The Oberlin Review

Vegas Golden Knights Change NHL, Expansion in First Year

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The Vegas Golden Knights scored four third-period goals Tuesday, erasing a 2–1 deficit against the Chicago Blackhawks on their way to a 5–2 victory in their brand-new T-Mobile Arena. The win gave the Golden Knights the second-highest point total in the NHL with 78. As an expansion team comprised of the other 30 NHL teams’ castaways, the Golden Knights have already shattered expectations for their inaugural season and look like serious contenders for the Stanley Cup. With just 25 games left in the regular season, Vegas has already proven to be the most successful first-year expansion franchise throughout the history of not just hockey, but basketball, baseball, and football as well.

Vegas put their odds of their team winning a Stanley Cup at 500–1 at the start of the season, so it’s safe to say that no one expected the Golden Knights to be good, let alone in first place. This offseason, the NHL held an expansion draft, where each of the previously-existing NHL teams were allowed to protect either seven forwards, three defensemen, and one goaltender, or eight skaters — forwards or defensemen — and one goaltender. After that, the Golden Knights selected 30 players, one from each existing franchise. However, teams were allowed to trade the Golden Knights draft picks in exchange for choosing who the Golden Knights would take from them, so Vegas ended up gaining much more value in future picks than current players. Their draft was headlined by 33­-year-old former Pittsburgh Penguins and Stanley Cup winning goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and former two-time All-Star James Neal, but no one thought they came away with a championship roster.

The draft picks didn’t stop the Golden Knights from dominating right out of the gate, winning eight of their first nine games as an NHL franchise. Even more remarkable is that well-past-his-prime Fleury — who was supposed to be the face of the franchise from the get-go and help them get on their feet before he retired — wasn’t even there for much of their success. Due to injuries, Fleury has only played in 25 of their 57 games. Instead, the Golden Knights have had a carousel of five starting goalies, including highly-inexperienced Malcolm Subban, Oscar Dansk, and Maxime Lagace, all of whom got injured. At one point, they even turned to 19-year-old rookie Dylan Ferguson, who was drafted 194th by the Dallas Stars before being traded to the Golden Knights. Despite unprecedented injuries to their goalies, the Golden Knights still only trailed the Los Angeles Kings by four points when Fleury eventually returned.

Throughout the history of the four major sports, expansion teams are built modestly, hoping for long-term success. Of the 63 other expansion teams, none have had better than .500 records in their inaugural year, while 21 actually had the worst record in the league. Only five have made the playoffs in their first season, but that includes teams from the NHL’s original expansion from six teams to twelve — with all six expansion teams being placed in the same division — and teams from the NBA-ABA merger, who already had Hall of Fame caliber players on their rosters upon entry into the league.

With their headline player not even playing half of the season, and no solid defensemen to speak of, it seems like a miracle that Vegas has been able to perform as well as they have. Fleury and Neal — who earned the only two All-Star nods for the Golden Knights — definitely have had a hand in their team’s success. However, it’s almost unheard of that two great players result in being consistently rated number one in ESPN.com’s weekly power rankings. It all started with how the team was initially stationed in Vegas. Bill Foley, the outspoken owner, dropped a $500 million check to bring professional sports to Vegas, but none of the players planned on relocating there. As a team comprised of players that their own teams didn’t want, each and every player began the year with a chip on their shoulder. Even the head coach, Gerard Gallant, was fired by the Florida Panthers mid-season last year. They immediately had something to prove, and so far they’ve done a phenomenal job.

While expansion teams are usually conservative on the field, diamond, court, or ice, the Golden Knights have been anything but. From the first game, they appealed to Sin City fans by playing a fast, flashy, and almost reckless game. The Golden Knights begin each period in their home games by marching through a tunnel lined with mirrors. To fans and opposing teams, it gives the appearance of dozens of players running onto the ice, and their playing style isn’t much different.

The Golden Knights’ 20–4–2 home record can’t only be attributed to good play or faithful fans. Most teams arrive in Vegas a couple days before their game and usually play with what Foley describes as “Vegas flu.” After enjoying the Las Vegas strip, teams aren’t always feeling their best when they play against the Golden Knights, and they’ve regretted it. With the Oakland Raiders relocating to Vegas for the 2020 season, it will be interesting to watch how NFL teams adjust to this unique advantage, but what the Golden Knights have accomplished is less about sports in Vegas and more about leagues expanding.

When a league takes on more teams, it disperses the talent pool, making teams a little weaker. The NBA has felt the effects of this the most. While in the 1960s nearly all of the 12 teams had at least one Hall of Fame player, nowadays it’s impossible to find a franchise cornerstone, let alone build around him enough so that he won’t leave in free agency. In fact, the years leading up to and after the NBA-ABA expansion were some of the least competitive in history. The Golden Knights are an anomaly, so with billionaires lining up to start teams in the NFL, NBA, and MLB, the Golden Knights should not be used as an example of why there should be more league expansion. Throughout history, reckless expansion has hurt competitiveness in each of the four major sports, and the Golden Knights don’t change anything.

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