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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.

Contract ask led to breakup between Barry Trotz, Capitals

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Barry Trotz’s desire for a big salary raise and five-year extension was the beginning of the end of his tenure with the Washington Capitals.

Trotz, who resigned on Monday after earning a two-year extension that was triggered by the Capitals’ Stanley Cup victory, wanted to be paid as one of the NHL’s top coaches, but the team was hesitant to make that kind of commitment. It was reported that Trotz was earning $1.5 million per season and the new deal would have only increased his salary by $300,000 a year.

The money and the term ask was a little too much for the Capitals.

“There are probably three, four guys that are making that money, so it’s the upper echelon. It’s the big-revenue teams,” Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said, referring to the salaries of coaches like Mike Babcock, Claude Julien and Joel Quenneville.

“I don’t think all teams pay that type of money and years. Certain teams are open to it and the rest of the league isn’t,” he added.

MacLellan described the five-year contract ask as a “sticking point.”

“You have a coach that’s been here four years, you do another five, that nine years,” he said. “There’s not many coaches that have that lasting ability. It’s a long time and it’s a lot of money to be committing to a coach.”

[Barry Trotz steps down as Capitals head coach]

If you look at the Capitals’ head coaching history over the last 16 years, they haven’t gone out of their way to open up the checkbook to pay for a big-name, high-priced coach. Before Trotz arrived in 2014, you had Adam Oates, Dale Hunter, Bruce Boudreau, Glen Hanlon and Bruce Cassidy all getting their first NHL head coaching gigs in D.C.

MacLellan said he was hopeful that both sides could work out a short-term deal, but Trotz clearly wanted security and to rightly use the leverage of a Cup victory to cash in. The GM did note that he accepted Trotz’s resignation so he’s free to pursue offers from other teams to coach next season.

As for where the Capitals go next, Todd Reirden is the front-runner to replace Trotz. Bumped up to “associate coach” in 2016, the organization values him and has been grooming him to become a head coach, either with the franchise or elsewhere. MacLellan said Reirden will get a formal interview.

“We’ll see how the talk goes with him and then we’ll make a decision based on that,” he said. “If it goes well, we’ll pursue Todd. If it doesn’t, then we’ll open it up a little bit.”

MORE: Where does NHL’s coaching carousel stop after Trotz resignation?

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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.

Where does NHL’s coaching carousel stop after Trotz resignation?

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The NHL’s coaching carousel is officially in motion after the stunning news from Monday that Barry Trotz is stepping down as head coach of the Washington Capitals less than two weeks after lifting the Stanley Cup.

It leaves a lot of questions to be answered in the coming days and weeks. Let’s get into some of them!

Is the Capitals’ job Todd Reirden’s to lose?

At the start of the playoffs the possibility of Trotz not returning to Washington seemed to be very real, especially given his contract situation.

If the Capitals fell short of winning the Stanley Cup yet again it seemed inevitable that a coaching change was going to be coming.

Then the Capitals went and actually won the Stanley Cup and at that point it seemed inevitable that Trotz was absolutely going to return, especially when general manager Brian MacLellan said right after the Game 5 victory that if Trotz wanted to return, he would. The whole contract extension issue kept getting pushed back, and then Monday’s news broke that winning the Stanley Cup actually kicked in an automatic two-year extension for Trotz — an extension that would have been below market value for a Cup-winning coach.

With the two sides unable to work out a suitable extension, Trotz stepped down creating the new opening.

The obvious answer here is a promotion from within, and they seem to have a replacement already waiting in current assistant coach Todd Reirden.

[Related: Barry Trotz steps down as Capitals head coach]

Reirden has been with the Capitals as an assistant since the 2014-15 season and has been mentioned as a candidate for several head coaching vacancies in recent years, but the Capitals — obviously valuing him as a coach — did not allow him to interview for head coaching vacancies a year ago. In 2016, he was promoted to associate coach.

One thing is for sure, no matter who takes that job would be facing an enormous amount of pressure. You are not only replacing a coach that just finally helped end the organization’s Stanley Cup drought, but the coach that is without question the most successful coach in the history of the franchise. Expectations are going to be through the roof.

What are Trotz’s options?

Now that Trotz is a free agent his situation becomes especially intriguing because as the reigning Stanley Cup winning coach he can pretty much call his shot.

At the moment his options are extremely limited as the New York Islanders are the only team without a head coach. That could be a pretty intriguing job, especially if the Islanders are able to get superstar center John Tavares re-signed before he hits the open market. That is a dynamic offensive team that could have a superstar in Tavares (assuming he re-signs), an emerging star in Mathew Barzal, another 40-goal scorer in Anders Lee, and two other really strong top-six forwards in Josh Bailey and Jordan Eberle. They need to solidify the back end and the disastrous goaltending situation (think about the possibility of a Trotz and Philip Grubauer reunion in Brooklyn!) but there is a lot to work with there.

The Islanders had a bad year, but it is not a situation that is going to require an extensive, lengthy rebuild. With a few tweaks here and there this could be a playoff team this season.

But if that doesn’t appeal to Trotz (or if the Islanders can’t make an agreement work) he is going to have to play the waiting game.

There is always the possibility that another team could see Trotz become available and decide to make a coaching change given the opportunity to add someone of that caliber.

Other than that it might be a waiting game until someone decides to pink slip their coach during the 2018-19 season. There were no coaching changes during the 2017-18 season (almost unheard of in the NHL) but given the availibility of Trotz it is not a stretch to think that a team like St. Louis, Minnesota, or Anaheim could make a change early in the season if things are not going well out of the gate.

The other option: Trotz takes the entire year off and starts fresh in 2019. He would still have the drawing card of being a Stanley Cup winning coach, still be a big name, and still be at the top of almost every “want list” for a team with a vacancy.

Either way, Trotz’s decision on Monday unexpectedly threw the NHL’s coaching carousel into overdrive and it is going to be fascinating to see where it stops.

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.

Barry Trotz steps down as Capitals head coach

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Some massive news from the Stanley Cup champions on Monday as the Washington Capitals announced that Barry Trotz is stepping down as head coach of the team.

“After careful consideration and consultation with my family, I am officially announcing my resignation as Head Coach of the Washington Capitals,” said Trotz in a statement.

“When I came to Washington four years ago we had one goal in mind and that was to bring the Stanley Cup to the nation’s capital. We had an incredible run this season culminating with our players and staff achieving our goal and sharing the excitement with our fans. I would like to thank Mr. Leonsis, Dick Patrick and Brian MacLellan for giving me the opportunity to be a part of this great organization. I would also like to thank our players and staff who worked tirelessly every day to achieve our success.”

At this point you might be thinking to yourself, “wasn’t Trotz a free agent after this season with an expiring contract? What exactly is he stepping down from?” 

Well, according to Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman that was going to be true had the Capitals not won the Stanley Cup. But Trotz’s contract had a clause in it that kicked in an automatic two-year extension if the Capitals won the Cup, which they obviously did earlier this month when they defeated the Vegas Golden Knights in five games. According to Friedman the extension was for below the market value given the exploding market for coaching contracts in the NHL.

TSN’s Pierre LeBrun reports that it was a $300,000 raise that would have brought his contract value to $1.8 million per year.

The two sides attempted to negotiate a new extension but could not come to terms.

Now that Trotz has resigned, the Capitals will grant permission to any team that wishes to hire Trotz, essentially making him a free agent.

Other than the Capitals, the only other team in the NHL without a head coach at the moment is the New York Islanders and it would be absolutely shocking if they did not have some serious interest in hiring him.

The last two coaches to leave a Stanley Cup champion the year after winning were Scotty Bowman when he retired following the Detroit Red Wings’ win in 2002 and Mike Keenan following the New York Rangers’ win in 1994.

During Trotz’s four years with the team the Capitals won the Stanley Cup, two Presidents’ Trophies, and compiled a 205-89-34 record. No other team in the NHL won more than 192 games during that stretch.

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.

Ryane Clowe to join ECHL’s Newfoundland Growlers as head coach: Report

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The Newfoundland Growlers will be the ECHL’s newest team for the 2018-19 season. They have a pretty sweet logo and now have their first head coach.

According to The Telegram, the Growlers are set to name former NHLer Ryane Clowe as head coach this week. Clowe has spent the last two seasons as one of John Hynes’ assistants with the New Jersey Devils.

Last week, the Growlers announced an affiliation agreement with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The 35-year-old Clowe, who saw his career end due to concussions, last played in the 2014-15 season, but got his first taste of coaching during the 2012 NHL lockout. After joining up with the ECHL’s now-defunct San Francisco Bulls to skate with the team, he found himself helping out behind the bench during games. That’s when the door opened to a post-playing career.

“It kind of opened my eyes to something maybe after (I finished playing) that I was thinking about possibly doing,” Clowe told Kevin Kurz of The Athletic earlier this season. “I was like, you know what, this is something I really enjoyed when I was behind (the bench). It’s not playing, but it’s kind of second-best. 

“I would have liked to go on longer (as a player), but to get in on an NHL staff right away and now be behind the bench is fortunate.”

During his two years on Hynes’ staff, Clowe was actually still under contract with the Devils as the five-year deal he signed with the team in 2013 finally expires on July 1. He did some scouting for the team in 2015-16, but coaching was the area he found he really wanted to dive into.

“Once I got into coaching, I knew that was where I wanted to be,” Clowe told The Telegram last summer. “And I know that if I get out, not only is it hard getting back in, but I’d likely have to start at the bottom.”

Now Clowe gets to be part of an organization starting from scratch and use the experience he gained from the past two years in New Jersey to get the Growlers off to a good start in their inaugural season.

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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.