The Vegas Golden Knights have been nothing short of incredible this season. This is a group of 30 players that were cast away by their former teams in order to protect “better” players. Some teams like the Canadiens, Maple Leafs, and Vancouver did not lose valuable assets. However, the Ducks, Panthers, Blue Jackets and Wild are looking incredible silly right now. They gave extra assets in order for Vegas to select specific players during the Expansion Draft. Those assets either became instant impact players for the Golden Knights or will be high picks in the next 2 years. Talk about giving yourself a solid start from an asset management perspective.
George McPhee, the GM of the Golden Knights, made some solid expansion picks regardless of outside trades. The selections of Nate Schmidt, David Perron, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Colin Miller have had a direct impact on Vegas’ incredible success. Those players play vital roles on the Vegas roster and have thrived all year. Some may call it surprising, but many of those players were simply held back due to their former organizations’ depth charts.
For example, Schmidt had to contend with John Carlsson, Dimitri Orlov, Brooks Orpik, Karl Alzner and Matt Niskanen for ice time in Washington. Scouts saw his speed and skill and were convinced that he’d become a top-4 defenseman. However, the Washington Capitals were stuck giving away a really promising player due because they were such a deep team. Furthermore, Washington believed it wise to stand pat and lose Schmidt to expansion rather than attempt to give Vegas another valuable asset in order for Vegas to select a less valuable player. It simply didn’t make sense from an asset management perspective.
Golden Knights Capitalized on Desperate GMs
Although a team like the Washington Capitals bit the bullet and let a really good player go, some teams were a little more desperate. They could not afford to lose their exposed players and thus had to make side-deals to keep their core intact. If you look at the Minnesota Wild, the expansion protection rules meant they would undoubtedly lose one of Jonas Brodin or Matt Dumba. Losing either player would have been a huge blow to the Wild’s defense in the short and long-term.
Consequently, they sacrificed former 1st round pick Alex Tuch in order to have Vegas draft Erik Haula. Alex Tuch has been a force for the Golden Knights in the playoffs so far. Erik Haula scored 30 goals for Vegas while being a puck-hound during the playoffs. Needless to say, the Wild could not afford to lose any of their young D-men. They were able to sacrifice Haula and Tuch to keep their core untouched and Vegas benefitted greatly.
Unlike the Wild’s asset management conundrum, some teams tried to use the Expansion Draft in order to unload some unwanted contracts. For example, the Florida Panthers sent Jonathan Marchessault, one of Vegas’ leading scorers this year, to get rid of a contract. That contract belonged to forward Rielly Smith, who has a cap hit of $5 million until 2022. Rielly had a down year last season, putting up 37 points in 80 games, and Florida panicked. The internal belief was that Rielly might not continue to live up to his contract. This prompted Florida to have Vegas, who had to reach the salary cap floor of $55.4 million, utilize their abundant cap space to take on significant salary in exchange for an extra asset.
Anaheim found themselves in a similar situation, where they had a contract they desperately wanted to be rid of. In this case, Clayton Stoner was the targeted player Anaheim wanted to unload. Anaheim dealt Theodore to Vegas in exchange for the Golden Knights selection of Stoner and his $3.25 million contract. Another important factor was that, with Stoner being picked, Sami Vatanen, Josh Manson, and Jakub Silfverberg we’re not selected. The Ducks believed themselves able to sacrifice a player like Theodore in order to preserve their core. In the end, Theodore went on to become the reliable top-4 he was projected to be. Anaheim sure could have used him when Cam Fowler went down late in the season and playoffs.
Golden Knights Have Many Breakout Stars
Many of these unproven young players that Vegas was able to pluck away from NHL teams truly blossomed with the added ice-time this year. Shea Theodore, who started the year in the AHL due to all the one-way contracts for defensemen like Jason Garrison and Griffin Reinhart, started the year in the AHL. He went on to score 11 points in 8 games in the AHL for the Chicago Wolves. He was immediately called up by Vegas once they had seen enough of both Reinhart and Garrison and he never looked back. Theodore went on to post 29 points in 61 games, which is a noted improvement from his 9 points in 34 games last year. During this year’s playoffs, he’s increased his offensive production by putting up 9 points in 17 games.
The other obvious candidate for breakout star on the Vegas Golden Knights is center William Karlsson. Prior to this season, Karlsson had scored 16 goals in 165 games for his former team, the Columbus Blue Jackets. He was often playing on the third line, but did catch our eye with his excellent two-way game and speed. Once given the chance to spread his wings offensively, he seized the opportunity and exploded.
He went on to score a mind-boggling 43 goals and 78 points in 82 games. His average ice time went from 13.23 minutes per game in Columbus to 18.53 in Vegas. He also greatly increased his shooting output, as he went from 96 shots on goal last year to 184 this year. Furthermore, his shooting percentage exploded from a meager 6.3% to a staggering 23.4%. Just to give you some perspective, Laine, and Matthews, two of the best young goal scorers in the game, are at 18.3 %. The question on most people’s minds is whether or not Karlsson will be able to follow up next year.
Many other players like Colin Miller, Alex Tuch and Nate Schmidt took on key roles for the team. Forward Erik Haula, acquired from the Wild, scored more goals this year (29) than points last year (26). Colin Miller scored almost as many goals (10) as he had points last year (13). That is a ridiculous jump in scoring ability. Needless to say, most of Vegas’ young players took a huge stride in their development. It was ideal for the players, as they would have been buried under their former team’s depth chart. Now that they had the opportunity and trust of their Head Coach Gerard Gallant, they blossomed into key contributors on a competitive team.
Golden Knights MVP: Marc-Andre Fleury
It was a surreal moment when Marc-Andre Fleury’s name was called out last at the NHL Awards ceremony in June 2017. The three-time Stanley Cup winning goaltender from the Pittsburgh Penguins was the crown jewel of the Expansion Draft. Never has a clear-cut number 1 goaltender ever been picked in an expansion draft, and none as loved as Flower. The Penguins had decided that the younger Matt Murray was their future in goal. However, Fleury was out to prove everyone, including his former team, wrong. As soon as the season began, all eyes were on Fleury. After running into some early injury trouble at the beginning of the year, Fleury came back on a mission. He won 34 of his 46 starts for the Golden Knights. He posted career highs in save percentage (.927) and goals-against average (2.24).
During this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs, Fleury has been, hands down, the Golden Knights’ MVP. He’s posted an incredible .939 save percentage and a ridiculous 1.88 goals-against average. Those are elite numbers for a 33-year old goalie that many considered to be washed up. Here he is fighting for his third consecutive Stanley Cup. Nobody in the NHL can deny that Fleury has carried his team into the unknown and saved them when trouble came knocking. His 4 shutouts in 17 playoff games should be indicative of his ability to shut down games. If Vegas does indeed do the impossible and win the Stanley Cup, expect Fleury to win the Conn Smythe Trophy. There would be no Cinderella Story without the relentless miracles of the Flower of Vegas.
Stanley Cup Winners?
When all of these different factors come together, it’s no surprise that the Vegas Golden Knights had such immediate success. They have a shot at winning a Stanley Cup in their first year, a feat that hasn’t been done since 1918. On top of Vegas’ success on the ice, the team is led behind the bench by Gerrard Gallant. After being disgracefully fired by the Panthers last year, Gallant showed the league he is one of the best at his craft. He immediately created a system and team structure that benefited his players.
He wasn’t shy to remove veterans who were not up to par from the lineup in favour of hungry youth. In as such, Gallant’s approach is just as vital to the success of this franchise. Gallant gave players like Schmidt, Theodore, Karlsson and Tuch room to grow and develop without the fear of being benched. We fully expect Gallant to win the Jack Adams Trophy, given to the best Head Coach in the NHL.
It has been an insane 12 months in Las Vegas. They are the true NHL expansion success story. Their immediate success makes the prospect of further expansion more attractive for prospective owners. They have been professional, methodical and wise in the way they have built the club. The ironic part is that Vegas still holds 8 picks in the first 2 round over the next two years. They have over $24 million in cap space next year and owner Bill Foley has every intention of spending it. Something tells me Vegas will even better next year, and that is a scary thought indeed.