Perhaps it was fitting that one of the last players added to the Vegas Golden Knights line-up this season, Ryan Reaves, also scored a historic game-winning goal against Winnipeg on Sunday.
Reaves, best described as plugger, tipped in the winner in a series-clinching 2-1 win to make the Knights just the third expansion team to make the Stanley Cup final in NHL history. It was just his second playoff tally in 42 career post-season games and 33rd overall in seven seasons.
They will play either Washington or Tampa Bay, who have a game 7 in their series Wednesday, in the first game on Memorial Day.
It has been a Cinderella run for “Team Misfit”, a collection of hockey cast-offs who gelled quickly and have played a brand of hockey no team has been able to match yet in these playoffs.
They work hard every shift and have gotten goals in these playoffs from 14 different players and at least a point from all but three players on the entire post-season roster.
They are where they are because of a “perfect storm” of events, as well as some astute executive moves and some things that just defy explanation.
They Put Together An All-Star Hockey Operations Team
Before they ever hit the ice, team owner Bill Foley and his board had to find the best hockey minds he could to kickstart his $500 million investment. In the spirit of an expansion team that would be staffed with hockey cast-offs, the Golden Knights hired former Washington Capitals GM George McPhee. He, in turn, brought in executive Vice President and assistant GM, Kelly McCrimmon, the long-time and successful GM of the Brandon Wheat Kings.
Then came former NHLer Murray Craven as senior vice President and Director of Hockey Operations Misha Donskov. The last piece of the hockey operations puzzle was the scouting staff, presided over by director of player personnel Vaughn Karpan, who occupied many scouting roles from 1993 until being hired by Vegas. Among his team are an array of learned hockey men and former players in Bob Lowes, Scott Luce, Vojtech Kucera, Kelly Kisio, Jim McKenzie, Vaclav Nedomansky and Kent Hawley, to name but a few.
Vegas Is A Great Hockey Market With History
The groans heard round the hockey world, particularly in Quebec — which has pushed hard for a team since the Nordiques left for Colorado — and the rest of Canada could nearly be audibly heard when Gary Bettman and the NHL announced Vegas got its team in 2016. What hockey fans should know was that this was already a fertile hockey market and that one of the current team’s most popular players, Deryk Engelland, got his pro start with the old Las Vegas Wranglers of the ECHL in 2003.
Sin City has always been starved for big league sports and the lower tier Wranglers gave good value, three times being named Best Local Sports Team during their 11-year history. Before the Wranglers, the Las Vegas Thunder of the defunct IHL gave local hockey fans a taste of even better hockey. The Thunder had a player development deal with the Phoenix Coyotes and competed from 1993 until 1999. Notable players who skated with that fairly successful franchise included Radek Bonk, Pavol Demitra, Curtis Joseph, Petr Nedved and Alexei Yashin.
The Golden Knights Expertly Navigated A Complicated Expansion Draft
A popular refrain from high foreheads in hockey says that the Knights were lucky recipients of the most generous expansion draft in NHL history. With a salary cap in place, yes, it was easier for the Knights to pluck “better” players, but, they still had to wheel and deal like champs to get what they wanted. In a very busy draft, the Knights picked 30 unprotected players, and then added seven more players and 10 draft picks acquired through trades.
The most high profile players taken by the expansion club were James Neal of the Nashville Predators and Marc-Andre Fleury of the Pittsburgh Penguins. There were others who enjoyed varying degrees of success in the NHL and then fluorished in the desert, including Cody Eakin, Jonathan Marchessault, Brayden McNabb, Erik Haula, William Karlsson and Nate Schmidt. Furthermore, draft day trades brought in Reilly Smith, Shea Theodore and Alex Tuch. Further wheeling and dealing yielded three 2017 first round draft picks (Cody Glass, sixth overall; Nick Suzuki 13th and Erik Brannstrom 15th) as well as a good number of picks down the road.
They Are As Well Coached A Team As Any In The NHL
If Gerard Gallant doesn’t receive the Jack Adams Award at the June 20 NHL Awards ceremony, we’d be truly shocked. By virtue of taking a team of players, most of who never played with each other prior to the 2017-18 season, to the playoffs would have made him a shoo-in. The former long time player and head coach in places like Columbus and Florida has done a superb job shepherding Team Misfit to a place few in the wide world of hockey predicted they would get to. Such as a 51-24-7 regular season mark (his best in seven seasons as a bench boss) and a 12-3 record in the playoffs.
However it’s sliced, Gallant has got this hockey team playing an relentless two-way, but no less entertaining style of hockey that has brought them unmitigated success. And a head coach of Gallant’s caliber can also draw on the collective experience of learned assistants. They are Mike Kelly (a former colleague in the QMJHL), Ryan Craig (a coaching newbie who has transitioned nicely to the NHL) and long time junior and minor league coach Ryan McGill.
Consistency Is Key To Their Success
More so than any one player they drafted or traded for, any coach they hired or executive named to the front office, this team is built on consistency. While most NHL clubs suffered through the ebb and flow of winning and losing streaks, the Golden Knights — through injuries and player demotions and promotions — made it a habit of following up losing efforts with winning ones. In their first 82-game season, the Knights never lost more than three games in a row and they did that just three times in the regular schedule.
They had modest winning streaks of five games (twice) and eight games and even though they won 10 and lost nine (10-7-2) leading up to the playoffs, they took the losing — during the “dog days” — in stride, making each loss a learning experience to build on in the playoffs. And that record in the playoffs, wow. The swept Los Angeles in the first round and needed one over the minimum to take out a very good Winnipeg team in the Western Conference finals. The only “adversity” they faced was a second round 2-2 deadlock with San Jose, who they manhandled in games 5 and 6 to move on.
The Golden Knights Are An Analytics Force
In no hockey market is the axiom “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” than Vegas. This team, in the majority of shifts, moves as one in a tight-knit five man unit and is hard, hard, hard on the puck. For that reason, when selecting players, the executive took a long hard look at individual analytics stats like PDO, shots on net, Corsi, Fenwick, zone starts, plus-minus, takeaways vs. giveaways and reams of other data too numerous to mention.
As a team, the Golden Knights were leaders in several key analytical categories. For one, they took the 11th most shots in the league at 2,686, but even more important they scored 10 percent of the time, which was eighth best. Vegas allowed the seventh fewest shots against with 2,521 and their goaltenders, all four of them, stopped 91.1 percent of those shots (11th in the league). They further helped their cause by not taking a lot of penalties (just 6.7 minutes per game average, third in the NHL) and on that note had the 10th best penalty killing in the NHL, killing off 81.41 percent. Digging deeper, the Knights were fifth in Corsi For/60 at 58.85 percent and first by a wide margin in PDO at 104.56.
Vegas Is Best When Playing Five On Five
This past season, the Golden Knights scored the fourth most goals in the league with an impressive 272. Even more noteworthy was the fact they scored 207 of them 5-on-5, which was third best only behind Toronto and Tampa Bay. This is a key stat, in that they had 248 power play opportunities (15th overall) and converted on 53 (13th for a 21.37 percent success rate).
That ability to gut the opposition while playing five a side is, in our opinion, the secret sauce to their success. It has continued into the post-season too, where Vegas has fired 34 even strength markers in 15 games (nine powerplay), including 11 first goals (second to Washington). The chief 5-v-5 sniper on the squad during the regular schedule was William Karlsson, who fired 31 of his 39 goals in that situation. Of interest there too, David Perron had just one powerplay goal in his 16 and all 10 of Cody Eakin’s snipes were 5-v-5.
The Team Kept On Improving Through Trades And Other Transactions
Considering the amount of success the Golden Knights had early on, no one would have blamed them for maintaining the status quo in cases other than injuries. But, evolution has been the key to a team built for post-season success, this year at least. Early in 2017-18, they made their first move of significance, getting goalie Malcolm Subban off waivers from Boston. He is the back-up now and was good in 22 regular season games. Later they promoted rookie sensation Alex Tuch from the minors after three games and he ended up scoring 37 points in 78 games and another nine points in 15 playoff games so far.
Second pair defenceman Shea Theodore spent eight games on the farm before playing a huge role since (36 points in 76 games), followed by the waiver pick-up of third line winger Ryan Carpenter. Early in February, they traded for Western Conference final game 5 scoring hero Ryan Reaves and on the same day they dealt some draft picks for Detroit Red Wings veteran Tomas Tatar.
An Early Tragedy Galvanized A Team And Its Fans
Just nine days before the fledgling Golden Knights were to host their NHL home opener, the worst mass shooting in U.S. history occurred on the Strip in Las Vegas. On Oct. 1, 2017, gunman Stephen Paddock fired well over 1,000 rounds from his suite in the Mandalay Bay Hotel into a huge concert crowd, killing 58 and leaving well over 800 injured. That one event came to be a defining moment, too, in the short history of the Golden Knights. That tragedy could have had good or bad consequences for a team just getting to know its town and its fans.
With all the horror, bloodshed and grieving to occupy everyone’s thoughts, hockey seemed very secondary. The team, also shaken up by it, changed the home opening plans from glitz to a more subdued remembrance ceremony — and it worked. They eschewed the lights and the noise for an opener that honored the first responders and provided some quiet time to reflect. It brought everyone together and it’s been a great journey since.
They Got Career Years From Expendable Players
If anyone needs to put the tag “prototypical Golden Knight” on any one player, he would be William Karlsson. The talented Swede was drafted 53rd overall by Anaheim in 2011, spent three seasons in Sweden playing pro and pretty much languished in the Ducks minor league system before being traded to Columbus. For two seasons he was a starter, but scored just 16 goals, along with 31 assists, in 165 games with the Blue Jackets.
The Golden Knights, to their credit, saw the potential in him and scooped him up in the expansion draft. And did he exceed expectations, firing a team high 43 goals and logging 78 points, along with another six goals and 13 points in the post-season, so far. Others who enjoyed seasons no one saw coming were veteran David Perron (66 points, his second highest ever output), Erik Haula (career highs with 29 goals and 55 points), D Colin Miller (41 points), D Nate Schmidt (36 points), G Marc Andre Fleury (12-2 in the playoffs, .947 save percentage, four shutouts).
Vegas Has Not Taken Its Foot Off The Gas In The Playoffs
At no point, after a stellar regular season, have the Golden Knights faltered in the playoffs. They have trailed a series only once — 1-0 to Winnipeg — and stormed back to stun the Jets with four straight wins to advance to the Stanley Cup finals. Not many, not even we here at SportsBreak, gave the Golden Knights much a fighting chance to go this far. Boy, were we wrong. In the first round, the formerly great playoff veteran Los Angeles Kings were thoroughly dominated in a sweep, with Vegas needing only seven goals total and getting two shutouts from a rejuvenated Marc-Andre Fleury.
Round two started off all right, as the Golden Knights ripped San Jose 7-0 in game 1. But, they would lose two of the next three to put doubt in many minds they had the goods to follow through. No matter, they outscored the bedeviled Sharks 5-3 and 3-0 to send them packing. The last bit of self-doubt came in a 4-2 loss in Winnipeg in the first game of the Western Conference final. The deep and talented Jets made Fleury look ordinary for once and pounded the Knights all game. It was like it never happened, though, as Vegas reeled off four very convincing victories to send the Jets shaking their collective heads into golf season.
All Golden Knights Are Rowing In The Same Direction
What strikes us as something unique with this team is a near lack of ego and the fact there really is no discernible “star” of the team, one night to the next. That is, we don’t hear much about ice time gripes or “me-first” answers in post-game scrums. Any problems the team had (hello Vadim Shipachyov) were dealt with early on and moved on from. Watching this team is like watching a well-oiled machine hum. They seemingly move in unison on the ice, with plenty of puck support and a willingness to get to pucks first, hard-charging Dustin Byfuglien types be damned.
They aren’t afraid to get to the “dirty” areas of the ice and despite William Karlsson’s impressive goal total this year, didn’t depend on any one guy to light it up. Statistics-wise, the team had nine players in double-digit scoring during the regular season and got goals from 14 different players in the playoffs. Ice time is doled out judiciously, with few players logging under 10 minutes per night during the post-season. The best analogy is that this team is like an ocean-going wave, building momentum as it goes — with a the highest point yet to come.