Author: Jordan Mazzara
As I watched the 2017 NHL expansion draft, I assumed the Vegas Golden Knights were drafting for the future. They were grabbing guys with high ceilings, but also guys that should still need two or three more years to develop. I assumed that if they were contenders in two seasons, general manager George McPhee would be given an A+ for his services.
I never expected this. Vegas stood at 100-1 odds to win the league– the worst odds in the league — after the expansion draft. Even Vegas didn’t believe it could be this good. As of Jan. 21, they sit at 65-1 odds – the second-best in the league behind only the Tampa Bay Lightning (odds are higher than other sports leagues because playoffs are more volatile in the NHL).
Let’s start with the top six forwards. The top six is composed to carry a bulk of a team’s scoring, and it’s often related closely to the team’s power play. To get a glimpse at the talents they brought in, I’ve laid out the recent histories of some of these players.
Their first line left wing is Jonathan Marchessault. He racked up 30 goals and 51 points through 75 games for the Florida Panthers last season, but his small, 5-foot-9, 174-pound stature left him as the odd man out from the Panthers’ protection.
Their first line center is William Karlsson, who put up just six goals and 19 assists last season, but was also given a bottom six role, skating just 13 minutes per night. The Golden Knights have upped his usage to 18 minutes per night, and he hasn’t looked back.
Their first line right wing is Reilly Smith, who accrued 15 goals and 22 assists for the Panthers last season, coming in a package deal with Marchessault, who is now his line mate. The Panthers held a lot of talent last season, but their need for a rebuild forced them to let Smith walk in the expansion draft.
Their first line left wing is David Perron, who had already compiled 10 NHL seasons, logging 40 or more points in six of them. Even in a middle six role for the Blues last season, he played every game and posted 46 total points. However, a playoff slump left him exposed for the expansion draft, and the Golden Knights took the bait.
Their first line right wing is James Neal, an ex-Nashville Predator and consistent sniper. He’s had over 20 goals in each of his last nine seasons, racking up six 40-point seasons in the process. Neal has always been a stud, and by putting up 21 points through 46 games already, he may be on the way to his best season yet.
The Golden Knights plays an aggressive style of hockey with their forwards, but they don’t expect much scoring from their defensemen. Instead, they look for blueliners that are strong on their skates, can break the puck out of their defensive zone and be a passer in the offensive zone. They scooped Nate Schmidt, who had a plus-22 rating last season, from Washington. They grabbed Derek Engelland, who had 134 blocked shots and 12 assists for Calgary last season.
Last, but not least, is the most important defenseman there is, the goaltender. That’s where they drafted Marc-Andre Fleury, a veteran goaltender who has won three Stanley Cups for the Penguins, but was dethroned by a younger Matt Murray in the 2015-16 playoffs, even though he played 58 regular season games that year and posted a .921 save percentage. Now, he’s owning the league with a 11-3-2 record, .946 save percentage and 1.68 GAA, the last two are both ranked top-two in the league.
When you put all that that talent together under head coach Gerard Gallant, who has won a gold medal as an assistant coach for Team Canada and was named the NHL All-Star game coach in 2016, the last thing left to find was chemistry. They found that with a grudge. It’s clear that players on the team continue to play with a chip on their shoulders, and who wouldn’t? Their teams abandoned them, deemed them the “least worthy good player” on the team. You’d be out for blood too.
At this point, Vegas is basically a lock for the playoffs. As we know, when it hits the postseason in the NHL, all bets are off, and regular season success is irrelevant. But for now, watching the successes of the underdog is something we can all adore.