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Why the Vegas Golden Knights are the most intriguing expansion team the NHL has ever seen

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There is no bigger surprise through the first month of the NHL season than the Vegas Golden Knights.

With wins in seven of their first eight games, including four in a row heading into their game against the Colorado Avalanche on Friday night, they are off to the best start of any expansion team in league history.

There are a lot of explanations for the fast start.

It has been pointed out that the early season schedule has been on their side. They have already played the Arizona Coyotes (still searching for their first win heading into Thursday night) twice and have also had games against Dallas, Buffalo and Detroit (non-playoff teams from a year ago). They have played only one set of back-to-backs.

But they have also played Boston, St. Louis and Chicago, all playoff teams from a season ago, and beaten them all (granted, Boston and St. Louis are also dealing with pretty significant injury issues).

There has also been a smoke-and-mirrors element to some of their success thanks to some goaltending magic from three different goalkeepers. They had to know that starter Marc-Andre Fleury would give them a chance to win on most nights, but even after he was sidelined from a concussion the strong play in net continued with his backups.

Malcolm Subban, a complete disaster in his only two NHL appearances prior to this season, won his first two starts (and played outstanding) in relief of Fleury, and then Oscar Dansk stepped in stopped 39 of the first 42 shots he has faced. As a trio, the Vegas goaltenders have a combined save percentage of .930, the third highest mark in the league.

While the goaltenders have been great, the Vegas skaters have found a similar level of percentage based success by scoring on 11.3 percent of their shots, the fifth best mark in the league.

Usually when teams like this experience these short bursts of percentage-based success it can be short-lived and completely fall apart when those percentages start to regress. And they always do. But even if the early success is a little flukey and isn’t destined to continue over 82 games the Golden Knights are still one of the most intriguing expansion teams we have seen enter the NHL over the past three decades. And their early success is completely unmatched.

When the Vegas front office assembled its roster through the expansion draft there was, naturally, a lot of second guessing about which players they picked, the deals they made, and whether or not they maximized the talent that was available to them. All fair questions and concerns. But even with that I think we have kind of lost sight of the fact that this is still probably the most talented roster that has entered the league in any of the recent expansions. At least as it relates to the top of the roster. This is both a testament to the expansion rules that made better players available, and just how bad some of the past expansion teams have been.

Let’s dig into this a little bit.

Since the start of the 1990-91 season the NHL has added 10 teams, including the Golden Knights. The one thing they had in common was the fact that they all got off to miserable starts.

The only one of the expansion teams other than Vegas to win more than two of their first eight games was the Tampa Bay Lightning in 1992-93. They won three. Vegas has already won seven, meaning they are only three wins shy of matching what the Ottawa Senators won in their debut season. They are already halfway to Atlanta’s win total from the Thrashers’ inaugural season and only 10 shy of what the San Jose Sharks were able to do when they entered the league.

Only two of the recent expansion teams won more than 28 games in their first season. Vegas would only need to win 22 games over their final 74 to top that. That is only a 28 percent winning percentage. That is well within reach even for an expansion team, even if the goaltending and shooting percentages regress.

One of the things that stands out about this Vegas roster is just how much more talented it is than all of the past expansion teams because when you look back at all of them, from San Jose to Columbus, they were all LOUSY. From the makeup of the rosters to the play on the ice to where they finished in the standings.

Consider this: The Vegas roster has three players on it that have scored at least 25 goals in one of the past two seasons. Jonathan Marchessault scored 30 a year ago for the Florida Panthers. Reilly Smith scored 25 two years ago for the Boston Bruins. James Neal scored 30 two years ago for the Nashville Predators and scored 23 in 70 games a year ago. He is a consistend 25-30 goal scorer over an 82-game season.

If you look at each of the previous nine NHL expansion teams do you know how many players they had on their opening night rosters that had scored at least 25 goals within two years of being selected by their new team?

Two.

Combined.

The 2000-01 Minnesota Wild had Sergei Krivokrasov after he scored 25 goals for (the also expansion) Nashville Predators in 1998-99. It was the only time he scored more than 12 goals in a single NHL season.

The 1991-92 San Jose Sharks had Paul Fenton two years after he scored 32 goals for the Winnipeg Jets.

And that was it. The bulk of those rosters were made up of players that had little to no NHL experience or had made their living as role players or bottom-of-the-lineup depth players. There were not many top-six options or players with any sort of sustained success (or even recent success) in the NHL. Those teams had no established players or anybody that could be a legit scoring threat. It resulted in some terrible (and terribly uninteresting) hockey.

Technically the Columbus Blue Jackets had Ray Whitney on their roster one year after he scored 29 goals for the Florida Panthers, but he did not actually start the season with Columbus. The Blue Jackets acquired him from the Panthers late in their debut season and he only actually played three games for the expansion Blue Jackets that season.

You might look at this and shrug and say, who cares, it’s still only three players and we’re really not even sure how good players like Smith and Marchessault actually are. Marchessault has only had one big year in the league to this point, while Smith badly regressed after his 25-goal season and was basically acquired as a salary dump. But they are still players that have a recent track record of at least some pretty decent success in the NHL. When you look at the Vegas stat lines so far this season you notice that those three players have contributed to a bulk of the offense.

Neal and Smith are the top-two point producers on the roster.

Neal has eight points (including six goals) in eight games while Smith has seven. Marchessault has only played in five games but has already scored a pair of goals. Together, that trio has already scored 10 of Vegas’ goals and assisted on seven others. Vegas has only scored 10 goals that one of those three players has not a hand in.

This also doesn’t include David Perron, a fairly skilled player that scored 28 goals just three years ago. Perron has five points in eight games for Vegas.

But the biggest part of the success, again, comes down to goaltending. And again, Vegas has a better option (when healthy) than almost any other recent expansion team. Below is a list of the goalies that played the most games for each of the past 10 expansion teams, the number of games they played prior to joining their new team, and the number of games they had won. It is, for the most part, a rather lackluster list of goalies.

Other than Vanbiesbrouck, who was a key part of the Panthers reaching the Stanley Cup Final in just their third season, that is mostly a list of career backups and fringe NHL starters (I will listen to your arguments for why Ron Tugnutt should be included with Fleury and Vanbiesbrouck in the legit NHL starter category). Vegas is coming into the league with a goalie that has spent a decade as a top half of the league starter and a guy with his name on the Stanley Cup three times. That is a pretty good starting point, and before his injury he was playing outstanding hockey.

When compared to the other 30 teams around the NHL this is still probably a lower level roster when you look at it from top-to-bottom, and as we get deeper into the season that will probably start to become more noticeable in the standings and in the results on the ice. There are also probably not many players on this roster that will be a part of the first Vegas playoff team.

But in the short-term it is at least a roster that is going to be capable of giving new fans a reasonably exciting product to watch.

It is still a team that has marketable players to use as trade chips (James Neal, for example) to continue building the roster from the ground up. All of that is more than any of the league’s previous expansion teams over the past 30 years can say.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

National Hockey League had humble beginnings 100 years ago

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MONTREAL (AP) The five men who met on Nov. 26, 1917, to form the National Hockey League could not have dreamed of the 31-team, multi-billion-dollar enterprise it is a century later.

That day the owners of the Montreal Canadiens, Montreal Wanderers, Ottawa Senators and Quebec Bulldogs, along with league president-to-be Frank Calder, drew up a document at the posh Windsor Hotel in Montreal that established the NHL out of the ruins of the strife-torn National Hockey Association, which had been founded in 1909.

World War I was raging and most of the best young players were serving in Europe. Professional hockey had not yet eclipsed the amateur game in popularity. Top players earned about $900 per season.

The owners had met twice earlier in the month and announced they would suspend play due to scarcity of top-level players, although it turned out the real plan was to form a new league that did not include Eddie Livingstone, the combative owner of the Toronto Blueshirts who had repeatedly been in disputes, even lawsuits, with other clubs over rights to players or arena leases.

Elmer Ferguson, sports editor of the defunct Montreal Herald, was the only journalist at the Windsor that day. When it ended, he asked Calder what had happened and was told “nothing much.”

But Canadiens owner George Kennedy told Ferguson the new league was “like our old league except that we haven’t invited Eddie Livingstone to be part of it.”

Livingstone filed for an injunction and tried unsuccessfully to start another league, but it was hardly smooth sailing for the NHL in its early days.

Before the season started, Quebec announced it didn’t have the resources to begin play until the following season, so its players were divided up among the other clubs. Toronto took the Bulldogs’ place under a more cooperative owner, Charles Querrie.

On the new league’s opening night, Dec. 19, 1917, only 700 fans were on hand as the Wanderers beat Toronto 10-9.

It was to be the only victory for the team founded in 1903 out of clubs that stretched back to 1884. After only four games, the Westmount Arena that housed the Wanderers and the Canadiens burned to the ground, destroying all their equipment.

The Canadiens were able to replace their lost gear and moved into the 3,200-seat Jubilee Rink, but the Wanderers folded, leaving only three teams. The Canadiens had won their opener, officially the first NHL game because it started 15 minutes earlier, on five goals from Joe Malone, who had been picked up from the Bulldogs.

It took less than a month for the first rule change, which allowed goalies to drop to the ice to make saves where they previously had to remain upright. The new rule was inspired by Ottawa’s Clint Benedict, a master at “accidentally” losing his footing when shots were being taken.

The game was different in many ways that season. There were no forward passes or lines on the ice. Minor penalties lasted three minutes instead of two. Goaltenders served their own penalties, leaving skaters to guard the net.

And the Stanley Cup was not NHL property. Toronto got the O’Brien Cup for taking the first league championship, then had to win a five-game series against the champions of the rival Pacific Coast league, the Vancouver Millionaires, to claim the Stanley Cup. It did not become an exclusive NHL trophy until 1926-27.

By then, a rapidly growing NHL had reduced the Pacific Coast and Western leagues to insignificance. While Quebec City had rejoined the league, moved to Hamilton, and then folded, the NHL was booming in the United States.

Boston joined in 1924, the same year the Forum was built to house the Canadiens and the new Montreal Maroons. The New York Americans joined in 1925-26 along with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Teams in Chicago and Detroit soon followed. In Toronto, Conn Smythe bought a team called the St. Pats and renamed them the Maple Leafs.

In New York, promoter Tex Rickard was angling for a franchise and the local joke was they would be Tex’s Rangers. Rickard liked the name and the New York Rangers were born. His coach and general manager was Lester Patrick, who brought stars Bill and Bun Cook from the Pacific Coast league.

More iconic rinks were built. The Detroit Olympia in 1927, Boston Garden in 1928, Chicago Stadium in 1929 and Maple Leaf Gardens in 1931.

Player salaries shot up.

But the Great Depression was too much for some clubs and after 1941-42, when the Americans folded, the league was down to what came to be called the Original Six, even though the 1930s had brought major rule changes to speed up play and boost offence, including forward passing across lines, icing, penalty shots and flooding the ice between periods.

Then came an extended period of stability, marked by the rise of powerhouse teams in Detroit, Montreal, Toronto and then Montreal again. Massive stars emerged like Maurice “Rocket” Richard, Jean Beliveau and Gordie Howe.

A year after Bobby Orr debuted with the Bruins in 1966-67, the league finally expanded by six teams – Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Minnesota North Stars (now Dallas), St. Louis, Los Angeles and Oakland. Then came Buffalo and Vancouver in 1970; New York Islanders and Atlanta (now Calgary) in 1972; Washington and Kansas City (now New Jersey) in 1974; and four clubs from the defunct World Hockey Association – Edmonton, Quebec (now Colorado), Winnipeg (now Arizona) and Hartford (now Carolina) in 1979.

San Jose joined in 1991; Ottawa and Tampa Bay in 1992; Florida and Anaheim in 1993; Nashville in 1998; Atlanta (now Winnipeg) in 1999; Columbus and Minnesota in 2000; and Las Vegas in 2017.

Since 1917, when teams were valued in five figures, the NHL has become a business with an estimated $4.5 billion in revenues in 2016-17 and three teams – the Rangers, Leafs and Canadiens – worth more than $1 billion.

Where players were once almost exclusively Canadian, now there are nearly as many Americans and many others from Europe.

And there will likely be at least one more team coming soon.

As Ottawa boss Tommy Gorman said on that day in 1917: “Now we can get down to the business of making money.”

For more NHL coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

The Buzzer: Bob blanks Rangers; Sabres drop fourth straight

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Player of the Night: Sergei Bobrovsky, Columbus Blue Jackets

Bob made 36 saves and recorded his 21st career shutout in helping the Blue Jackets to a 2-0 win over the New York Rangers. The win was the Blue Jackets’ third in a row while New York was blanked for the first time this season.

Highlight of the Night: Bob was on his game:

MISC:

• Despite the loss, Henrik Lundqvist was outstanding for the Rangers in stopping 40 shots.

Artemi Panarin’s power play goal in the third period put the game out of reach:

• New York has dropped two in a row since their six-game winning streak.

Tomas Tatar snapped a 1-1 tie midway through the third period and Dylan Larkin added the insurance tally as the Detroit Red Wings beat the Buffalo Sabres 3-1.

• The Sabres, who have now lost four straight, had their chances, but Jimmy Howard stopped 19 of 20 shots and was thankful for one of his posts:

Factoid of the Night:

Scores:
Columbus 2, New York Rangers 0
Detroit 3, Buffalo 1

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Matthew Tkachuk reportedly suspended one game for inciting line brawl

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The Detroit Red Wings felt like the punishment didn’t fit the crime as Luke Witkowski received an automatic 10-game suspension for returning to the ice during that line brawl with the Calgary Flames. How will they feel about Calgary Flames forward Matthew Tkachuk reportedly receiving a one-game suspension for his “crime,” then?

Please note that this news was broken by TSN, while it hasn’t been confirmed by the NHL yet, so the explanation video is also not available.

As you can see from the video above this post’s headline, Tkachuk had a lot to do with the brawl, as Witkowski returned to the ice because of his actions. You can also see the moment here:

This marks the second time Tkachuk’s been suspended by the NHL, as he sat two games for this hit on Drew Doughty, which ultimately served as the first chapter in his hate-fest with the Los Angeles Kings:

It’s fitting with such an agitating figure like Tkachuk that the decision stands as polarizing. Some are stunned that the NHL would tack on a one-game suspension after he was ejected for his actions during the 8-2 win for the Red Wings:

Others believe that Tkachuk had it coming.

It wouldn’t be surprising if, meanwhile, the Red Wings believe that it wasn’t nearly sufficient. After the game, Postmedia’s Wes Gilbertson reports that Tkachuk said that Witkowski was looking for an excuse to return and that he just gave him “a poke.”

Apparently, this time, Tkachuk also poked the bear and will have to sit one game in timeout as punishment.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

NHL GMs pleased so far with crack down on slashing

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MONTREAL (AP) — If there are any misgivings about the NHL’s crackdown on slashes to the hands, they are not shared by the general managers.

Teams are scoring about half a goal more since officials made the quick tap to the hands or the top of the stick the NHL’s most frequently called minor penalty. The rule was aimed not only at protecting players after some gruesome hand injuries last season, but also to eliminate it as a tactic to cause skilled players to lose control of the puck.

”It’s still a work in progress but in general I think the standard has been very positive,” the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Steve Yzerman said after a three-hour meeting of the league’s 31 GMs.

The meeting was held at the former Windsor Hotel, where the NHL was founded in November, 1917. It was one of several events this weekend to mark the league’s centennial.

There were no major decisions made. The GMs and league officials discussed issues in the game like goaltender interference reviews, offside challenges and the crackdown on faceoff violations.

The talks helped set the agenda for a more in-depth, three-day meeting in March, where rule change proposals are usually made.

The slashing crackdown has seen a parade to the penalty box, but the calls look to be here to stay.

”I think people are a little frustrated when you’re getting those penalties and power plays against, but hopefully it smooths out and everybody adjusts to it,” Washington Capitals GM Brian MacLellan said. ”I think that’s what everybody is anticipating.

”It’s frustrating going through the process, but hopefully we get to the point where it’s effective and it’s not being done anymore and there are not as many calls.”

Former enforcer George Parros, the new director of player safety, made his first presentation at a GMs meeting and much of it dealt with slashing. He is mainly concerned with violent incidents, like the ugly finger injury suffered by defenseman Marc Methot last season and Johnny Gaudreau‘s hand injury. He said the more common ”love taps” can be handled by the officials on the ice.

”I focused on slashes that are done intentionally, behind the play, and landing on the hands-fingertips area,” Parros said. ”It’s a new standard. Everyone’s getting used to it. If it’s behind the play and it’s intentional and there’s some force to it, then it’s a warning. The variable is force.”

Overall, Parros likes what he’s seen on the ice.

”I gave them an update on numbers and stuff from last year and in general, the trends have been downward,” he said. ”We’ve got less suspensions, less injuries, all things like that. ”The game is being played in a great fashion right now and we hope to continue to do that.”

Colin Campbell, the league’s director of hockey operations, said the rise in scoring may spring from more than just a slashing crackdown.

”I think it’s a reflection of younger players in the league,” he said. ”We’re down to an average of 23 and 24 being our biggest segment of players. I think our players in rush reads and down-low coverage are faster and more talented, but older players are more defensive and have more patience. Younger players make more mistakes, but is there anything wrong with that? We always say if you want more goals you need bad goalies and more mistakes.”

Offside challenges is a contentious issue. When brought in last season, there were complaints that coaches were using them too often and were slowing down the games. This season, if a challenge fails, a minor penalty is called. That has cut down challenges dramatically.

But Edmonton Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli said: ”I think the sentiment is generally positive on putting that minor penalty in and reducing the number of challenges.”

Goaltender interference challenges also were discussed, but pinning down a consistent standard in judging whether a player has interfered with or been pushed into a goalie is elusive.

They were also to discuss making penalties called in overtime last only one minute instead of two to boost 3-on-3 time.

One thing there appeared to be no talk of was trades.

”You never see any of that here. There’s not enough time,” Toronto GM Lou Lamoriello said.