The Vegas Golden Knights are in a much better position to succeed right away than their predecessors, thanks to a combination of things that weren’t factors when the Minnesota Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets made their NHL debuts during the 2000-01 campaign.
In fact, you might be wise to consider taking the Golden Knights to make the postseason, or the Over on their season point totals once released, as we are one day before the Golden Knights reveal the roster for their inaugural season.
The Westgate Las Vegas Superbook opened the then-unnamed NHL franchise at 100/1 to win the Stanley Cup in its first year back in June 2016 (with the rest of the NHL at -10,000) and online book SportsInteraction.com current has Vegas at +15,000 to hoist the Cup in their inaugural season.
Past history has not been on the side of prior expansion teams. Here are the first-year records of all expansion teams added to the league over the past 26 years:
San Jose Sharks (1991-92): 17-58-5, 39 points, 22nd out of 22 teams
Ottawa Senators (1992-93): 10-70-4, 24 points, 24th out of 24 teams
Tampa Bay Lightning (1992-93): 23-54-7, 53 points, 22nd out of 24 teams
Florida Panthers (1993-94): 33-34-17, 83 points, 16th out of 26 teams
Anaheim Mighty Ducks (1993-94): 33-46-5, 71 points, 20th out of 26 teams
Nashville Predators (1998-99): 28-47-7, 63 points, 24th out of 27 teams
Atlanta Thrashers (1999-2000): 14-57-7-4, 39 points, 28th out of 28 teams
Columbus Blue Jackets (2000-01): 28-39-9-6, 71 points, 23rd out of 30 teams
Minnesota Wild (2000-01): 25-39-13-5, 68 points, 25th out of 30 teams
None of the past 10 expansion teams made the postseason in their first year - and only the Panthers really came close, which seems more like a happy aberration than anything else.
So why will the Golden Knights be any different? Here are three reasons why:
Golden Knights general manager George McPhee knows he’ll need to get creative in order to build a roster that will be competitive right off the bat - and he believes whole-heartedly that he can do it.
For starters, he’s a big fan of analytics and advanced metrics, telling the Golden Knights official team site recently: “It’s remarkable some of the things that data can clarify for you. We will try to strike that balance of opinion and analytics. The best expression that I’ve heard about analytics is that it’s another club in your golf bag. And I think that’s pretty accurate.”
Analytics is a relatively new phenomenon in the NHL, and one the 10 previous expansion teams didn’t have at their disposal. The trend over the previous quarter-century was to select players who complemented one another, but it was nearly impossible to know for sure how players would mesh together unless they had played with each other in the past - and as the results would suggest, that strategy didn’t bear much fruit.
With teams better able than ever to identify individual players’ strengths and weaknesses, McPhee is in great position to target players who bring more to the table than historical goal and assist tallies - he can identify which players are strongest in 5v5 situations, or which goaltenders are strongest in high-danger scoring opportunities. Knowledge is power - and McPhee has plenty of that going into the expansion draft.
Previous NHL expansion franchises weren’t getting much help from the league, since teams could spend as much or as little as they wanted on player salaries. That resulted in a handful of teams shining above the rest of the pack, able to lock in their core players without any concern over the consequences of their free spending.
Now that the league has implemented a salary cap, it has become harder than ever for teams to perennially contend. The result: An incredible level of parity in which teams can miss the playoffs by a considerable margin one year and become solid contenders the next. That works significantly in the Golden Knights’ favor, as they should be able to assemble a roster that can compete with the majority of the league.
The addition of 10 teams in the past 26 years has also evened out the player field, creating a situation where the bottom 6-8 players on nearly every team are virtually interchangeable from a skills perspective. If, as McPhee suggests, the Golden Knights get creative with their roster construction, there’s no reason they can’t build a player base that is largely similar to that of the rest of the league.
Better available player lists
This runs hand in hand with the above note, but a salary cap environment creates a much stronger list of available players than it did for previous expansion teams. Consider that the Senators’ biggest name on expansion draft day was Sylvain Turgeon - not even the best player in his own family - and you’ll realize that Vegas has it much better than its expansion brethren.
This is true even with word that a number of teams have reportedly worked out deals with the Golden Knights to exchange capital - most likely in the form of high draft picks - in order to dissuade McPhee from selecting certain players. That might eliminate several top names from the expansion draft board, but there remains too much talent for Vegas to not build a team that can win games from Day 1.
Look for McPhee to create the best balance between winning now and setting up his franchise for success in the future. He’ll collect some first- and second-round picks from teams desperate to protect exposed players, but that won’t prevent him from snagging other players who have been made available due to high salaries, poor recent performance or depth chart issues.
Look for the Golden Knights to fare better than the past 10 expansion franchises - making that playoff bet a tempting one.