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Westward Expansion

Vegas had some help with their Cinderella season

We all like a feel-good story, and nothing does that better than an underdog rising to capture glory. So, when the expansion Las Vegas Golden Knights played well enough to not only qualify for the playoffs but to establish themselves as legitimate Stanley Cup contenders, we all jumped on the bandwagon. There’s nothing wrong with that. Nearly all of us have spent time in Las Vegas, and most of us have had an experience there that, for better or worse, has left its mark on us. So, we feel a connection to the place.

But when an expansion team has more success than expected, it generally isn’t entirely because of its own brilliance. The roster is stocked via an expansion draft, and the people running the expansion team are at the mercy of their fellow owners and how generous they decide to be. What happens after the first year depends on scouting, player development, and creating the right culture; all of those things matter the first year, but they only help so much if the other owners decide to screw you over.

I lived in Columbus when the Blue Jackets were born, and for their first couple of seasons the best players on the roster were Geoff Sanderson and Lyle Odelein. Sanderson had had a couple of 30-goal seasons with Hartford in the 90s, but he was the kind of winger who was much more effective when he was next to a play-making center, which was conspicuously lacking in Columbus. Odelein was a grinding defenseman who, in over a thousand NHL games, scored a total of fifty goals. Both were good complementary players, but neither was suited to be the main guy. What happened to the Blue Jackets in the ensuing decade was due to the ineptitude of Doug MacLean, the GM/coach who made a series of horrendous draft picks and failed to develop the few good guys he latched onto. But the players who were allocated to Columbus for that first season had a better chance of winning a Ryder Cup than a Stanley Cup.

Compare that to what Vegas began this season with. Start with Marc-Andre Fleury, the goalie. Fleury is still in the prime of a career that includes more than four hundred victories. This year he is third in the league in goals-against average and has the fifth-best save percentage among goalies with more than thirty games played. A solid goalie instantly makes his team credible.

It goes well beyond Fleury, though. By the rules of the expansion draft, each team was allowed to protect seven forwards and three defensemen. Compare this to the 2000 expansion draft, when the Blue Jackets not only chose from a pool where teams were allowed to protect nine forwards and five defensemen, they had to share that pool with another expansion team, the Wild. Essentially, that meant that the best players Blue Jackets and Wild were choosing were fourth-line forwards and third-line defensemen. Thus, Lyle Odelein.

Fourth-line forwards, even on the best teams, are the guys who go in and bang and grind for a shift so the goal-scorers can rest. But third-line forwards, which the Knights were able to access, are generally more skilled. William Karlsson, their leading scorer, got caught in a numbers game among a deep set of young forwards in Columbus; many other core players for Vegas got there because of similar circumstances.

There’s another critical element to Vegas’ success: the salary cap. Had Fleury been in Pittsburgh in 2000 – before the cap was in place – when the Jackets and Wild were assembling their rosters, the Penguins might have been inclined to hang onto him as an insurance policy in case Matt Murray got hurt or faltered. Fleury, after all, started a total of eighteen postseason games during the Penguins’ back-to-back title runs. The only deciding factors would have been his performance and ownership’s willingness to pay a backup goalie six million a year. With a hard salary cap, though, Fleury is an unaffordable luxury, and the Penguins chose to protect a younger, cheaper goalie as their backup.

Nashville no doubt made a similar calculation with forward James Neal, as did St. Louis with David Perron. The cap changes the way teams think in more subtle ways, as well. Karlsson, for example, will be a restricted free agent after this season, which may have made him less attractive for the Blue Jackets than other forwards who would be cost-controlled for longer. Remember that, before this season, Vegas’ total payroll was…zero. Every other team has a couple of bad contracts that limit their aggressiveness in building their roster. Because they didn’t Vegas was able to use their space to help other teams solve their problems, and the price Vegas extracted for that help was more talent.

This might not have worked as well in other sports, like basketball, because winning in the NBA depends upon stars. In the NHL, though, it is more important to have four competent lines than one great one. More than anything else, the structure of this draft allowed the Golden Knights to build a deep roster. They have nobody in the top twenty scorers, but they scored the fourth most goals in the league because they had nine guys with ten or more goals. By starting with a clean slate and having access to, essentially, the eleventh-best player on every NHL roster, the Golden Knights were able to build virtually an entire roster of above-average NHL players.

This is not to say that Vegas doesn’t deserve any credit for what they have accomplished. They still had to make wise choices, and they were aggressive about adding players when the opportunity presented itself, for example by persuading teams to offer up draft picks in return for Vegas not choosing players that those teams valued but could not protect. A division title for an expansion team is impressive no matter what circumstances it was achieved under. There’s plenty of franchises out there that had more advantageous circumstances and accomplished nothing.

But an expansion team, more than any other endeavor in sports, is a product of the ground rules under which it was formed, and – with the exception of 1967, when the NHL doubled in size and put all of the expansion teams in the same conference – the Golden Knights were given a leg up unlike any other newborn franchise in history. It’s reasonable to applaud them for winning, but not to compare them to other expansion teams as if they started from the same place.

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