I was browsing Twitter dot com this morning when I came across Anthony Gargano’s opinion on the Las Vegas Golden Knights:
“No expansion team should ever be able to win a league, its just started, its nonsense just like the Marlins winning the WS, there’s real fans that are starving since 1975 for this, it’s about real fan-dom” – @AnthonyLGargano
— 975TheFanatic (@975TheFanatic) May 21, 2018
“It’s about real fandom.”
Hmm, alright, I disagree, but I’ll play along.
Sure, it’s not like Las Vegas hockey fans are desperate for the Stanley Cup. They haven’t been waiting since 1967, like Toronto fans. They aren’t St. Louis, Vancouver, Buffalo, or Washington, who have never won a title. They aren’t any of the eight other teams that joined the NHL after 1979 and still haven’t won a cup.
By the same token, I’d assume Flyers fans, who have been waiting since 1975, would at least be annoyed to see an expansion team cruising through the playoffs while enduring a slow rebuild under Ron Hextall and Dave Hakstol.
So if you wanna roll your eyes at Vegas’ success or say it’s “corny,” I get that. It’s corny that a brand new team comes into the league and rips off a bunch of wins while diehard fans of traditional hockey teams get to enjoy another first-round playoff exit.
But I’m not sure what fandom really has to do with anything. Is there some rule in place that you have to suffer through 20 years of losing before you’re allowed to win? Do you have to “pay your dues?” Do you have to endure a Joe Jurevicius or Rodney Harrison situation before Nick Foles comes along? It’s such a Philadelphia way of thinking, that a “low” must predate a “high,” and if it doesn’t, it’s somehow not authentic.
People have somehow twisted the Vegas story into a narrative that “this is bad for the NHL,” and I don’t know why that’s being tossed around. I find the story compelling. I’m watching the playoffs with more interest than ever before.
Beyond the fragile fandom argument, it seems like there’s not a ton to stand on. I mean, you could certainly point to the fact that the expansion draft rules were changed in 2017 and that teams were allowed to protect fewer players (9 or 11) than in the 2000 expansion draft (12 or 15). Vegas had much more to choose from than Minnesota and Columbus and didn’t really have to navigate any tricky salary cap issues since they were starting with a blank financial slate. All of that was a big advantage for them.
And you can say that this looks bad for the NHL because it further dilutes talent across the league, but that argument always holds very little weight. There are more than 350 million people living in Canada and the United States, so it’s not like dressing 20 more players for an expansion team really sucks up all of the skilled athletes. People said the same thing about MLS, that adding more teams would dilute the product, but that hasn’t been the case at all. The league is more competitive and has more quality players than ever before.
You could maybe say that this hurts the NHL because throwing a bunch of nobodies together shows that star power really doesn’t matter. All you really need is a team-first group of solid grinders and a hot goaltender to win a cup, yeah? Or no? Maybe? I don’t know.
All of that considered, it’s not like the expansion draft was stockpiled with anything more than third or fourth line talent and question mark goaltenders. There were some nice veteran pieces, like Deryk Engelland and James Neal, but I don’t think anyone expected Jonathan Marchessault and Erik Haula to put up 75 and 55 points. Luca Sbisa? William Carrier? Pierre-Edouard Bellemare? Ehh, okay. Marc-Andre Fleury was in decline and Calvin Pickard didn’t even stick on the roster.
Most of these guys were just that – “guys.” Vegas wasn’t stealing Mark Schiefele or Nikita Kucherov for their expansion season. Nobody really said, “wow, VGK just crushed the expansion draft.”
What they did crush were some draft-related trades, specifically capitalizing on Florida’s cap issues. With the Panthers about to be $5 million on the hook for Reilly Smith, Vegas agreed to take him as part of a deal that guaranteed they would also draft Marchessault. Florida patched up their cap a bit and VGK got two of their best players for absolutely nothing.
It was similar with Minnesota, who sent Alex Tuch out west if Vegas agreed to select Haula in the draft.
Those four players – Tuch, Haula, Marchessault, and Smith – are among the top-six point-producers for Vegas this postseason. The other two are Neal and William Karlsson, whom Vegas agreed to select from Columbus if they would also take on the retiring David Clarkson’s $5.25 million contract. The Jackets also threw in a couple of draft picks.
Karlsson ended up leading the Knights with 78 regular season points, so go figure. It was like the NHL’s version of the best Sam Hinkie move of all time. It’s like getting Khris Middleton and a first round draft pick simply for agreeing to take on Jason Terry’s contract and leaving Giannis alone.
And that’s what happened with most of their draft-related trades, general manager George McPhee totally fleeced multiple teams in a pseudo-Hinkie fashion.
More than anything, the Knights simply started with a core of angry players, dudes who were deemed not good enough and left unprotected for Vegas to scoop up. Playing with a chip on your shoulder is very easy to exercise in hockey, for sure, where more guys get on the ice and energy and hustle and vigor are more tangible traits to measure. And the coach, Gerard Gallant, was unheralded, too, a retread type who had never won a playoff series in four full seasons with the Blue Jackets and Panthers.
I agree with this:
To anyone trying to claim Vegas in Cup final is an embarrassment:
You’re really discrediting the work of George McPhee and Gerard Gallant.
Did YOU know William Karlsson was this good, for instance? No. No, you did not.
This is friggin’ incredible. Stop whining — enjoy this!
— Matt Larkin (@THNMattLarkin) May 21, 2018
That’s pretty much it. They hit on a bunch of acquisitions and put together a roster that nobody thought would be anywhere close to this level of competitiveness. Imagine if the Eagles had 53 Alshon Jeffery types on “prove it deals,” and that’s kind of what Vegas is – a bunch of guys with something to prove.
And when you take it off the ice, you look at the Vegas shooting that took place on October 1st, just a few days before the start of the NHL season. It was a tragedy that galvanized the community and created a bond between a brand new team and its nascent fan base.
This is worth watching if you haven’t seen it before, the speech Engelland made after the shooting:
I look at all of this and don’t really see anything that’s “bad” for the NHL, at least not in a long-term sense. Vegas could always fall back to Earth or eventually run into the cap issues other teams face. The chip on the shoulder will no longer be there and guys who were playing out of their minds might regress a bit.
For now, though, it’s a classic sports story, complete with the same Eagles-related underdog angle that everybody loved back in January and February. You’ve got a bunch of pissed off guys playing out of their minds and proving people wrong, and that’s more American than anything I can think of.