First Year Finals: How Do The Vegas Golden Knights Compare to Other Expansion Squads?
In perhaps one of the greatest sports stories of the past decade, the NHL’s newest expansion team, the Vegas Golden Knights, have clinched a place in the Stanley Cup Finals in just their first season of play.
For most expansion teams, finishing close to .500 or making the playoffs would be an incredible achievement but this current Vegas squad has surpassed all expectations for what an expansion team can achieve in their maiden season.
In order to provide some context for the team’s incredible playoff run, we’ve gone through the trouble of comparing Vegas’ first season to some of the most accomplished expansion sides premier seasons, both in the NHL and in other sports.
The NHL, in a similar fashion to the other major sports in North America, experienced rapid expansion from the late sixties until the early 2000s as the league swelled from just six teams to thirty franchises. In the history of the league, there have only been a handful of expansion teams that have achievements that rival what the Knights have accomplished so far this season: the 1967-68 St. Louis Blues and the 1979-80 Edmonton Oilers and 1979-80 Hartford Whalers.
At first glance, it would appear as though the St. Louis Blues inaugural season compares favorably to the 2017-18 Knights season but when you examine things a bit more closely, Vegas’ achievements were much more significant.
The Blues won just 27 of the 72 games that they played in their first season but advanced to the playoffs and made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals where they were swept by the Montreal Canadians despite every game in the series being decided by one goal. Not too shabby right? However, prior to the 1967-68 season, the NHL expanded from six teams to 12. When the league doubled in size, all six expansion sides were placed into the same division, which guaranteed that an expansion team would end up in the Stanley Cup Final.
In Vegas’ first season, they went toe-to-toe with the 30 other teams in the league as the only expansion side and vanquished perennial playoff powerhouses in the Los Angeles Kings and the San Jose Sharks in the first two rounds. In addition to their success in the playoffs, Vegas was a significantly better regular season team than the Blues, as the Golden Knights’ 51 wins and 109 total points placed them firmly at the top of the talented Pacific Division.
The only other two teams that made the playoffs in their first year in the league were the Hartford Whalers and Edmonton Oilers, who came into the NHL alongside the Winnipeg Jets and the Quebec Nordiques after the WHA folded in 1979. Hartford and Edmonton made the playoffs despite both teams having more losses than wins in the regular season. Their playoff runs were eerily similar as well seeing that both teams were swept out of the playoffs in the first round.
One thing that you have surely noticed by now is that all of the successful expansion sides prior to this year came in the span of about fifteen years. Over the last 30 years specifically, expansion sides have fared poorly – including the San Jose Sharks putrid 1991-92 campaign that saw them finish with the worst record in the league by a 12-point margin and the Thrashers finishing in dead last by a 15-point margin in their first year. The Golden Knights are the only team to buck this trend in recent years.
When searching for a comparison for this year’s Knight’s team across the other major professional sports, only one team fits the bill – the Chicago Fire. The Fire won Major League Soccer’s MLS Cup in their inaugural campaign in 1998. However, one thing worth noting about the Chicago Fire’s championship back in 1998 is that there were just 12 teams in Major League Soccer at the time, which is significantly fewer than the NHL’s current roster of 31 teams.
In the other major professional sports, the fastest that an expansion team has won a championship is in their third season – which was achieved by the Milwaukee Bucks in the NBA in 1970-71 and the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2001.
Even if the Golden Knights come up short in the Stanley Cup Finals, they still are far and away the best expansion team in recent history. This Vegas squad seems destined to be a Cup contender for years to come and even if they should falter in 2018, they still have a great chance at becoming the fastest franchise to win a Stanley Cup after joining the league as an expansion team. That record is held by the Philadelphia Flyers, who won the Stanley Cup in 1974 during their seventh season in the league.