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?
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.