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Looking Back at the Vegas Golden Knights’ Storybook Season

Aaron Gray

by Aaron Gray in NHL Hockey

Updated Jan 4, 2023 · 3:12 AM PST

marc andre fleury vegas golden knights
  • The Vegas Golden Knights shocked the hockey world by winning 51 games in their inaugural season 
  • How did the Golden Knights manage to become so successful?
  • Can other expansion teams copy their model? 

Everyone was wrong about the Vegas Golden Knights. No one could have predicted their monster inaugural season. Well, maybe in a bizarro world.

Banding together around a city desperately in need of collective healing in the wake of October 2017’s mass shooting, the Vegas Golden Knights’ unprecedented success has turned heads since the day the puck dropped on opening night. There’s something special happening in Vegas, and the first pro sports franchise to land in the city has established itself as not only a model for others to follow, but a blossoming community hub.

How did the Knights manage to be so successful, so fast? How do they stack up against expansion franchises in the other big four sports? Read on to find out.

The Impressive Extent of Vegas’ Success as a Team

Before we lay out how they did it and just why it was so impressive, it’s essential to get a gauge of just how successful Vegas was in their first season in the NHL.

Vegas not only made the playoffs in the Western Conference, but they gained home-ice advantage in the process.

Vegas not only made the playoffs in the Western Conference, but they gained home-ice advantage in the process. They won the bruising Pacific Division and finished 5th overall. From start to finish, they were unequivocally one of the best teams in the NHL. They even won 15 times in their first 22 games. Their home record was second in the league, behind only the powerhouse Winnipeg Jets.

Vegas finished in the top ten in every major statistical metric. They were 9th on the Powerplay (22.4%), 10th on the Penalty Kill (81.4%), 5th in goals for (268), and 8th in goals against (225). Throughout the course of the season, they exhibited no deficiency in any critical area of their team. Buoyed by impressive depth, their scoring, defense, and goaltending was remarkably consistent, despite being plagued with rashes of injury at multiple times throughout their 82 game season.

Surpassing Expectations: Notable Knights

As impressive as their team was, they weren’t without several notable individual accomplishments. Perhaps most notably, Marc Andre Fleury had the best season of his career and would likely have won the Vezina Trophy if it wasn’t for the 30 games he missed with a concussion incurred after colliding with Justin Abdelkader’s knee. He posted a .927 SV% and a GAA of 2.24, both the best of his career. Keep in mind, he spent his 13 previous seasons with  perennial contending Pittsburgh teams, winning three cups in the process. Yet, somehow, the best season of his career was with an expansion franchise.

William “Wild Bill” Karlsson found his mojo in Vegas and potted a whopping 43 goals, good enough for third in the NHL.

While Vegas’ strength is undoubtedly depth in their forward and defense corps, they aren’t without notable individual achievements. Despite scoring only 18 goals in his previous four seasons, William “Wild Bill” Karlsson found his mojo in Vegas and potted a whopping 43 goals, good enough for third in the NHL. His line, where he was flanked with former Florida Panthers rejects Reilly Smith, and Jonathan Marchessault was debatably the best line in the NHL (when healthy) this season. All three members of this forward line were literally given to Vegas as part of larger salary-shedding deals; the fact they formed such a lethal trio all season long is truly incredible.

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It’s also worth noting how admirably Vegas handled their aforementioned injuries. They were without integral players in Marchessault, Sbisa, and David Perron for extended periods of times. Their projected no.1 center, Vadim Shipachyov, bolted back to the KHL after only three games in what was a very public and animous divorce.

Oh, not to mention that Vegas has had four different goaltenders record wins this season. For an extended period of time, they were without not only Fleury, but backup Malcolm Subban, and third-stringer Oscar Dansk. They relied on Maxime Lagace, an unknown ECHL tweener, to stop pucks for 16 games. Running through the totality of your organizational depth in net is tough for any franchise, much less one that only had a single season to acquire it. Despite this, Vegas somehow managed to keep the wheels on their tremendous season.

Underdogs From the Outset

No one predicted Vegas’ success this season. In fact, not even the sportsbooks, as evidenced by the incredible shortening of their odds as the season marched on.

Look at how much their implied probability of winning the Cup changed as the season wore on, too.

As a quick aside, if you want to check out how Vegas’ odds stacked up against their peers throughout the season, check out Stanley Cup futures tracker.

It’s hard to remember anything in the history of the NHL that pundits were so egregiously wrong about. 0/17 NHL.com writers predicted that Vegas would make the playoffs. Perhaps because they were so astounded by the continued success of a brand new franchise, the media has written off Vegas’ success time and time again.

How Did The Golden Knights Get So Good, So Fast?

Just like any other team in pro sports, Vegas’ success begins at the very top. After hiring former Washington Capitals General Manager George McPhee, owner Bill Foley let his GM operate free from any interference. As such, McPhee was allowed to execute his vision for the franchise with impunity, and Foley deserves credit for the trust he extended to his general manager.

However, we would be remiss if we didn’t touch on the fact the fact that after shelling out $500 Million for the right to a franchise, Foley’s Knights were given a fairly favorable set of rules in the expansion draft. Teams were allowed to protect either four defenseman, four forwards, and a goalie, or seven forwards, three defensemen, and a goalie. Vegas was selecting what teams deemed to be either the 10th or 12th best player on a team. In expansion drafts in years gone by, teams were picking the 14th or 15th best player on a team.

NHL expansion teams of years past selected from a player pool that wasn’t nearly as strong. Even in the last expansion draft (2000), teams were still icing knuckle draggers who could barely receive passes on their 3rd and 4th lines and bottom defense pairings. The age of the enforcer who struggles to get up and down the ice is long past. Nowadays, good teams have skill and are a threat to score on all four lines, and all defense three pairs. The league is filled with more talent than at any point in its history, and as such Vegas had a much more stronger pool of players to select from.

alex tuch celebrates goal vegas golden knights
Alex Tuch celebrates after scoring a goal for the Vegas Golden Knights. He was one of many Knights to outperform expectations this season wildly.

That being said, despite these slightly more favorable rules McPhee had to work with when constructing his team, he still made a bevy of adept managerial moves. He managed to select a ton of players with unrealized potential, which isn’t that easy without the benefit of hindsight. When he was mapping out which players to fill his roster with, he had a precise vision: he wanted to build the quickest team he could, with players who would mesh well together. He foresaw Vegas’ on-ice play being better than the sum of its parts.

Vegas’ lightning-quick transition game serves them well, especially when compared to the rest of the West, which is defined by a slower, east-west game.

Vegas’ combination of players let them play with speed and pace at all times. They were one of the quickest teams in the NHL, and their aggressive forecheck proved difficult for their opponents to neutralize with any consistency. Vegas’ lightning-quick transition game serves them well, especially when compared to the rest of the West, which is defined by a slower, east-west game. McPhee engineered his team to exploit the weaknesses of the teams it meets on the ice most frequently.

Knights hockey, from McPhee’s philosophy all the way down to the play on the ice, has been defined by grit, hard work, the strength of character, and relentlessly tenacity.  Everyone from the owner to players has rallied around defying the low expectations placed on the fledgling franchise.

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The Vegas Golden Knights Are the Best Expansion Franchise of All Time

We’re confident in saying that Vegas has put together the most impressive first season for an expansion of all time. Here are some quick comparables across the four major sports since 1960, for context. We don’t consider relocated franchises expansion franchises.

  • The best NFL expansion franchise of all time was the 1995 Carolina Panthers, who finished the season at 7-9.
  • The winningest NBA franchise of all time was the 1966-67 Chicago Bulls, who finished 33-48.
  • The strongest MLB expansion team was the Los Angeles Angels, who rounded out their inaugural season at 70-91.
  • The best NHL expansion team of all time was the 93-94 Florida Panthers, who finished the season at 33-34-17.

Not a single one of these teams finished above .500.

The Vegas Golden Knights finished the season at 51-24-7, and they broke the record for the best expansion franchise of all the time on February 1st, when David Perron scored in overtime against the Winnipeg Jets, giving them their 34th victory of the season. They would go in to win another 17 games in the final two months and change of the regular season.

The future is bright for the Knights. We’ll round this out with some quick odds on some significant events on the horizon for the Knights.

Odds Vegas Makes the Playoffs in 2018/2019: 3/7

Given their dominance in the regular season this year, the odds of making the playoffs next season are high. They have some notable unrestricted free agents in James Neal and David Perron, but they’re liking to retain at least one (maybe both) of these players. Plus, they acquired young top-six forward Tomas Tatar at the deadline this year, who has a very promising future.

Not to mention the rumblings of Vegas being all-in (pun intended) on bona fide superstar Erik Karlsson, should he ever officially make it to market. The fact that a first year franchise has the assets to even consider trading for a player of Karlsson’s calibre speaks to McPhee’s managerial acuity. All signs point to Vegas being just as good if not better next season.

Odds Vegas repeats as Pacific Division Champions in 2018/2019: 11/9

We’re not as certain Vegas is going to reclaim the Pacific Division next season, but that’s just because its a notoriously hard division to predict. With Ducks, Sharks, and Flames (maybe even the Oilers) all having the potential to be either bona fide contenders next year, we’re reticent to prematurely crown Vegas Division champs quite yet.

Odds This 120-pound chocolate statue of Marc Andre Fleury still exists when the 2018-2019 begins: 99/1

We can’t see this chocolate statue lasting too long in the chaos of Vegas, even though it’s housed in the heavily air-conditioned Bellagio.

Odds Vegas offers Golden Knights Tattoos again next season: 19/1

Our guess is that this doesn’t become a tradition. Should someone be bold enough to tattoo a Vegas logo on themselves forever, its hard to imagine they’re going to double down on it the season following.

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