Ed Willes: Vegas Golden Knights’ gift to the game is that anything is possible
The world of sports allows itself to believe theirs is a well-ordered universe; a place which, over the long haul, rewards meticulous planning and informed, disciplined decision-making.
There are no short cuts in this world. For the lucky few, success can be attained, but it is the result of adhering to these long-held principles. For the majority, it is a matter of waiting — as long as 48 years in some cases — and hoping that, one day, their team gets it right.
Which brings us around to the Vegas Golden Knights.
Given their extraordinary season, there has been a rush to extract some eternal truths from the Knights’ singular success on-and-off the ice. It can’t be luck, can it? That would contradict everything we’ve come to believe about pro team sports.
I mean, you just don’t throw a franchise together in one year and go to the Stanley Cup Final unless there’s a plan that has been executed in exquisite detail.
Right? This can’t all be about good goaltending.
But that’s the beauty of the Knights’ tale. You can’t really tell where their careful planning ends and the whims of the hockey gods begin.
In looking over their season, it’s still hard to comprehend the impact the Knights have made in their first year of existence. It starts, of course, with their on-ice success, the record-setting 109-point regular season and the deep playoff run that has them three wins away from the Cup. But, along the way, the Knights have also reshaped the business of the game.
The NHL, for starters, estimates its cap will rise between US$3 million and $7 million this off-season and that’s largely due to the Knights. They lead the NHL in merch sales and Marc-Andre Fleury is the fourth-most popular jersey in the NHL behind Auston Matthews, Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid. They’ve played to 103-per-cent of capacity at T-Mobile Arena, their gleaming new home. They’re also the NHL’s fourth-biggest draw on the road.
Just so you know, a $7-million rise would represent the largest annual increase since the cap came into existence before the 2005-06 season. That sound you hear is cheering from the John Tavares camp.
With the Knights’ success, you can also wonder about the future plans for NHL expansion. Before Vegas happened along, expansion teams contributed little to the short-term welfare of the league. In time, most of them grew into solid franchises — Atlanta and Florida have been the exceptions — but in their startup phase they created little interest outside their own market while diluting the overall on-ice product.
Can’t say the same thing for the Knights. If Seattle comes in and enjoys their own success, the NHL might be looking at a new expansion model. There are still plenty of markets out there. Seattle paid $650 million to join the league. What’s not to like about this if you’re an NHL owner?
The key, of course, is the newly imagined expansion draft that started the whole Vegas magic-carpet ride. None of the other stuff happens unless the Knights enjoy this crazy, unprecedented level of success. So how did they get here? How were they, in one dispersal draft, able to build the kind of team it usually takes a generation to create?
Well, it helps that they’ve got good goaltending.
Beyond that, everyone connected with the game has put the Knights under a microscope. As for what they’ve learned, that’s a matter of some debate.
Clearly, the Knights exploited the new rules in building their roster. Florida, yeesh, gave them Jonathan Marchessault for passing on Scott Bjugstad, Alex Petrovich and Mark Pysyk, then threw in Reilly Smith as a salary dump. Marchessault and Smith now form two-thirds of the Knights’ top line.
The third member of that line, Wild Bill Karlsson, was acquired from Columbus ALONG with first- and second-round picks when the Knights passed on Josh Anderson and picked up David Clarkson’s contract. Minnesota was afraid of losing one of their young defencemen. The Knights instead took Erik Haula and Alex Tuch, now two-thirds of their second line.
They also came out of the draft with young, puck-moving defencemen Shea Theodore, Nate Schmidt and Colin Miller, any one of whom would be an answer to the Canucks’ prayers.
Did we mention they got Fleury?
Now all that was pretty good. But that still doesn’t come close to explaining everything that happened this season and that’s the real beauty of this story.
Of the Knights’ 17 leading scorers, 14 had career years in 2017-18. The three exceptions were James Neal, Cody Eakin and Brayden McNabb. Everyone else exceeded their previous best campaigns and some by absurd margins. Karlsson had 43 goals and 78 points after recording 15 and 45 over his previous two seasons in Columbus. Haula had 55 points after failing to top 34 in four seasons with the Wild. David Perron has been a productive player in his 11 NHL seasons, but he never amassed 66 points as he did with the Knights.
Even Fleury recorded career-bests in save percentage and goals-against average.
This is the real joy of the Knights’ season. You can point to the work of general manager George McPhee in the expansion draft, you can laud Gerard Gallant for a first-class coaching job, you can even say they got lucky more than a few times.
But no one can say they saw this coming, which is why it’s the best kind of story.
We watch sports for moments like this, moments that can’t be explained, moments when a team or a player seem to change the rules for everyone. They do this, not through a formula, but some magic combination of things that can’t be explained. At least not in total.
This is the Knights’ real gift to the game, the idea that anything is possible, that if you believe and put in the work, you can accomplish great things. And the fun part? You don’t have to understand why.
Source: Ed Willes | The Province