over its first three seasons, to go with two division titles and two appearances in the conference final. It's not supposed to go that way.
Expansion teams are supposed to be slow builds, with a heavy dose of young talent acquired over years of drafting mixed with some veteran players looking for a second chance. But a quick scan of the roster the Golden Knights brought into the Edmonton bubble shows this is a team full of players in their prime ready to win.
No other expansion team has been built like this. Let’s take a deeper look at how they did it.
Expansion Draft (9 players)
We’ll begin this exercise with the original Knights, the nine who remain from the expansion draft. Of course, as we’ll see further down, the team grabbed more players at the expansion draft in trades, but this group was officially selected from other teams.
Marchessault was coming off a 30-goal season while making only $750,000 when the Florida Panthers left him exposed in the expansion draft to instead protect Alex Petrovic and Mark Pysyk. In fact, the Panthers wanted to protect their defence core so much that they traded Reilly Smith (more on him later) to Vegas to ensure the Golden Knights selected Marchessault, a forward.
Three years later, that move doesn’t look very good for the Panthers, to put it mildly. Marchessault has 181 points in three seasons with the Golden Knights and 10 points on this current playoff run. Of the three defencemen the Panthers protected, only Pysyk remains with the organization.
The Blue Jackets were looking to dump some salary and the Golden Knights were looking to get to the cap floor, so Columbus sent David Clarkson’s contact, a first-round pick and a second-round pick to Vegas to ensure they took Karlsson and not forward Josh Anderson or goalie Joonas Korpisalo. While Korpisalo had a big breakout season for Columbus this year, Karlsson has collected 180 points in three seasons with Vegas, including a 43-goal campaign in 2017-18.
Schmidt was a young defenceman behind a deep veteran core in Washington when he was exposed in the expansion draft, but he instantly became a top-pairing player when he arrived in Vegas. In three seasons with the Golden Knights, Schmidt has averaged a team-high 21:59 of ice time per game, scored 97 points and registered a plus-52 rating, which ranks ninth among all NHL defencemen in that span.
McNabb is a big defensive defenceman who was exposed in the expansion draft so the Kings could protect Derek Forbort. Since joining Vegas, the six-foot-four Davidson, Sask., native leads Golden Knights defencemen in hits (626), blocked shots (448) and total time on the penalty kill (654 minutes). The Kings traded Forbort to the Flames at this year's trade deadline and he will be an unrestricted free agent this off-season.
Fleury was coming off his third Stanley Cup win with the Penguins when he was left exposed in the expansion draft so Pittsburgh could protect the younger Matt Murray instead. His hall-of-fame worthy play continued in Vegas and he finished in the top-five of Vezina Trophy voting in each of his first two seasons. But Fleury struggled at times this season -- his .905 save percentage was his worst rate in 10 years -- so the Knights added Robin Lehner at the trade deadline for depth in net.
Now that Lehner has taken over the net in the playoffs, questions regarding Fleury's future in Vegas are being asked. His agent sharing a drawing on Twitter implying Fleury was being stabbed in the back only added more fuel to those rumours.
Nosek and Carrier had a combined 58 NHL games played when the Detroit Red Wings and Buffalo Sabres left them exposed in the expansion draft, but they both have been full-time NHLers in Vegas ever since. The two have been paired up with Ryan Reaves to form a solid fourth-line, and while neither of them score much, Nosek kills some penalties and Carrier is among the team's leaders in hits.
Trades (12 players)
A large part of the current Golden Knights group joined the team via trade, and team management has proven to be very aggressive in that market. This group includes the team’s top scorer in the regular season, one of the best two-way forwards in the game, a starting goalie and a No. 1 defenceman, among others — proof that high-end skill can be acquired at the right price.
Stone was already one of the top two-way forwards in the NHL and in the middle of the best season of his career when the Ottawa Senators moved him to Vegas at the 2019 trade deadline. The Golden Knights sent Erik Brannstrom, who was their No. 1 defence prospect at the time, along with AHL forward Oscar Lindberg and the Stars’ second-round pick in 2020 back to Ottawa and then immediately signed Stone to an eight-year, $76-million contract extension.
This season, his first full campaign in Vegas, Stone posted his fifth 60-plus point season in the last six years and finished fifth in Selke Trophy voting.
Pacioretty was entering the final year of his contract in 2018 when the Montreal Canadiens traded him to Vegas before training camp. The cost for the Canadiens captain wasn’t cheap, as the Golden Knights had to send top prospect Nick Suzuki, winger Tomas Tatar and a second-round pick back to Montreal. But like Stone, Vegas locked up their new star right away with a four-year, $28-million extension.
While Suzuki and Tatar are both having success in Montreal, Pacioretty led the Golden Knights in scoring this season and had more than 30 goals for the sixth time in his career.
The Golden Knights made a surprise trade at this February’s trade deadline by acquiring Lehner from the Blackhawks, but that move has paid off in a major way in the playoffs. Lehner has started 15 of the Golden Knights’ 19 games in the Edmonton bubble so far, posting a 9-6-0 record with a .919 save percentage and four shutouts.
With his contract expiring at the end of the season, the Golden Knights will have to make a decision between Lehner and Fleury. If Lehner backstops Vegas to a Stanley Cup win, that decision will only get harder.
Of all the Golden Knights acquired via trade, Theodore might be the biggest steal of the group. The Anaheim Ducks sent Theodore to Vegas to ensure they took Clayton Stoner in the expansion draft and, in the three years since, Theodore has grown into one of the best defencemen in the NHL.
The 25-year-old leads the Golden Knights in playoff scoring (18 points in 19 games), after leading all full-time defencemen in Corsi For percentage (58.50) and expected goals for percentage (64.45) during the regular season. He should appear on Norris Trophy ballots when the results are announced later this month.
Smith, acquired from the Panthers for expansion draft considerations, already had two 50-plus point seasons on his resume when he joined the Golden Knights, and he's added three more since. The 29-year-old has formed a fantastic line with Marchessault and Karlsson, and he finished third on the team in scoring this season with 54 points, including 27 goals.
The Golden Knights acquired Reaves in a three-way trade with the Penguins and Senators that included Vegas acquiring Derick Brassard from Ottawa then sending him to Pittsburgh while retaining some salary. Reaves was hardly the headliner of the trade, but he has become a fan favourite in Vegas thanks to his hard-hitting play and humour on and off the ice.
Tuch was another player acquired at the expansion draft to ensure the Golden Knights picked a certain player. In this case, it was the Minnesota Wild, who left Matt Dumba exposed but traded Tuch so the Golden Knights would instead select Erik Haula.
Tuch, 24, has grown into a middle of the lineup power winger with the Golden Knights and has eight goals and 11 points in these playoffs. But the Wild likely don't regret the move, as Dumba is now a supremely important player on their blue line.
A year and a half after the Golden Knights lost in the Stanley Cup Final to the Capitals, Vegas swung a trade with Washington to add some centre depth by acquiring Stephenson for a fifth-round pick. The 26-year-old doesn't produce much offence, but he kills penalties and blocks shots.
Martinez is a rental pickup the Golden Knights added at this season's trade deadline, sending two-second round picks back to the Kings. The 33-year-old had played his entire 11-year career in L.A. before the trade, winning two Stanley Cups, and has played important top-four minutes for the Golden Knights. Martinez has also found his scoring touch in Vegas, collecting 16 points in 26 games between the regular season and playoffs.
Free Agency (8 players)
The Golden Knights have spent more time shopping in the trade market than free agency, but they have still signed a few players now contributing to the playoff push.
Easily the biggest free agent signing in team history, the Golden Knights signed Stastny to a three-year, $19.5-million contract in the summer of 2018. He immediately slotted in as the No. 2 centre on the team behind Karlsson, giving them a second scoring wave. Stastny is the best faceoff man on the Golden Knights, winning 54 per cent of his draws, and he contributes to both special teams units as well.
The Golden Knights signed Holden for blue line depth in 2018. He doesn't add much offensively, but he averages nearly 19 minutes a game while blocking lots of shots (74) and throwing lots of hits (129), both ranked fourth on the team this season.
Whitecloud was an undrafted free agent who the Golden Knights signed to an entry-level contract in March of 2018 after he completed his sophomore season at Bemidji State University. The 23-year-old has only appeared in 17 regular season games but has skated in all 19 playoff games, during which he scored the first two goals of his NHL career.
Other players on the playoff roster signed from free agency: Oscar Dansk, Reid Duke, Patrick Brown, Gage Quinney (undrafted free agent), Dylan Coghlan
Draft Picks (2 players)
The Golden Knights only brought two of their own draft picks into the bubble, but neither has appeared in a game yet. If that remains the case and the team goes all the way, it would be the first time a team wins the Stanley Cup without a single player drafted by the organization appearing in a game during the playoff run.
Cody Glass, the team’s first ever draft pick, would likely have joined the group in Edmonton if he hadn’t undergone knee surgery in early March.
Hague, a second-round pick in 2017, appeared in 38 NHL games this season, his second pro campaign. A high-scoring blue liner with a heavy shot, Hague had 11 points in the NHL this season and looks to be an important part of the team’s future on defence.
Krebs fell to the Golden Knights at 17th overall in 2019 after tearing his Achilles tendon a couple months before the draft. Now fully recovered, the 19-year-old centre had 60 points in 38 WHL games this season and traveled with the team to Edmonton after an impressive training camp in July.