The Vegas Golden Knights have long surpassed being the best story in hockey to become arguably the best story in sports.
It’s an expansion team that, in the course of its inaugural season, has shattered records for first-year teams, sits eight wins away from capturing a Stanley Cup that teams four decades their elders have yet to win, and has helped heal a city that was staggered by an unconscionable shooting massacre that occurred just days before their first home game.
You can’t throw a poker chip in that dressing room without hitting someone with a redemption narrative. That includes their goalie, Marc-Andre Fleury, who won three Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins, was traded in for a younger and cheaper model, became the face of this new franchise and is generally the human embodiment of joy.
It is a team you can’t help but root for.
Unless, of course, you’re emphatically rooting against it.
Welcome to the Golden Knights backlash. This is why we can’t have nice things.
Surveying social media during the Vegas playoff run, there’s a perception, and sometimes a lingering bitterness, from other fan bases that the expansion draft was “rigged” in their favor in a way that it wasn’t for previous NHL expansion teams.
“Is this a hot or tepid take,” asked Donnie Kwak on The Ringer, “the Golden Knights are not some cute ‘underdog’ expansion surprise story because the league loaded them with more talent than any expansion team in any league ever, and in fact we should hate them for that because they have an unfair advantage?”
Please recall that teams in the Vegas expansion draft had the choice of protecting seven forwards, three defensemen and one goaltender, or one goaltender and eight skaters regardless of position. The threshold for protected players was lowered from the 2000 expansion draft for the Minnesota Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets. Back then, teams could protect nine forwards, five defensemen, and one goalie, or two goalies, three defensemen, and seven forwards. Which is why the Wild and Jackets both finished in last place, and partially why the Golden Knights … didn’t.
So, in essence, the scrappy, underdog, against-all-odds Golden Knights are like an indie musician who spins tales about living out of their car and eating PB&J sandwiches for dinner, and then one day you discover they’re a trust-fund baby.
What we’ve come to realize, of course, is that the Knights’ success was as much about leveraging teams into bad decisions through the draft rules as it was about selecting players in the draft. Or standing there with a butterfly net to snag the players teams were willing to jettison because of that draft panic.
They got Reilly Smith from the Florida Panthers for agreeing to draft Jonathan Marchessault, so that’s two-thirds of their top line. The other third, William “Wild Bill” Karlsson, was acquired so the Knights would draft away David Clarkson‘s contract from the Blue Jackets; key defenseman Shea Theodore was acquired from Anaheim; burgeoning power forward Alex Tuch was acquired to ensure they selected Erik Haula from the Wild; and then there was the deal to arrange for Fleury to become a Golden Knight.
(An interesting new bit of revisionist history: that the salary cap forced Florida and Columbus into idiotic player-personnel decisions. The math doesn’t really add up, but it’s another log on the Vegas detraction fire.)
In the end, any “rigging” of the draft still needed GM George McPhee and his front office to select the right players and make the right deals. I defy Seattle to replicate this in a few years. It’s not that easy.
Of course, bitterness about the expansion draft would seem to forget that literally everyone thought the Knights were going to stink. “To pretend the NHL unfairly gifted Vegas a Stanley Cup contender is revisionist history at its finest,” wrote Jessie Granger in the Las Vegas Weekly.
The Deadpsin headline after the expansion draft: “Wow The Golden Knights Are Going To Be Bad.” The Vice Sports headline: “The Vegas Golden Knights somehow underwhelmed our already low expectations.” Yours truly picked them last in the Pacific, if only because that’s how it’s supposed to go for expansion teams.
But here’s the thing: What if what the Knights have done this season is actually how it’s supposed to go for expansion teams?
Ben Wright used to do communications for the defunct Atlanta Thrashers and is one of the most public advocates for that since-relocated franchise. I wondered if he was bitter that the Thrashers weren’t better set up when they entered the league in 1999. He said their failure had much more to do with the years that followed: What if the Thrashers had hired Brian Burke instead of Don Waddell to be the first GM? What if Marian Hossa had stayed, and would Ilya Kovalchuk have stayed with him?
But when it comes to Vegas, Wright was actually happy to see the NHL finally wise up to the notion that expansion teams don’t have to be abjectly terrible.
“I give credit to the NHL for realizing the old system wasn’t good enough and to George McPhee and his staff for making the most of the new system. It doesn’t matter how beneficial the draft rules are if the management team can’t evaluate talent,” he said.
Although Wright also wonders if the failures to launch for previous teams didn’t lay the groundwork for this expansion draft bounty. “Would Vegas be having this kind of success if the Thrashers and Blue Jackets hadn’t struggled for so long to get competitive?” he asks. Good question.
Another question being asked by some hockey fans as Vegas pushes toward the final round: Is it a bad look for the NHL if an expansion team wins the Stanley Cup?
The New York Rangers have won one cup in 80 years. @GoldenKnights can very well go 1 for 1 as an expansion franchise. This is an amazing story but at the same time, a very bad look for the rest of the NHL. Especially as a Ranger fan #NHL #StanleyCupPlayoffs
— Joe Drago (@Joey_Drago_) May 7, 2018
How bad would that make NHL look
— Ryan S (@rstrasser344) May 7, 2018
Is it bad that a team could cobble together a bunch of castoffs from other teams, put the pedal down on a speedy offensive system and thrive without the burden of previous playoff baggage or expectations or any of the other trappings of established teams? Is it bad for hockey that a very unique case could be used against other teams in the league that spend significantly more on talent on the ice and in the front office?
Is it bad that an expansion team is showing that the traditional path to contention — be bad to be good — is also a fallacy? “The talk all week will be about Vegas trying to be a good team right away. But don’t believe it. That’s not what McPhee is trying to accomplish,” wrote Damien Cox before the expansion draft. Whoops.
Yet there’s an aspect of “TOO SOON!” with which I actually agree. Not the part about a Stanley Cup for an expansion team, which would become a magnet for casual fan interest in the NHL, the likes of which it hasn’t seen since the first Winter Classic.
No, this is about Vegas as a hockey market and minting new fans, for whom a Cup would be too much, too soon.
A Stanley Cup in Year 1 would be an unprecedented and undeniable thrill, but where do you go from there? I’ve always felt the recipe for a thriving fan base is three-fold: an entertaining product, which the Knights have; sustained success on the ice, which the Knights could have; and a prolonged hunger for a championship, in particular after a few teases and close calls.
That’s how you mint fans for life: By giving them a taste, and then taking on that journey a few more times before you win. Rather than, say, doing what the Panthers did, and give their fans a taste in Year 3 before developing a decades-long allergy to the postseason.
I became a die-hard New Jersey Devils fan because of their run to the conference final in 1988, the first time the team made the playoffs. They were a Cinderella team. Weird stuff happened that’s still talked about 30 years later, like their coach allegedly shoving a referee and telling him to have another doughnut. But the impact that season made on a fan in his early teens was undeniable, and that impact would have been significantly lessened had they won that season rather than falling painfully short.
You know why they’re called “long-suffering” fans? Because they’ve been fans for a long time, that’s why.
I don’t believe the Vegas Golden Knights winning the Stanley Cup would be bad for the NHL because of unfair expansion draft rules and the bad decisions they forced; nor because it’s a “bad look” for a first-year team to do what some teams have never done after 50 years, because making other GMs look that bad is God’s work, really.
But with due respect to the team and its fans — who, let’s remember, deserve every happy vibe that can be sent their way after One October — having this ride sputter short of the Stanley Cup might be the best thing for the prolonged commitment of this fan base and the sturdiness of its bandwagon.
As they say in the entertainment capital of the world: always leave them wanting more.