You could see it from the 300 level. Watching the Vegas Golden Knights beat the Blackhawks 5-4 in Chicago on Jan. 5 cemented two things in my mind about this NHL season. First, the Blackhawks were done, having been made to look exceedingly old and slow again. Second, the Golden Knights were very much for real. And fast. Holy shit is this team fast.
They’re so fast it’s exhausting just to watch. Imagine how slow-footed defensemen (Cody Franson was quickly waived, and Brent Seabrook was last seen tearfully singing “Chelsea Dagger” to a bottle of Old Crow) must feel chasing these guys. Last week Vegas’s Game 3 OT win against the Sharks ended with a goal that sums up the Knights’ season: two opposing defensemen turning themselves into pretzels at the blue line as William Karlsson blows past them.
The rise from expansion team to Cup contender in six months seems impossible. But this is real. It is not a fluke, a case of weak opponents, or Gary Bettman practicing witchcraft. General manager George McPhee and coach Gerard Gallant built this roster with a plan, and it was a proven one. Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Los Angeles have combined to win seven of the last eight Stanley Cups with the same formula: elite goaltending, forward depth, and an attacking style emphasizing speed, forechecking, and forcing turnovers. Vegas did not attempt to reinvent that wheel.
Granted, every expansion team has a plan. Rarely does it work out so spectacularly, with the Golden Knights about to take on the Winnipeg Jets in the Western Conference Final. I fully expect that every member of the VGK organization spends 10 minutes staring into the bathroom mirror every night mumbling “I cannot believe this worked.” Yet here we are.
Armed with a good sense of what works in the modern NHL, McPhee went into the expansion draft with three aims.
Start with a franchise goaltender. There are always going to be teams with two legit starters, and expansion draft rules always make these guys available because the NHL desperately wants expansion teams to be watchable; a bad team with a great goaltender is usually competitive. In 1996 the Florida Panthers made the Cup finals in only their third year with a roster on which the best skill player was Scott Fucking Mellanby thanks to elite goaltending from John Vanbiesbrouck. Pittsburgh, with the younger and cheaper Matt Murray in net, sacrificed Marc-Andre Fleury. From day one he has been the face of, and best player on, this team. Fleury was very good during the regular season, and in the playoffs he has been nothing short of transcendent. So it’s safe to say Step 1 of Vegas’s plan worked even better than anyone expected.
Second, do not take every other team’s shit contracts. Older players with some talent and name recognition are always dangled in expansion drafts by teams eager to unload bad contracts. Other than taking a few long-term IR players to hit the salary floor (Mikhail Grabovski, David Clarkson) Vegas wisely passed on or dealt expensive veterans. Marc Methot was drafted and shipped to Dallas. Alexei Emelin was traded and went to the KHL. Jason Garrison was relegated to the minors. Of players who actually contributed to the team, only Fleury, James Neal, and Reilly Smith make big money.
Third, be fast up front. The post-lockout NHL is a speed league. Dumb-ass “We didn’t have concussions when I played!” Don Cherry types glorify hitting and (now nearly extinct) fighting, but speed wins Cups. The game is physical, but physicality without enough speed and skill makes you … well, the Flyers.
McPhee assembled what may be the fastest top-to-bottom group of forwards in the NHL. They started with two legit top-six forwards–Reilly Smith and Jonathan Marchessault–who toiled in relative obscurity with the Panthers. Florida apparently decided Marchessault’s 30-goal season was a fluke (it wasn’t) and Smith was a looming blight on their salary cap. David Perron and James Neal were chosen as not-too-old veterans with demonstrated scoring ability. And then came a slew of young forwards who can flat-out fly: Erik Haula, Alex Tuch, William Karlsson, William Carrier, Oscar Lindberg, Cody Eakin.
Gallant coached this roster to make every game a track meet. The forwards bolt the defensive zone on a hair trigger, generating odd-man breaks when the Knights defense manages to get the puck up ice. If the defense fails to clear the puck, then they rely on Fleury to bail them out.The Knights’ speed game is particularly apparent in the second Period, when the “long change” increases the opportunities for odd man breaks. Vegas’s shots by period (855/945/820, compared to shots-against (842/838/800) and goal scoring by period (78/94/88) during the regular season show a team that fully exploits its speed.
Certainly the Knights’ rise involves some luck. Nobody could have predicted with a straight face that only two NHL players would score more goals than William Karlsson, that Marchessault would score as many points as Patrick Kane, that James Neal would be their sixth-leading scorer, or that eternal prospect Malcolm Subban would provide respectable, above-average goaltending while Fleury spent two months rehabbing injuries. McPhee, who assembled the core of the Capitals’ current roster, hit on nearly every bet here.
What other contenders have and the Knights do not is serious talent on defense. Their defensemen are a collection that inspires phrases like “solid third-pairing guy” (Deryk Engelland, Nate Schmidt), “journeyman” (Brayden McNabb, Luca Sbisa), “unrealized potential” (Shea Theodore), or “Who?” (Colin Miller). That a team is on the brink of a conference championship with the Charleston Chiefs on the back end is nothing short of a miracle.
Gallant compensates with relentless attacking and forechecking, minimizing the pressure on the Knights’ overmatched D. But against San Jose’s talented forwards it was plain to see the Knights’ defensive shortcomings, especially against the Sharks Brent Burns-led power play (five of the Sharks’ 14 goals in the series came on the PP). They will look even worse against the Jets. McPhee’s deadline trade for an expensive forward (Tomas Tatar) who duplicates the skills of several guys already on the roster might be his only real misstep; those resources could have been devoted to someone, anyone, with heavy playoff experience on defense.
But then there is Fleury. Fleury and Corey Crawford are the most underappreciated goaltenders of this era, both having won Cups attributed to the elite talent in front of them. In these playoffs Fleury is proving just how integral he was to Pittsburgh’s success (although Matt Murray is no slouch, Pittsburgh might still be alive if they still had Fleury in net). He stands on his head nightly behind a porous D (to reiterate: the Knights’ ice-time leader is Nate Schmidt) and allows the forwards to cheat without getting burned, at least not too often.
That luck can’t hold forever. Oh hell, maybe it can. Vegas is in a final four with a group of teams that all sport enviable depth at forward. Maybe they will finally meet their match, or maybe they will defy the odds two more times.
Regardless of how the Knights’ ridiculous inaugural season ends, this team is young and has boatloads of cap room. In other words, they’re not going away. When McPhee assembled this team, he built in a ton of flexibility. He’s since extended McNabb and Marchessault but has to make free agent decisions this summer on veterans Neal, Perron, and Sbisa, while negotiating what promises to be an enormous bridge deal for RFA William Karlsson. So there certainly is downside if McPhee makes the wrong moves. But with a projected $25 million in cap space this offseason, he also has an almost-unmatched ability to improve the roster. He could throw a megadeal at 28-year-old elite scoring defenseman John Carlson and still have more than $15 million to play with.
But that is all in the future. For now, enjoy the show. It’s real, and it’s fabulous.