Striking Gold: How Vegas became NHL’s best expansion team

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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.”

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    Stanley Cup champion Avalanche steadily returning to health

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    ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Had his coach been watching, this might have made for an anxious moment: Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar catching an edge and falling in the fastest skater contest.

    Jared Bednar wasn’t tuned in, though, and had no idea what happened in the skills contest over All-Star weekend. Only that Makar emerged from his crash into the boards just fine.

    These days, things are definitely looking up for the Stanley Cup champions on the injury front. Defenseman Bowen Byram returns to the lineup, along with forward Valeri Nichushkin. Defenseman Josh Manson is creeping closer to a return. Same for captain Gabriel Landeskog, who’s yet to play this season. Forward Darren Helm is progressing, too.

    In spite of all their bumps and bruises, the Avalanche entered the All-Star break in a playoff spot. To weather the injury storm, Colorado has relied on 39 different skaters this season, a mark that’s tied for the most in a single season since the team relocated to Denver in 1995.

    “Anybody we can get back right now is huge,” said Makar, whose team kicks off a three-game trip Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.

    Byram returns after being sidelined with a lower-body injury since early November. He was an integral part of their Stanley Cup run a season ago, when he led all rookies with nine assists in the postseason. Byram was off to a fast start this season – two goals and three assists in 10 games – before his injury.

    “He’s looking great. He’s buzzing out there,” Makar said of his fellow blue liner. “Hopefully it doesn’t take him too long to get back into game mode. But I think he’s a guy that can turn it on pretty quickly.”

    Byram missed a chunk of games last season as he dealt with concussion symptoms. This time, he was able to be around the team as he worked his way back.

    “I was just happy it wasn’t my head,” Byram said. “It was a lot easier to be out when you’re still feeling good and feel like yourself. … I’m just excited to get going again.”

    Count on Byram for as many minutes as necessary, too.

    “I’m 100%, so no reason to ease into it,” Byram said. “I’m confident with jumping back in.”

    Manson will join the Avalanche on the trip so he can skate with the squad. He’s been out with a lower-body injury since the start of December.

    “I do think it helps to get on the road, be around the guys,” Bednar said.

    Landeskog could be back “fairly soon,” Bednar said, but didn’t have a definitive timeline quite yet. The longtime Avalanche captain has been sidelined since knee surgery in October.

    The Avalanche entered the All-Star break on quite a roll, winning seven of their last eight. They’ve amassed 57 points, which trails Dallas (66 points at the All-Star break), Winnipeg (65) and Minnesota (58) in the Central Division.

    One thing the Avalanche are guarding against is another slow start out off the break. It happened over Christmas when the team had a few days off and promptly went 0-4-1 upon their return.

    “It’s just shifting the mentality back to game mode. No more vacation,” Makar said. “We still have a long way to go. We’re not where we want to be right now. But there’s a lot of time left.”

    Kraken add some size, acquire Jaycob Megna from San Jose

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    SEATTLE — The Seattle Kraken acquired defenseman Jaycob Megna from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for a 2023 fourth-round draft pick.

    Megna is in the midst of his best season with 12 points in 48 games for the Sharks while averaging more than 19 minutes per game.

    “Jaycob has shown with his play this season that he is a responsible defenseman that can be relied on in all situations,” Seattle general manager Ron Francis said. “He provides welcome depth to our defensive group and we are happy to have him join our organization.”

    The 6-foot-6, 220-pound Megna will add some size and bulk to Seattle’s lineup. Megna ranked fifth for San Jose in both blocked shots and hits.

    Megna previously played for Anaheim for parts of three seasons between 2016-19. The 48 games played this season is a career-high for the 30-year-old.

    Seattle is tied for the lead in the Pacific Division and will return from the All-Star break beginning against the New York Islanders.

    Islanders sign Bo Horvat to 8-year deal after trading for him

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    The New York Islanders signed center Bo Horvat to an eight-year contract less than a week after acquiring him in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks.

    The team announced the contract after their first practice following the All-Star break. Horvat’s deal is worth $68 million and carries a $8.5 million salary cap hit through the 2030-31 season.

    General manager Lou Lamoriello joked to reporters at practice on Long Island that Horvat’s contract was “too long and it’s too much money.”

    The Islanders sent forward Anthony Beauvillier, prospect Aatu Raty and a protected first-round pick to the Canucks for Horvat . He was set to be an unrestricted free agent after the season, and the trade was a result of Vancouver and Horvat’s camp being unable to reach a deal last summer.

    Lamoriello and Horvat expressed confidence about getting a deal done after the trade. The 27-year-old has scored more than 30 goals for a second consecutive season.

    Horvat was chosen as an All-Star and played for the Pacific Division despite the trade. He played with longtime Canucks teammate Elias Pettersson and combined on one last goal together before parting ways.

    “I want to get going,” Horvat said after the All-Star 3-on-3 tournament. “That’s enough. Let’s start playing some games and getting to know the guys. I just want to start playing hockey again.”

    Horvat was on vacation with his family in Orlando when he was traded. He said coach Lane Lambert wanted him to enjoy All-Star festivities before getting rolling with the Islanders, who play at the Philadelphia Flyers.

    “Obviously getting my legs under me is going to be No. 1 and getting systems down and obviously chemistry with the new linemates and stuff like that,” Horvat said.

    After facing the Flyers and Seattle, Horvat will play against his former team when Vancouver visits UBS Arena.

    Bruins rolling, rest of NHL making final push for playoffs

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    SUNRISE, Fla. — Bruce Cassidy’s Vegas Golden Knights lost eight of 10 games going into the All-Star break after leading the Pacific Division at the midway point of the NHL season.

    They’re still safely in a playoff spot in the Western Conference, but they can’t keep it up.

    “We’re still in a good position – that’s the way we look at it,” Cassidy said. “There’s not too many teams that can cruise home the last 30 games in this league, and we’re certainly not one of them.”

    Cassidy’s old team, the Boston Bruins, probably could. They’re atop the NHL and running away with the Atlantic Division.

    With 39 wins and 83 points through 51 games, Boston is on pace to break the record for the best regular season in NHL history. The Carolina Hurricanes, who beat Boston in seven games in the first round last year, are next in the standings at 76 points.

    “Top to bottom, there’s no weaknesses,” Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour said.

    The Bruins are in a class of their own, but the playoff races behind them in the East and West should be hot down the stretch with roughly 30 games to go before the chase for the Stanley Cup begins.

    METROPOLITAN DIVISION

    The Hurricanes rode a seven-game winning streak into the break, putting some fear into the Bruins in the race for the Presidents’ Trophy and home-ice advantage through the postseason. Winger Max Pacioretty re-tearing his right Achilles tendon five games into his return didn’t slow them down, and if their goaltending holds up, Carolina stands a good chance of reaching the East final.

    “This team, it’s a special group of guys,” said Brind’Amour, who captained Carolina to the Cup in 2006 and is in his fifth year as coach. “We kind of show that nightly. It’s just very consistent, and they take their job real serious. They do it right.”

    The second-place New Jersey Devils are contending for the first time since 2018. Bottoming out the next season helped them win the lottery for No. 1 pick Jack Hughes, a two-time All-Star who has them winning ahead of schedule.

    “Much better than being out of the mix,” Hughes said. “We’re really excited because it’s going to be a lot of important hockey, and it’s going to be really competitive and we’re really pumped to be where we are.”

    They’re followed by the New York Rangers, Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Islanders. All three New York-area teams could make it, which was the expectation for the Rangers after reaching the East final last year.

    “I think the run last year really taught us a few things and stuff that we obviously could build on for the rest of this year,” 2021 Norris-Trophy winning defenseman Adam Fox said.

    ATLANTIC

    The Rangers lost to the Lightning in six games last spring, when two-time champion Tampa Bay reached the Stanley Cup Final for the third consecutive season before getting beat by the Colorado Avalanche.

    The Lightning are almost certain to face the Toronto Maple Leafs – who haven’t won a playoff series since the NHL salary cap era began in 2005 – in the first round and remain a threat to the Bruins.

    But Boston has separated itself despite starting the season without top left winger Brad Marchand and No. 1 defenseman Charlie McAvoy. The Bruins have lost only 12 games under new coach Jim Montgomery.

    “You just keep winning,” said All-Star right winger David Pastrnak, who’s tied for third in the league in scoring. “Every single line and every single guy is going and it obviously builds our confidence. It’s funny sometimes what confidence can do in hockey.”

    The Islanders should have some more confidence after acquiring 30-goal scorer Bo Horvat from Vancouver, but still need to make up ground to get in.

    CENTRAL

    Defending champion Colorado climbed in the standings – winning seven of eight going into the break despite an injury-riddled first half of the season. Captain Gabriel Landeskog still has not made his season debut since undergoing knee surgery. It would be foolish to bet against the Avs coming out of the West again.

    “It’s up to us: We control our own fate,” All-Star center Nathan MacKinnon said. “We need to definitely keep playing the way we were before the break. No matter who’s in the lineup we were playing well, playing hard, so it would definitely help with healthy bodies.”

    They still trail the Dallas Stars, Winnipeg Jets and Minnesota Wild in the Central, and the Nashville Predators are on their heels. Only the Stars and Jets are essentially guaranteed a spot.

    “Every point, you grind for it,” Stars leading scorer Jason Robertson said. “Every point’s going to be a dog fight, so it’s going to be a fun 30 games down the stretch.”

    PACIFIC

    Undisputed MVP favorite Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers, who were swept by Colorado in the West final, have a little bit of catching up to do in the Pacific Division.

    The top spot is held by the Seattle Kraken, who surprisingly are on pace to make the playoffs in their second season but still need to fend off the Los Angeles Kings and the Vegas Golden Knights.

    Edmonton – and the Battle of Alberta rival Calgary Flames – have the talent to not only get in but make a run. McDavid leads the league with 41 goals and 92 points, 16 more than No. 2 scorer and teammate Leon Draisaitl, and is producing unlike anyone since Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux in the mid-1990s.

    Now he’ll try to carry the Oilers into the playoffs and beyond.

    “It hasn’t been easy at all for our group. We’ve kind of had to battle for everything that we’ve got,” McDavid said. “We’ve always been a second-half team for whatever reason. Even since my first year, we’ve always been better in the second half, so we’ll definitely look to continue that. That being said, we’re not going to hang our hat on that and expect that to carry us to the playoffs. There’s a lot of work to be done.”