In every life, a little shit must be eaten. Especially by sportswriters who think they know anything. Back in June, after the expansion draft, I encouraged everyone to look at the Vegas Golden Knights’ projected roster and wrote,
How many of these players will be with this franchise the first time it makes the playoffs?
The answer turned out to be: almost all of them.
With a 4-1 home win over the Avalanche, in front of yet another sellout crowd, the Golden Knights have clinched a playoff spot in their inaugural season. And there’s more clinching to come: six points up on San Jose with six games to play, Vegas is likely to win the Pacific in the coming days. There’s really not much more to say than that this has all been incredible, and unlikely, but no longer feels very fluky.
VGK got on the board with a second-period power-play goal by Alex Tuch, cleaning up a loose puck in front:
Later in the period, Jonathan Marchessault sniped what would be the game-winner, again on the power play:
The clinch became official when William Karlsson, having the best and least likely season of anyone in Vegas, nudged home an empty-netter, and listen to that crowd:
So how have the Golden Knights done it? At base, GM George McPhee hit on just about every expansion draft pick and trade, and so many players responded with their best possible seasons.
The firepower has come from Karlsson, a 25-year-old Swede who had never scored double-digit goals in either of his two full seasons in Columbus, but now has 40 and counting; and Marchessault, who proved that his last season in Florida was no one-year wonder, by leading this team with 72 points.
James Neal and David Perron have provided the veteran leadership expected of them, but more than that, have contributed on the ice—and because of Karlsson and Marchessault, have been able to do so on the second line, making the team far deeper than expected last summer. That line has been centered by Erik Haula, who the Golden Knights drafted in one of McPhee’s most successful deals. Minnesota did not want to lose the likes of Matt Dumba or Marco Scandella in the expansion draft, so they cut a bargain with McPhee—in exchange for taking Haula instead, they’d throw in prospect Alex Tuch. Well, Haula’s close to a 30-goal-30-assist season, and the 21-year-old Tuch looks like a star in the making.
And then there’s Marc-Andre Fleury, who when healthy has been elite. He’s 28-11-4 and is second in the league in both GAA and save percentage.
Why has all this happened? Luck’s a part of it, of course; Vegas’s PDO is on the lucky side of 100, though, notably, not egregiously so anymore—it’s gradually come back to earth as the team’s win rate has since their red-hot start out of the gates. But luck certainly doesn’t mean a team isn’t legitimately good, and it’s got people scrambling for explanations. And while a season this excellent is necessarily a confluence of factors, I really like what Greg Wyshynski wrote today about motivation:
Consider the carrots that have dangled in front of this racehorse throughout the season. You have a roster of players basically all playing for contracts, either to stay in Vegas or to impress a future employer. You have a roster of players uniquely motivated to get one over on the teams that sent them away, and every homecoming or revenge night became a clarion rallying call for the rest of the locker room.
There’s a whole lot of talent here that’s going to hit free agency this summer or next, because McPhee understood, realistically, that the most likely outcome for this roster was to be sold for spare parts. (Historically, most NHL expansion teams have needed five-plus seasons to make the playoffs. The Golden Knights aren’t merely the first expansion team to make the playoffs in their inaugural season since the NHL expanded from six teams; they’re the first expansion team in the the Big Four North American sports since 1960 to have a winning record in their first season.)
But those contracts are a matter for another day. Vegas has more immediate matters to tend to. These Knights are good, and motivated, and because of the playoff format they wouldn’t have to face Winnipeg or Nashville until the conference final. There’s no reason they can’t make it that far. Should I add “at least” that far? I think I’m done making predictions with this team.