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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.

Bridge deal for Nurse could end up costing Oilers big time

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It took some time, but the Edmonton Oilers were finally able to re-sign restricted free agent Darnell Nurse on Monday afternoon. Instead of locking him up to a long-term deal, the Oilers opted for a two-year bride deal worth $6.4 million ($3.2 million AAV). But was that the right move?

It’s great that the contract is done. Nurse can now report to the team and the Oilers can get the talented defender to training camp. Of course, Edmonton is pretty thin on defense, so he’ll be a welcomed addition to the team. But you can’t help wondering if this was just a quick fix to a problem that will resurface in a couple of years.

There will be added pressure on the 23-year-old to perform, especially because Andrej Sekera is out indefinitely with an Achilles injury. Nurse is coming off a season that saw him put up six goals and 26 points in 82 games. He also had a plus-15 rating and 67 penalty minutes while averaging over 22 minutes of ice time per game.

After making it to the second round of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Oilers fell flat on their face last season. They were bad. But looking at the data from last year, it’s easy to see that Nurse wasn’t the reason they failed to make the playoffs. Most of the numbers he put up ended up being better than the team average. For example, his CF% was 51.05 percent, while the team’s CF% was 50.59 percent, per Natural Stat Trick. He was also above the team average when it came to SCF%, HDCF%.

Nurse’s primary defense partner last season was Adam Larsson. The pair played just over 820 minutes together in 2017-18. The pairings’ CF% while together was 50.92 percent. While they were apart, Nurse’s CF% went up to 52.35 percent. Larsson’s dropped to 50.06 percent. That’s not a huge difference, but it’s noticeable enough.

Nurse is still just 23 years old, so there’s room for his game to grow. Getting him signed for $3.2 million per year over the next two years is a great deal given the numbers he posted last season. The problem with that thinking, is that it’s a little short-sighted. GM Peter Chiarelli might be getting a bargain now but if Nurse keeps getting better, his next contract will be long and expensive. Sure, the 26 points he put up are modest, but his points-per-game have increased in each of his three seasons. It’s not unrealistic to expect him to top 30 points this year.

The Montreal Canadiens are one example of a team that got burned by a bridge deal. In 2012, they signed P.K. Subban to a two-year deal worth less than $6 million in total. Subban held out, but eventually came back and won the Norris Trophy that season. The next time his contract expired, he ended up getting $72 million over eight years.

Yes, Nurse and Subban play a different style. And yes, this is an extreme example, but when you’re paying Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl big money ($21 million combined), getting long-term bargains on other players is important. The Oilers will benefit from having one of their top defenders signed to a team-friendly contract for two years, but Nurse, who will be an RFA again when this deal expires, could make them pay for it the next time his contract is up.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Nothing to ‘C’ here: Importance of NHL captains is changing

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Ryan Johansen remembers how the Columbus Blue Jackets didn’t have a captain until one day it clicked and everyone knew it should be Nick Foligno.

”There was just no doubt,” Johansen said. ”It’s just one of those things you don’t want to force. You don’t want to rush. You don’t want to regret. Once someone is a very clear option to being named captain, then it’s usually done.”

For more than a century, NHL teams have named one player the captain, equipment managers stitched a ”C” on his jersey and, if all went well, he was the one who’d accept the Stanley Cup and lift it first. It’s still a hockey tradition with special meaning at all levels of the game, but almost one third of the 31-team league could go into opening night without a captain, a sign of the times that it’s no longer a necessity and certainly not a distinction that management and coaching staffs want to jump into without a lot of thought.

It’s a hot topic right now in Toronto, where the Maple Leafs haven’t had a captain since trading Dion Phaneuf in early 2016 and are in no hurry to designate one. Longtime Islanders captain John Tavares and 2016 top pick Auston Matthews are the leading candidates, and each say they are fine with general manager Kyle Dubas waiting to make a decision.

”It’s very important to have a captain, but I also think the way Kyle’s handling it is the right way to do it because it doesn’t really make sense to just throw somebody the captaincy,” Matthews said. ”It should have to be the right person. I think it’s honestly been blown up a lot this summer with our team with, ‘Somebody’s going to get it, who’s going to get it?’ But I think in the end they’re going to make their decision and it’s going to be the right one.”

Sometimes the decision is not to have a captain at all. The New York Rangers reached the Stanley Cup Final without a captain in 2014 after trading Ryan Callahan at the deadline, and the Golden Knights did the same last year after not having a captain in their inaugural season.

”For us last season all coming from different places, different teams, it was a good thing,” Vegas goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury said. ”Everybody chipped in. I think we had a good group of veterans who played a lot of games. I think all together we kind of took charge of helping try to lead the team. It worked out pretty good for us.”

The Golden Knights lost in the final to the Capitals as Alex Ovechkin became the first Russian-born and just the third European-born and trained captain to win the Cup. No team has won it without a captain since the 1972 Boston Bruins.

”That tells you something,” said Minnesota’s Eric Staal, who was captain of the Carolina Hurricanes for six seasons. ”Sometimes it can be overblown with saying you really have to have one or this player can’t handle this or that. I don’t think players change – or they shouldn’t- if they have a letter or don’t. … I also think it’s a cool thing to be a captain or an assistant captain. It’s been part of the game for a long time. But every team chooses to do things differently.”

Teams certainly aren’t afraid to make big decisions with their captains. Within the past two weeks, Montreal traded captain Max Pacioretty to Vegas and Ottawa traded captain Erik Karlsson to San Jose, Carolina abandoned its two-captain system and gave the ”C” to Justin Williams and Florida promoted Aleksander Barkov to succeed Derek MacKenzie as captain.

The Islanders (post-Tavares), Rangers (after trading Ryan McDonagh last season), Golden Knights, Maple Leafs, Sabres, Canadiens, Senators and Canucks (after Henrik Sedin retired) all have vacancies, and the Red Wings are in a similar spot because captain Henrik Zetterberg‘s career is over because of injury. Consider them the AAA club because without a captain, three players are alternates each game.

”I don’t think that every team needs to have a captain,” Buffalo’s Jack Eichel said. ”It’s good to have somebody that makes the executive decision at the end of the day. But if you have enough good leaders on a team, I think that if they’re all on the same page, it kind of works as just serving as a group of captains.”

Sidney Crosby has won the Cup three times since being named Penguins captain at age 20. Two years ago, the Oilers made Connor McDavid the youngest captain in NHL history at 19 years, 273 days old.

Ovechkin was named Washington’s captain in 2010, the season after Crosby won the Cup, but during the playoffs last year, he called Nicklas Backstrom Washington’s leader. When the Cup was paraded down Constitution Avenue in June, Ovechkin and Backstrom and fellow alternate captain Brooks Orpik sat in the final bus with the trophy.

”It feels like we could almost have three ‘Cs’ because they lead in different ways, and all of them together kind of make one big super leader, really,” Capitals winger T.J. Oshie said. ”It’s rare to find that kind of mixture that you have with those three guys.”

Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy said the ”C” could be cut up and a slice given to captain Zdeno Chara and lieutenant Patrice Bergeron. The Kings made a seamless transition from Dustin Brown to Anze Kopitar and the Sharks have thrived with ex-captain Joe Thornton and current captain Joe Pavelski co-existing and developing what Evander Kane called the best leadership structure he has ever played under.

More often than not it’s simple: Jonathan Toews has won the Cup three times as Chicago’s captain and unquestioned leader. But he even doesn’t think naming one captain is essential based on his years of help from players wearing ”As” like Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Patrick Sharp.

”I don’t see why you can’t have success with a bunch of guys that are alternates and maybe not having one guy wearing the ‘C,”’ Toews said. ”At the end of the day, each guy brings different elements to the table.”

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

MORE:
Captain switch: Panthers give ‘C’ to Aleksander Barkov

PHT Morning Skate: Anonymous player poll; McKenzie’s pre-season draft rankings

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• The Montreal Canadiens have stocked their roster with former first-round draft picks. There are currently 13 of them with them in training camp. (Montreal Gazette)

• Speaking of Canadiens first-rounders, Jesperi Kotkaniemi scored a goal during his first preseason game at the Bell Center. He’s starting to look more and more comfortable on North American ice. (Sportsnet)

• The Ottawa Senators have a new assistant general manager, and his name is Peter MacTavish. (Canadian Press)

• Speaking of the Sens, GM Pierre Dorion insists that despite all the drama, they’re still headed on the right track. (CBC.ca)

• Sabres prospect Alexander Nylander‘s professional career has gotten off to a slow start, but he was outstanding during Monday’s preseason game against Columbus. (Buffalo News)

• The Chicago Blackhawks have changed up their power play structure so that it looks a little bit more the one Washington ran last season. (NBC Sports Chicago)

• TSN hockey insider Bob Mckenzie came out with his pre-season draft rankings already. To no ones surprise, Jack Hughes is at the top of the list. (TSN.ca)

• The Sharks welcomed Erik Karlsson to San Jose with a huge billboard and an ad in the local newspaper. (NHL.com)

• Even though it’s unclear if NHL players will be going to the 2022 Olympic Games in China, commissioner Gary Bettman is committed to growing the game there. (Inside the games)

• TSN’s Frank Seravalli conducted an anonymous player poll. It sounds like certain NHLers believe that the Arizona Coyotes and Buffalo Sabres will get things turned around pretty quickly this season. (TSN.ca)

• Many players on the New Jersey Devils surpassed their expected goal totals from last season, but what will they have in store for us in 2018-19? (All about the jersey)

• Hurricanes forward Victor Rask injured himself in the kitchen, which is really unfortunate. He’s expected to miss “months,” according to Rod Brind’Amour, so it’ll be up to players like Lucas Wallmark to step up. (Canes Country)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Connor McDavid chasing rare, personal three-peat

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Three years into his career and Connor McDavid is already the NHL’s most dominant offensive player.

He has already topped the 100-point mark in two different seasons (there have only been four other 100-point seasons across the league over the past five years) and on a points per game level has outperformed the rest of the league by a fairly substantial margin.

He also enters the 2018-19 season with a chance to make a little bit of history.

Having won the NHL’s scoring title in each of the past two seasons, McDavid almost certainly enters this season as the favorite to do so again (he is also the odds on favorite to win the Hart Trophy as league MVP). Barring some sort of an injury that robs of him significant playing time, there does not seem to be much of anything that is going to stand in his way of winning it again. He has already produced at a rate that is unmatched by any of his peers in the league, and he seems to be driven to do even more this season. Given that he is entering his age 22 season, the age where scorers tend to hit their statistical peak, it seems possible he can improve on what he has already accomplished offensively.

So let’s pretend, just hypothetically, that all happens and he takes home his third consecutive scoring title.

It would be an accomplishment that puts him in some pretty rare company as it has only been accomplished by five other players in the history of the NHL.

The list:

  • Jaromir Jagr, as a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins, won four consecutive scoring titles between the 1997-98 and 2000-01 seasons. This was Jagr’s statistical peak and saw him record nearly 100 more points than any other player in the league during those four years. He was only challenged for the top spot in the final two years when Pavel Bure finished two points behind him in 1999-00 and Joe Sakic finished three points behind him in 2000-01.
  • Wayne Gretzky dominated the NHL’s scoring leaderboards throughout most of the 1980s, winning the scoring title in eight consecutive seasons between 1979-80 and 1986-87. His run came to an end during the 1987-88 season when Mario Lemieux won back-to-back scoring titles before Gretzky won two more 1989-90 and 1990-91.
  • Guy LaFleur was one of the centerpieces of the Montreal Canadiens’ dynasty of the 1970s (thanks to some help from a couple of poorly managed expansion teams) and was at his best between 1975 and 1978 when he won three consecutive scoring titles. He followed this run with consecutive third-place finishes the next two years.
  • Phil Esposito won four consecutive scoring titles for the Boston Bruins between 1970 and 1974. This was part of a six-year run that saw him lead the league five times … the only year he didn’t win was the 1969-70 season when he came in second behind his Bruins teammate, Bobby Orr.
  • Gordie Howe won four of his six career scoring titles between 1950 and 1954, twice pulling off the NHL’s version of the triple crown by leading the league in goals, assists, and points in the same season (1950-51 and 1952-53).

If McDavid does it, he would be the only one on this list other than Gretzky to have done it within his first four years in the league, which is just incredible.

It is also another reminder as to just how incredible it is that the Oilers have made the playoffs just once in his career and are no guarantee to return this season.

Related: Non-playoff teams most likely to return to the postseason this season

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.