The Unexpected Success of the Vegas Golden Knights
Not even 150 days ago, the National Hockey League held the 2017 Expansion Draft – its first since 2000 – featuring the highly-anticipated Vegas Golden Knights. As the first major professional sports team in Las Vegas, it’s safe to say that there was a lot of hype surrounding this expansion draft. After three days of deliberation and roster selection, the team’s final squad of 30 was announced on June 21 at T-Mobile Arena in Vegas.
There were plenty of expected – along with a few unexpected – selection by VGK, but there was a consensus when all was said and done: this team wasn’t going to compete for at least two or three years. It wasn’t tough to see why either. The roster was made up of players from around the league – some with expiring contracts, some who no longer had a place on their former teams’ rosters, and some who were left off teams’ protected lists unexpectedly – most who had no experience playing with one another. This is how expansion teams work. They scrape and claw their way at the bottom, usually grabbing a few lottery draft picks in the first years to help build the franchise.
However, thus far, in this fledgling NHL season, the Vegas Golden Knights have clearly had a different idea of how expansions teams should work.
First Game, First Win
October 6, the Golden Knights took the ice for their first-ever regular season game, meeting the Dallas Stars in Dallas. Led by two goals from winger James Neal – a former standout for the Nashville Predators who was nearly a Stanley Cup champ last year – Vegas grabbed a 2-1 win.
First Home Game, Third Win
After eeking out an overtime victory over the Arizona Coyotes on October 7, the two teams met again for the Knights’ inaugural home game. After some heartfelt pre-game ceremonies honoring the victims of the October 1 mass shooting on the Strip, the Knights played like a team representing a city that needed some good news. With a four-goal first period and two more goals from James Neal, the Knights brought some smiles to their home crowd, winning 5-2.
History Strikes Twice
Flash forward to a 7-0 rout of the Colorado Avalanche on October 27. Vegas was on a roll, with no signs of slowing down. With just one loss to the Detroit Red Wings, the Golden Knights became the first team in NHL history to start their inaugural season with eight wins in the first nine games.
November 4 came around and it was another win for the Knights, who beat a very solid Ottawa Senators team for their ninth win, becoming the fastest team in exactly 100 years to get to nine wins in an inaugural season. The last team to do that? The 1917-18 Ottawa Montreal Canadiens (9-4-0; same as Vegas).
What’s Their Secret?
Maybe they’re born with it (maybe it’s Maybelline). Terrible jokes aside, almost no one – hockey media, fans, gambling addicts – thought that Vegas could have this type of success at any point in its first season, let alone in the first quarter of the season. And it’s not like it’s been easy for them. The Knights have already utilized four goaltenders due to injuries (2016 Stanley Cup champion Marc-Andre Fleury has been sidelined with a concussion since mid-October). Oskar Dansk and Maxime Lagace are currently handling the duties with both Fleury and Malcolm Subban on injured reserve.
However, what’s been working much better than expected is both the offense and defense in even strength and power play situations. With a plus-nine goal differential, the offense has generated high quality, high danger scoring chances like a top-10 hockey team. On the power play, the Knights are sitting at 20.69%, nearly a percent-and-a-half higher than the league average.
Defensively, all four goaltenders have played good games and, while the team is 16th in goals against, the defense has been one of the better in the league at suppressing high danger chances (A.K.A. tough shots likely resulting in goals). Vegas has allowed just 21 goals on 133 high-danger shots (15.78%). This translates to solid defensive/goaltending play even on odd-man rushes and against top-tier players like Patrick Kane and Auston Matthews.
Playing for Keeps
When you really break it down, it makes sense why the offense is generating at such a positive rate even with a brand-new team. Many of these forwards are looking for their next long-term contracts and hoping that they become some of Vegas’ franchise players. Someone like Jonathan Marchessault, who was fantastic for the Florida Panthers a year ago, can be a franchise guy, but needs to perform well to get a nice contract over the summer.
The same goes for James Neal, who’s playing like a guy on an expiring contract. His $5 million per year deal expires after the season and he’s certainly looking for potentially his last big contract, considering he turned 30 in September. No wonder he’s already sitting at eight goals and four assists through 15 games.
All these guys, forwards and defensemen alike, are looking for long-term success in the NHL and with this franchise. Why wouldn’t they play to win? Why wouldn’t they play to prove the NHL pundits wrong?
After the fiery start, things have started to slow down for Vegas, who just wrapped up a six-game road trip with a 1-4-1 record. Sitting at 9-5-1 on the year, there will be more ups and downs, but we’re approaching the end of the first quarter of the season and we can’t safely say that the Golden Knights won’t make the playoffs. Only time, and 67 more games, will tell.
(NOTE: All stats courtesy of Natural Stat Trick and Hockey-Reference)
(Image courtesy of Prayitno Photography via Flickr.)