Facts don’t bear out revisionist history being written about Vegas Golden Knights
You may have heard the Vegas Golden Knights are headed to the Stanley Cup Finals.
The Knights defeated the Winnipeg Jets on Sunday in Game 5 of the NHL’s Western Conference finals, 2-1, to become the first expansion team playing in a non-expansion conference to make it to the league championship series.
But you might have missed it because of the quickly developing narrative that somehow the NHL’s expansion draft rules in 2017 were so overwhelmingly unfair to the other 30 NHL teams — Each of which was paid $17 million to lose one player — that it helped create an expansion juggernaut in Las Vegas.
On Saturday, between Games 4 and 5, the Golden Knights’ social media account put out a playful tweet about what was going on with the franchise a year ago. And John Smithson responded with an utterly incorrect but increasingly common take.
It's rather easy to have a good team with just starting out. You have no team so you can just buy players instead of having to trade for good players. You have a serious advantage this is why you're winning. Sorry not sorry.
— John Smithson (@StocksandGrowin) May 19, 2018
Smithson, though, was far from alone. On Sunday, Nick Fasulo somehow found it incredibly embarrassing for the NHL that the Golden Knights were headed to the finals.
And it’s also gotta be incredibly embarrassing for the NHL, it’s front offices and commissioner. https://t.co/1g8F9HPWKM
— Nick Fasulo (@nickbfasulo) May 20, 2018
And then Jeff Gallaher made it even worse when he responded in this thread.
It makes the league a joke. Hard to take a league seriously when they set up expansion rules this way. Vegas was just given great players that other teams drafted and developed. It’s just laughable and makes the NHL look like a clown show.
— Jeff Gallaher (@jtgallaher) May 20, 2018
Apparently, John and Nick and Jeff and thousands of others didn’t actually read the NHL’s expansion rules. For the honor of being admitted to the league, Golden Knights owner Bill Foley paid $500 million, meaning each of the 30 existing teams made $16.67 million for losing one player.
And it’s not like Vegas GM George McPhee had the likes of Conor McDavid, Auston Matthews, Erik Karlsson or Sidney Crosby to choose among. These are the rules McPhee and the Knights had to play by in putting the team together:
a) Seven forwards, three defensemen and one goaltender
b) Eight skaters (forwards/defensemen) and one goaltender
* All players who have currently effective and continuing “No Movement” clauses at the time of the Expansion Draft (and who to decline to waive such clauses) must be protected (and will be counted toward their club’s applicable protection limits).
* All first- and second-year professionals, as well as all unsigned draft choices, will be exempt from selection (and will not be counted toward their club’s applicable protection limits).
Player Exposure Requirements
* All Clubs must meet the following minimum requirements regarding players exposed for selection in the Expansion Draft:
i) One defenseman who is a) under contract in 2017-18 and b) played in 40 or more NHL games the prior season OR played in 70 or more NHL games in the prior two seasons.
ii) Two forwards who are a) under contract in 2017-18 and b) played in 40 or more NHL games the prior season OR played in 70 or more NHL games in the prior two seasons.
iii) One goaltender who is under contract in 2017-18 or will be a restricted free agent at the expiration of his current contract immediately prior to 2017-18. If the club elects to make a restricted free agent goaltender available in order to meet this requirement, that goaltender must have received his qualifying offer prior to the submission of the club’s protected list.
* Players with potential career-ending injuries who have missed more than the previous 60 consecutive games (or who otherwise have been confirmed to have a career-threatening injury) may not be used to satisfy a club’s player exposure requirements, unless approval is received from the NHL. Such players also may be deemed exempt from selection by the League.
So, that meant that under the first scenario, the Knights would get to choose from among the eighth best forward, the fourth best defenseman and the second-string (or worse) goalie.
Under the second scenario, it was a little more vague, but that allowed a team to protect four or five defensemen, meaning there wasn’t much to choose from defensively.
One of the defensemen the Knights’ chose was Nate Schmidt, who was with the Washington Capitals last year. When the Capitals traded for Kevin Shattenkirk at the trading deadline in 2017, Schmidt was called in and told he wouldn’t play again because he was the team’s seventh defenseman unless there was an injury.
Vegas was hardly given an unfair edge, though admittedly, the rules were better than they’d ever been before. But does anybody really believe that it would have been better for the league, for hockey in general and specifically for hockey in Las Vegas if the NHL had made the expansion rules as restrictive as they were in 1974, when the Washington Capitals entered the league and promptly went 8-67-5 for 21 points?
McPhee and his staff did a remarkable job in several areas, and made the salary cap an ally for themselves. But let’s start with the obvious: They got incredibly lucky that Pittsburgh was forced to make Marc-Andre Fleury available.
Fleury is the unquestioned leader for the Knights and is probably the front-runner for the Conn Smythe as the playoffs’ most valuable player. Fleury has been so sensational, he may win the Conn Smythe even if the Knights don’t win the Stanley Cup.
But after Pittsburgh won the second of its back-to-back Stanley Cup titles in 2017, it made the decision to protect Matt Murray. Murray was called up in 2016 when Fleury was injured and with the long-time Penguins’ starter out, Murray came in and led the Penguins to the Cup.
The Penguins repeated last year, and Fleury was in the nets at the beginning of the playoffs because Murray was injured. But at the first sign that Fleury’s hot hand would run out, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan switched to Murray, who went the rest of the way.
Murray was younger and far cheaper and even though Fleury was an iconic player in Penguins’ history and an outstanding goalie, it made far more sense to protect Murray. But Fleury has played better for the Golden Knights this year than he ever did in Pittsburgh, even in the years he won the Cup. For that, much credit should go to Vegas goaltending coach David Prior.
But the Knights weren’t drafting players anyone thought would be successful. The Nashville Predators chose to protect Viktor Arvidsson instead of James Neal, because Neal was making $5 million, would be a free agent on July 1, 2018, and would be 31 by the start of the 2018-19 season.
McPhee rooked the Florida Panthers and Minnesota Wild, winding up with Reilly Smith and Jonathan Marchessault, two-thirds of the Knights’ first line from Florida and Eric Haula and Alex Tuch, two-thirds of their second line, from Minnesota. Each team had players it wanted to protect other than those four and McPhee parlayed that into the makings of a potential championship team.
Given an increased role, William Karlsson bloomed and became a star. He’s an amazing defensive player, an outstanding penalty killer, a terrific passer and scored 43 goals for Vegas in the regular season after netting just 18 in 183 games for Anaheim and Columbus prior to joining the Knights.
The rules didn’t make the Knights potential champions. Great scouting by McPhee and his staff, terrific work by coach Gerard Gallant and, most importantly, the opportunity for players to bloom when given a shot.
Schmidt was stuck in a third-pair role for Washington, and would have stayed there. Given a chance to be a No. 1 in Las Vegas, he seized the opportunity. He showed great skating and a terrific feel for the game.
Karlsson would have been a terrific fourth-line center in Columbus again. But with no established No. 1 center in Vegas, he came in and earned the job.
These players, their coaches and the team’s executives all did masterful jobs.
Let’s put an end to this narrative that the league somehow planned for this.
The Knights are the best story in sports, and perhaps in many years. But the NHL is the league that could botch a one-car funeral.
Anyone who thinks that Vegas was gifted a conference championship is oblivious to the facts.
It was George McPhee, Gerard Gallant and 25 highly motivated and determined players that led to this unexpected result.