Vegas Golden Knights provide a new template for expansion teams

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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.”

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

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

Barkov, Karlsson, O’Reilly are 2018 Lady Byng Trophy finalists

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Aleksander Barkov of the Florida Panthers, William Karlsson of the Vegas Golden Knights, and Ryan O’Reilly of the Buffalo Sabres have been named as the three finalists for the 2018 Lady Byng Memorial Trophy, the NHL announced on Friday. The award, voted on by the Professional Hockey Writers Association, is given “to the player adjudged to have exhibited the best type of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of playing ability.”

The winner will be announced during the NHL Awards show in Las Vegas on June 20.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

The Case for Aleksander Barkov: The Panthers center certainly has the “high standard of playing ability” part down with a season that saw him lead the team with 78 points and finish tied for third in goals with 27. Barkov played the fifth-most minutes (1,743:32) among NHL forwards and only picked up seven minor penalties. This is the second time he’s been named a finalist in the last three seasons.

The Case for William Karlsson: Karlsson had a monster of a season with 43 goals and 78 points during the Golden Knights’ historic first year. In playing 1,534:47, the 25-year-old forward racked up only 12 PIMs. Should Karlsson win, he would become the first player to win an end-of-season trophy for a team in its inaugural season since Wayne Gretzky of the Edmonton Oilers won the Byng and Hart Trophy and in 1979-80.

The Case for Ryan O'Reilly: O’Reilly missed one game this season and logged 1,686:10 of ice time for the Sabres. He recorded only one penalty all season, way back on Oct. 24 versus Detroit, a slashing call. His one penalty is the fewest among NHL players who suited up for at least 41 games this season. He’s a previous winner having taken home the trophy in 2014 while a member of the Colorado Avalanche.

2018 NHL Award finalists
Bill Masterton Trophy (Saturday)
Norris Trophy
Selke Trophy
Vezina Trophy

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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.

Sharks showed in Round 1 they’re not done yet

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For the better part of the past two decades the San Jose Sharks have been a near constant in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, making 18 appearances in 20 years. Because that run has not yet resulted in a Stanley Cup — and at times resulted in some crushing, premature postseason exits — they have usually been more of a playoff punchline than a celebrated success story for being a contender almost every year. With every passing year that does not result in a championship, and with every year that foundational  players like Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski get older, we seem to forget about them a little more.

It’s usually the old “their window has closed” situation as we wait for them to fade into obscurity.

Then two years ago, after everyone seemingly gave up on them being a serious threat to ever win it all, they finally had a breakthrough and reached the Stanley Cup Final.

They entered the playoffs this year as somewhat of an afterthought once again (hey, I admit, I was guilty of that too), lost beneath the hype of the Nashville Predators, Winnipeg Jets, and even their second-round opponent, the Vegas Golden Knights. But after making quick work of an overmatched and hapless Ducks team in round one, outscoring them by an 16-4 margin in a clean four-game sweep, they are now in the second-round of the playoffs ready to take on the Vegas with a trip to the Western Conference Finals on the line. They have done all of this while only getting 47 games out of Thornton who has not played since the end of January.

So what has been the key to their success? For one, they finally have a goalie they can count on in the playoffs.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

One of the biggest issues that plagued some of the great Joe Thornton/Patrick Marleau teams in the early-mid 2000s were some truly disastrous postseason goaltending performances from the likes of Evgeni Nabokov and Antti Niemi that completely sunk the team’s chances. Those postseason shortcomings were then hung on the two guys at the top of the lineup (Thornton and Marleau) even though they almost always produced.

Now the net belongs to Martin Jones, and in what is his third playoff run with the team he is once again playing some of his best hockey at the right time of year.

Jones was incredible in the first-round sweep of the Ducks, turning aside 128 of the 132 shots he faced. In his 34 playoff games as a member of the Sharks he now has a .930 save percentage. Of the 18 goalies that have appeared in at least 10 playoff games during that stretch, that would be tied for the third best mark in the NHL. That sort of goaltending will always give you a chance.

For as good as Jones has been, it is not just the goaltending that is sparking the Sharks right now.

They have also managed to reshape their roster a bit and work in some youth and speed, even from what the team looked like just one year ago. The Ducks, a classic rough-and-tumble “heavy hockey” Pacific Division team, were overmatched it by from the drop of the puck in Game 1.

When looking at the skaters that played in the first-round this season versus the first round a year ago (when they lost to the Edmonton Oilers) you can see where the changes come in.

After being a healthy scratch in all six playoff games a year ago, 22-year-old Kevin Labanc not only played in all four games in the first-round, he recorded two assists, was not on the ice for a single goal against, and generally played great two-way hockey. The same was true for 23-year-old center Chris Tierney as he came off what was a breakout regular season performance. Twenty-one-year-old Timo Meier, the team’s first-round draft pick in 2015, saw an increased role this season and after scoring 21 goals during the regular season contributed three points in the first-round against the Ducks.

That influx of young talent has been a great complement to the established veterans already on the roster, including Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, and Tomas Hertl, a trio that combined for six goals against the Ducks. And that doesn’t even include trade deadline acquisition Evander Kane whose two goal effort in Game 1 helped lead the Sharks to their first win of the playoffs.

Including playoffs, the Sharks are 16-6-1 since that trade while Kane has had three multiple-goal games during that stretch.

Given how impressive Vegas was in its first round sweep of the Los Angeles Kings — a series that pretty much mirrored the Sharks’ win, where a faster, more skilled team overwhelmed a slower, bigger, more physical team — the Sharks are certainly going to have their hands full in round two. But they have put themselves in a great position to make another deep run in the Western Conference in another year where everybody kind of forgot about them.

The Sharks are still here. They are still good. Given the makeup of their roster, they are not ready to go away anytime soon.

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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.

The Buzzer: Fleury dominates again, Caps get huge win, Jets push Wild to brink

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Three games on Tuesday night

Winnipeg Jets 2, Minnesota Wild 0 (Jets lead series 3-1)

Well things certainly escalated here, didn’t they? Josh Morrissey might be looking at a suspension for his cross-check to the neck of Eric Staal, while Wild coach Bruce Boudreau argued that the non-call on that play cost the Wild the game. It certainly did not help as it would have given them an extended two-man advantage, while Morrissey stayed in the game to set up the game-winning goal and help make a great defensive play to break up a potential breakaway chance for Nino Niederreiter.

Washington Capitals 3, Columbus Blue Jackets 2 (Blue Jackets lead series 2-1)

Artemi Panarin was the best player on the ice — by a wide margin — with another multiple-point game and some sort of highlight reel play nearly every time he touched the ice. It was not enough for the Columbus Blue Jackets as the Washington Capitals were able to pick up the Game 3 win. It was Lar Eller’s double overtime goal that lifted the Capitals as they finally had a bounce go their way in a playoff game

Vegas Golden Knights 1,  Los Angeles Kings 0 (Golden Knights win series 4-0)

The first team advancing to the second round of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs is the Vegas Golden Knights after completing their four-game sweep of the Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday night with a 1-0 win in Game 4 of their series. If someone had told you that sentence would be possible at the start of the season you would have laughed at them, and rightfully so. Brayden McNabb, the player Los Angeles gave up to Vegas in the expansion draft, scored the only goal on Tuesday night.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Three Stars

1. Marc-Andre Fleury, Vegas Golden Knights. It was, once again, the Marc-Andre Fleury show on Tuesday night. He stopped all 30 shots he faced to record his second shutout of the series, both of them by a 1-0 margin. He was unbelievable in the series, allowing just three goals in the four games. Some of his saves on Tuesday were highlight reel stops, including this late third period save on Anze Kopitar to preserve the one-goal lead.

Then he did it again in the final minute, just getting enough of this Dustin Brown shot.

Remember when Fleury was a concern in the playoffs? Seems like an eternity ago. Since the start of the playoffs a year ago Fleury now has a .935 save percentage in 19 games with four shutouts.

2. Lars Eller, Washington Capitals. Facing the prospect of a 3-0 series hole the Capitals needed somebody to step up in a big situation and Eller just happened to be in the right place at the right time to help them get on the board in their series against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Was he the best player on the ice? No. Was he the Capitals’ best player? Probably not. He did score the biggest goal of the season for the Capitals — to this point — so that is good enough.

3. Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg Jets. On the same day that it was announced he is a finalist for the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goalie, Hellebuyck recorded his first career playoff shutout, stopping all 30 shots he faced in the Jets’ 2-0 win to move them one game closer to winning their first ever Stanley Cup playoff series.

Factoid Of The Night

It has to be all about the Vegas Golden Knights. What they are doing this season is nothing short of amazing.

Wednesday’s Schedule

Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Philadelphia Flyers, 7 p.m. ET
Tampa Bay Lightning vs. New Jersey Devils, 7:30 p.m. ET
Nashville Predators vs. Colorado Avalanche, 10 p.m. ET
Anaheim Ducks vs. San Jose Sharks, 10:30 p.m. ET

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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.

Golden Knights sweep Kings, are first team to advance to second round

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The Vegas Golden Knights magical debut season is not stopping.

Thanks to their 1-0 win on Tuesday night, the Golden Knights are the first team in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs to advance to the second round after sweeping the Los Angeles Kings in four straight games.

Vegas will now await the winner of the San Jose Sharks-Anaheim Ducks matchup, where the Sharks hold a 3-0 series lead and can complete a sweep of their own on Wednesday night.

For Vegas, well, this was impressive.

At this point nothing about this team should surprise us but the way they completely shut down the Kings was really something to behold. They limited the Kings to just three goals in the entire series, with starting goalie Marc-Andre Fleury recording a pair of shutouts and stopping 127 of the 130 shots he faced in the four games.

For those of you keeping score at home, that is a .976 save percentage. If it didn’t become clear a year ago during his run with the Pittsburgh Penguins, the days of Fleury being a concern in the playoffs are long gone.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

 The Golden Knights needed that great goaltending and shutdown defense because they didn’t really light up the scoreboard themselves in the series, scoring just seven goals in the four games and winning two of the games by a 1-0 margin. That includes Tuesday’s series-clinching game in Los Angeles. But that is still four more goals than the Kings managed. That is all they needed.

On Tuesday, the lone Vegas goal came from defenseman Brayden McNabb.

Why is that noteworthy? Well … McNabb was the player the Golden Knights selected from the Kings in the expansion draft back in June.

While Vegas gets ready for the second round, the Kings have to now get ready for an offseason full of questions as they figure out a way to fix a team that has not advanced beyond the first round of the playoffs since 2014, has won just a single playoff game (1-8 record) since then, and just has the look of an organization that has become completely stagnant. They need changes. Many changes.

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.