For a brief moment last night, the Vegas Golden Knights sat alone atop the NHL. The Lightning eventually reclaimed their throne after a 7–4 victory over the Flames, but the fact that the Knights are even vying for that position is unheard of. Vegas is experiencing unprecedented success in their first year as an expansion team. With 30-plus games remaining in the regular season, the Knights aren’t out of the woods yet. But, it’s very reasonable to assume that a team this hot won’t cool down enough to lose most of their remaining games. Should things pan out favorably for Vegas, they will be the only expansion team in history to finish with a winning record.
So how did we get here and where will they be going? Let’s start with something that wasn’t totally surprising: the Knights have found great success in their goaltenders. Marc-Andre Fleury and Malcolm Subban have been terrific this year. Fleury is having a career year in his 13th season, first away from the Penguins. He’s boasting a 1.79 GAA, second best in the league, and a crazy .942 save percentage. While that number is sure to drop as the season goes on, it’s doubtful that it dips too far below his career best of .921.
Subban was a miraculous waiver pick-up for the Knights and has been stellar so far this season, with an 11–2–1 record. His save percentage and GAA don’t pop off the page, but for a talented young player only in his second season, he’s showing all the right things. It’s rare for an expansion team to find elite goaltending talent at the tail end of the expansion draft. It’s even rarer for them to find his heir as well. Vegas struck gold with this duo. The biggest concern moving forward for Fleury and Subban is their durability. However, let’s wait until that day comes.
But their success hasn’t just come from the net. Vegas is second only to the Lightning in goals per game. This has come from the veteran presence of James Neal, as well as a career year for Johnathan Marchessault. Neal isn’t going to match his 40-goal, 81-point season, but he could be in for his best season since leaving Pittsburgh. The veteran has scored the second most goals for the Knights this year. Marchessault leads the team in points. He played his first full NHL season with the Panthers last year and has had a breakout year this season. His plus-minus last season was −21, right now it sits at +22.
Still, the MVP of this season isn’t Marchessault or Fleury — it’s William Karlsson. He was pretty good with the Blue Jackets last season but was buried underneath a deep and talented roster. He’s scored 27 goals as the lead man in Vegas, good for second best in the NHL. The 25-year-old also holds the league-high plus-minus at +27. Reilly Smith, another former Panther, and journeyman David Perron fill in the first line, which has been one of the most dominant in hockey this season. Both Smith and Perron have played some of their best hockey this year.
So where do they go from here? Well, George McPhee has set this team up for the future. They’ve got young talent developing in the juniors, including three first-round picks from 2017. Beyond that, despite being an expansion team their team is rather young. They’ve got the 11th youngest team in the league, but one promotion of a minor leaguer could put them in the top five. The Knights are poised to win their division. That’s astounding considering it’s remarkable to have an expansion team finish above .500.
But what then? The post-season is another beast. Do they have what it takes to compete in the playoffs? James Neal has 25 playoff goals in his career and played in a Stanley Cup last season. They’ll definitely have to rely on their veteran scorer more, as the younger players lack experience in the post-season. Though Karlsson and Smith were pretty good in their minimal playoff experience, it’ll be a different situation with them at the forefront of a possible conference champion. Still, there isn’t any reason to panic, Knights fans. Marc-Andre Fleury has hoisted up three Stanley Cups in his career. While he may not be durable, and one would be concerned about Subban taking on a larger role than necessary down the stretch, Fleury has proven to be an elite goalie when at full strength.
Back in November, everyone was expecting the Knights to fall off. By December, every victory was cherished, like a dying man eating his last meals. By now, we should know better. The Knights are hot and there is a reason to believe this team can truly compete. Will they win the Cup? Likely not. The Predators are on the prowl and the Eastern Conference is stacked and dangerous. But as it stands now, the Knights would face off against the Avs, who they scorched 7–0 in their first match-up. Having to go through San Jose, Anaheim, and/or the Predators will certainly be a test. But for the fans of a team projected to finish in the bottom three, a division title and a playoff series win in the first season is a great prize.