By Daniel Dullum
Late on a Monday morning, my old friend Ernie rings me up with a sports question.
Nothing unusual about that, but this time it was a hockey question, and Ernie doesn’t follow hockey. But knew that I do.
“What’s going on with this VGK?” he asked. “How on earth does an expansion team get to the finals?”
First, VGK is the common abbreviation for the Vegas Golden Knights, who in their inaugural season in the National Hockey League, have accomplished something that hasn’t happened in 50 years.
I explained to him that when the NHL expanded from six to 12 teams in 1967, the new clubs were placed in their own division, thus guaranteeing one of them would play in a Stanley Cup final in its first season. It turned out to be St. Louis. This is already more information than Ernie probably wanted.
By rambling through the Western Conference playoffs disposing of Anaheim, San Jose and Winnipeg, the fledgling Golden Knights will face the Washington Capitals in the Stanley Cup Finals. Not bad for a team that had 500-to-1 odds of winning the Cup when the season started.
It’s worth noting that when the Capitals joined the NHL in 1974-75, they won eight games. Two years earlier, the New York Islanders won 12 in their first season. The league wasn’t always so friendly to its new members.
Times and attitudes change, even with a bull-headed lot like the NHL Board of Governors. This time, the NHL wanted to ensure that its newest team, located in a non-traditional hockey market, had a chance to be competitive and give its fan base a reason to show up. And show up they did, drawing 103.9 percent of capacity (17th overall), averaging 18,042 per home game. Network TV ratings for the Golden Knights have been solid, exceeding expectations.
Back to my friend’s question, which is a good one that’s confounded many a longtime hockey follower – How does an expansion team reach the finals in its first season?
There’s no simple answer, but I told him “it’s really an aberration, more of a perfect storm.”
It starts with General Manager George McPhee, who spent nearly two years scouting the league’s third and fourth lines, second and third defensive pairings and backup goaltenders, because that’s usually what’s available in an expansion draft.
I told Ernie that, along with doing their homework, the Golden Knights were also able to take advantage of an adjusted player-protection rule for the expansion draft that allowed Vegas to be more competitive than the usual new club. Teams were allowed to protect seven forwards and three defensemen and one goaltender, or eight skaters and one goaltender. Most of the other 30 teams used the latter option.
Factor in the salary cap, and teams found they simply couldn’t protect everyone they wanted to, and with a deeper-than-usual talent pool, the Golden Knights simply took advantage of the situation.
There are many examples of the Knights’ good fortune. Coming immediately to mind is goaltender Marc-David Fleury, a three-time champion with Pittsburgh. With the Penguins going younger with 23-year-old Matt Murray, Fleury became the odd man out and left unprotected in the expansion pool. The 32-year-old Fleury carried a 2.24 goals against average in the regular season and has been the hottest goalie in the playoffs, with 12 wins, a 1.68 GAA and four shutouts going into the finals.
Throughout the season, and the playoffs, the Golden Knights have played with an edge and a chip on their collective shoulders as the castoffs, and it’s working. Even their coach, Gerald Gallant, could be called a castoff – he was literally kicked to the curb after being fired by Florida 21 games into the 2016-17 season, forced to hail a taxi to get to the airport.
So how do they win so much with everyone else’s discards? They’re fast and relentless, with a solid defense and goaltending to back it up, allowing the forwards to take chances.
Vegas did that to everyone else all season. They won six games when trailing after two periods, and were 14-4-3 when tied after two.
Not everyone is on board. On ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption,” Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser both called the Golden Knights’ success “an embarrassment to the league.” Many fan bases of long-suffering teams see the Vegas situation as “preferential treatment.”
Me, I have no time for sour grapes and the whining that goes with it. I’m on the bandwagon since, through the years, my favorite teams either folded or moved. I’m taking the Golden Knights in six.
I don’t know what Ernie is doing with all this information. I’m sure he’s glad he asked.