Dan Bouchard can appreciate, better than most, the Miracle in the Desert.
He was a goalie for the expansion Atlanta Flames back in the 1970s, so he knows how difficult it is to build a competitive team from scratch.
”It’s astonishing what they’ve done in Vegas,” said Bouchard, who still lives in the Atlanta area, when reached by phone this week. ”I think it’s the greatest thing to happen to hockey since the Miracle on Ice,” he added, referring to the seminal U.S. upset of the mighty Soviet Union at the 1980 Olympics. ”It’s that good.”
Indeed, Vegas has set a new norm for expansion teams in all sports. No longer will it be acceptable to enter a league with a squad full of dregs and take your lumps for a few years, all while fans willingly pay big-league prices to watch an inferior product.
The Golden Knights have come up with a stunning new template for how this expansion thing can be done.
They romped to the Pacific Division title with 51 wins. In the opening round of the playoffs, they finished off the Los Angeles Kings in four straight games , casting aside a franchise that has a pair of Stanley Cup titles this decade while becoming the first expansion team in NHL history to sweep a postseason series in its debut year.
Imagine how storied franchises in Montreal and Detroit and Edmonton must be feeling right about now.
They didn’t even make the playoffs.
From Bouchard’s perspective, it’s all good. Vegas’ success right out of the starting gate will make everyone raise their game in the years to come.
”This will wake up the teams that are sitting on $90 million budgets and not doing anything,” he said. ”People will say, ‘If Vegas can do it, we can do it.’ That’s a paradigm shift in the game.”
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When one considers how NHL expansion teams have fared over the years, the Vegas story becomes even more compelling.
The Golden Knights are the first new team in the NHL’s modern era to have a winning record in their inaugural season, a period that began in 1967 and encompasses 26 new franchises (including one, the ill-fated California Seals, who are no longer around).
Only six other first-year teams have made the playoffs – and that includes four that were assured of postseason berths in the landmark 1967 expansion. You see, when the NHL finally broke out of its Original Six format, doubling in size to a dozen teams, it placed all the new franchises in the same division, with the top four getting postseason berths even with sub-.500 records.
Until the Golden Knights came along, the Florida Panthers were the gold standard for NHL expansion. They finished one game below .500 in their first season (1993-94) and missed the playoffs by a single point. In Year 3, they had their first winning record and made it all the way to the Stanley Cup final, though they were swept by the Colorado Avalanche.
That remains the closest the Panthers have come to winning a title.
In Sin City, the wait for a championship figures to be much shorter. Heck, the Golden Knights might do it this year.
They’re 12 wins away from hoisting the Stanley Cup in a city that has always had a soft spot for long shots.
”We’re still a few wins away from this being a great story,” said goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, a key contributor to the Golden Knights success.
Even now, it seems like a bit of dream to coach Gerard Gallant, who thankfully will be remembered for something other than getting left at the curb to hail his own cab after being fired by the Panthers.
”When this all started in October, we just wanted to compete,” Gallant said. ”Now we’re going to the second round of the playoffs. It’s unreal.”
For sure, the Golden Knights wound up with a much more talented roster than most expansion teams – partly through astute planning, partly through getting access to better players as a reward for doling out a staggering $500 million expansion fee, which was a more than six-fold increase over the $80 million required of Minnesota and Columbus to enter the league in 2000.
The expansion draft netted a top-line goalie in Fleury, who helped Pittsburgh win three Stanley Cups; center Jonathan Marchessault, a 30-goal scorer in Florida who was surprisingly left exposed by the Panthers; and winger James Neal, who had scored more than 20 goals in all nine of his NHL seasons. It also provided a solid group of defensemen: Colin Miller, Nate Schmidt, Deryk Engelland and Brayden McNabb.
In addition, the Golden Knights wisely nabbed young Swedish center William Karlsson, who hadn’t done much in Columbus but became Vegas’ leading scorer with 43 goals and 35 assists.
”They’ve got some top centers. They’ve got some real good defense. They’ve got good goaltending,” Bouchard observed. ”They went right down the middle. That’s how the built it. Then they complemented it with the fastest guys they could get their hands on. They went for speed.”
Previous expansion teams didn’t have it nearly as good.
Bouchard actually played on one of the better first-year teams when the Flames entered the league in 1972. They were in playoff contention much of the season and finished with more points than four other teams in the 16-team league, including the storied Toronto Maple Leafs.
But that was a team that had to struggle for every win. The Flames had only three 20-goal scorers and were largely carried by their two young goalies, Bouchard and Phil Myre.
”We didn’t have a bona fide 30-goal scorer,” Bouchard recalled. ”We had a lot of muckers.”
That was then.
The Golden Knights have shown how it should be done.
If expansion teams are going to fork over enormous fees for the chance to play, they should have access to a much better pool of potential players.
They should have a chance to win right away.
That way, everyone wins.
Paul Newberry is a sports columnist for The Associated Press.
AP Sports Writer Beth Harris in Los Angeles contributed to this column.
For more AP NHL coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey