The history of NHL expansion has been one of fits and starts, mostly fits. There were the hapless New York Americans during the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. The California Golden Seals (the only franchise during the great expansion of 1967 to fold) during the 1960s and 1970s. The Washington Capitals made the worst debut in NHL expansion history in 1974/75 and took seven years before they finally achieved some sort of legitimacy. The New Jersey Devils endured 14 years of expansion futility and two franchise shifts before they, too, achieved respect.
If anyone had the temerity to predict that the Vegas Golden Knights would start their first month of regular season play with a 10-5-1 record, presently running a close second to division leading Los Angeles then that person would have been a candidate for the insane asylum.
And yet in defiance of all odds the Vegas Golden Knights are doing just that. Fielding a squad of expansion cast-offs albeit highly talented expansion castoffs the Golden Knights rank among the top ten in overall offense, overall defense, and power-play offense. Only in the penalty-kill and short-handed offense do they rank beyond the top ten (when Vegas started the regular season their defensive special teams were in the top ten but have now fallen after one month of play).
Although going 1-4-1 in their first lengthy road-trip Vegas hung tough and upon returning home they rallied to beat a tough Winnipeg team.
The Golden Knights are showcasing the proper way of how an expansion franchise should be built and the credit showed be spread in ensemble fashion. Not only have players like David Perron, James Neal, and Deryk Engelland are rising to the occasion, goaltender Marc-Andre Fleuery sparked the Golden Knights opening tilt before being felled by injury early in the season (indeed Vegas’ goal-tending corps has been riddled with injuries, reserves Oscar Dansk and Malcolm Subban are presently hors de combat). Vegas has compensated for these losses by showing great on-ice discipline (they rank 23rd in team penalty minutes) and a relentless work ethic that wears down opponents thanks to the rigorous coaching of Gerard Gallant.
Another key factor in the Golden Knights dazzling debut has been the support of its fan base in Las Vegas. Mere days after the horrific massacre on the Vegas Strip; devastated and bloodied from the carnage and emotional trauma; the people of Las Vegas sought and found succor in their first major league sports franchise. When one watches the Golden Knights play a home game one can feel the love and psychic energy emanating from their fans. The Vegas fan base is definitely the seventh man on the ice and the team has upheld that arctic covenant by losing only one home game out of eight played. It would not surprise this writer if ESPN 30 for 30 or NBC sports does a documentary about how the Golden Knights did enormous healing work for the city of Las Vegas in the wake of the massacre.
Seeing Vegas in action is like watching an army of beavers gnawing away at a tree. The NHL record for the best debut by an expansion franchise is held by the 1993/94 Florida Panthers who earned 83 team points. After one month of play, Vegas is already a quarter of the way in equaling that mark and if they succeed then head coach Gerard Gallant and general manager George McPhee should be nominated for the Jack Adams award and the General Manager of the Year award respectively.
McPhee (featured in my new book The Art of the Dealers: the NHL’s Greatest General Managers) took a page out of Bill Torrey’s and Bobby Clarke’s (both men helped build the Florida Panthers) blueprint when building the Golden Knights: selecting solid blue-liners and equally solid goal-tenders to anchor the Vegas defense and augmenting that defense with solid power forwards David Perron, James Neal, and Erik Haula who combine muscle with offensive prowess.
In a November 2016 interview this writer had with McPhee for my book, McPhee states “It’s been a lot of fun actually! And some of the most fun I’ve ever had in the league. It’s been busy but really enjoyable. We’re going to focus on what and not when. If we focus on what then we’re not going to worry about when. I don’t want to make predictions. I just want to build a good team.”
And by golly George McPhee and Gerard Gallant are doing just that!