Before Gerard Gallant embarked on his journey to coach the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, he and former boss Doug MacLean sat down for breakfast and wondered what was ahead.
”He didn’t know what the situation was,” MacLean said. ”He thought it was going to be tough.”
No one saw this coming – not Gallant, general manager George McPhee, their players, Vegas odds makers or anyone in hockey. Thanks to a never-before-seen combination of speed, motivation, confidence and goaltending, the Golden Knights already set the NHL record for victories by a first-year expansion team, sit comfortably atop the Pacific Division and are a near-lock to make the playoffs.
Vegas stockpiled draft picks and young talent with the long-term future in mind. It also got franchise goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, 50-point producer Jonathan Marchessault and 27-goal-scorer William Karlsson and went from the league’s most pleasant surprise to a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.
”Didn’t think we’d be in first place at this time of the year, but the way they played and the confidence they got over the first 10 games, it grew with the team,” Gallant said. ”We’re a good hockey team, and we know it and when we play our game we’ve got a chance to beat anybody.”
With Bill Foley paying $500 million to get a team, commissioner Gary Bettman sought to ensure Vegas would be competitive, so McPhee got to pick from the best player pool of any expansion franchise thus far. Even with that advantage, the Golden Knights on paper looked like a team lacking top-end scorers and defensemen that would need Fleury to steal games.
”Everybody wanted them to be competitive, but they wanted them to be competitive enough but miss the playoffs by seven or eight points,” said MacLean, whose expansion 2000-01 Columbus Blue Jackets won just 28 games. ”This has caught them off-guard.”
The Westgate sports book opened the Golden Knights 200-1 to win the Cup and sold a handful tickets when they fell to 500-1 over the summer. After Westgate vice president Jay Kornegay said ”no one cared to bet them early,” he and his colleagues around Las Vegas risk losing a ton of money on futures wagers for them to win the Pacific Division, Western Conference and the Cup.
Off the ice, the Golden Knights became a rallying point for the community before they even played a game after the Oct. 1 shooting on the Strip killed 58 people and injured hundreds more. They won their first three and nine of their first 10, and Bettman said ”the bonding that has gone on is something that’s extraordinary.”
The bond between these players is multilayered, notably because All-Star winger James Neal pointed out everyone had something to prove after being left unprotected in the expansion draft or getting traded to Vegas. Gallant was even literally left at the curb by the Florida Panthers when they fired him on the road last season, and each night a different player is motivated to perform against his old team.
”You see a Tuesday night versus Columbus, Will Karlsson is really excited to play and he goes out there and has a terrific game and guys look towards that each and every night,” defenseman Nate Schmidt said. ”You look towards that guy to give you a little extra spark no matter what city you’re in.”
Previous expansion teams have had the same drive but couldn’t dream of this type of success. The Panthers and Mighty Ducks of Anaheim shared the old record with 33 victories in 1993-94, and Vegas is fast approaching Florida’s record 83 points with almost 30 games remaining.
”Their fourth line was my first line,” said veteran coach Barry Trotz, who added he met most of his players on the 1998-99 expansion Nashville Predators in the press box when they were healthy scratches the previous year. ”We didn’t get a 30- and a 40-goal scorer. We didn’t have that. We didn’t have a No. 1 goaltender.”
Analyst Ray Ferraro, who played for the expansion Atlanta Thrashers in 1999-2000, credited McPhee for putting the team together with an eye on the modern NHL and the way the game is headed.
”They didn’t even consider a player that couldn’t skate, that wasn’t fast, because that is the premier element of the game today,” Ferraro said. ”They went fast, fast, fast and fast. So when you play Vegas, if you can’t keep up, eventually they just wear you down.”
Winnipeg Jets coach Paul Maurice said Vegas doesn’t just skate fast but makes it hard on teams by moving the puck fast and making quick, smart decisions all over the ice. Calgary Flames captain Mark Giordano said teams around the league are now using the Golden Knights as a measuring stick.
Even though it would take a historic fall for the Golden Knights not to make the playoffs, they’re trying to keep the expectations down internally.
”If the season ended tomorrow, then we’d be happy, but it doesn’t,” McPhee said. ”We all realize that it doesn’t mean anything until the season’s over and you know where you sit.”
There has been a noticeable evolution from the start of the season when players expected to make mistakes to now when they expect to win. Gallant has instilled enough belief in all his players that they’ve returned it tenfold.
”We are a group of guys that has come in Vegas with maybe not so much trust from all around the hockey world but a group of coaches that give us trust every night,” forward Pierre-Edouard Bellemare said. ”When you play the right way, you create a little bit your bounces and you create your luck a bit and that gives you confidence.”
Confidence has been a constant for Vegas even after it lost Fleury, backup goaltender Malcolm Subban and No. 3 option Oscar Dansk to injury at the same time, staying afloat with fourth-stringer Maxime Lagace. Trotz said the Golden Knights have been ”playing with house money” all season, a feeling MacLean remembers from coaching the third-year Panthers in 1995-96 when they were in first place at Christmas.
”You get to a point where you don’t think you can lose,” MacLean said.
Long gone are the days of bare-bones expansion, and the Golden Knights’ success means Seattle is in line to get the same set of rules upon paying $650 million to become the 32nd team in a few years. With its three 2017 first-round picks all looking like top prospects and 12 selections in the top three rounds over the next three drafts, Vegas is already the blueprint for sustained success.
Everyone’s just waiting to see how this Cinderella season ends up.
”Before we crown them playoff champions here, there’s a lot of road to go,” Ferraro said. ”This is not a one-year flash. A lot of things are going right for them and that’s good planning and good fortune, but I think they’ve set themselves up for a real nice start to their franchise.”