By Cole Parkinson
While the vast majority of Canadian eyes have understandably been solely focused on the NHL North Division, the Vegas Golden Knights have continued to be one of the powerhouses in the league, as they clinched the first playoff spot late last week.
Ever since they entered the league in the 2017-18 season, they’ve continued to impress beyond belief. They’ve already cemented themselves as the best expansion team — though Seattle may have something to say about that come next season.
But in reality, it’s really hard to think Seattle will be able to come anywhere close to Vegas’ first season in the NHL — where they stormed all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals, but ended up losing to Washington. Since that first season, the Golden Knights have put forward some of the best rosters in the NHL and it’s really against the grain from the previous expansion teams.
The previous six expansion teams — Florida, Anaheim (93-94), Nashville (98-99), Atlanta (99-00), Columbus and Minnesota (00-01) — all struggled out of the gate, and one relocated a short time later to Winnipeg. Not a single one of those teams qualified for a playoff appearance in their inaugural season, and in fact, you’d have to go back to the 1980-81 season when Edmonton and Hartford, who moved from the WHA to the NHL, made the post-season in their first season.
After finishing 51-24-7 in 17-18, they continued to finish well above .500 in the next seasons at 43-32-7 in 2018-19 and 39-24-8 in 2019-2020.
While regular-season success has continued, they’ve yet to reach the finals again, but this season looks to be another squad that has more than enough to get over the hump.
Boasting Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty, William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault and Alex Such upfront and arguably the best defensive core in the NHL of Alex Pietrangelo, Shea Theodore, Alec Martinez and Brayden McNabb.
The defence especially, though paying Pietrangelo $8.8 million for the next seven seasons and Stone $9.5 for eight, will come back to bite them eventually, but they’re in win-now mode. And I think it’s safe to say they have one of the best, if not the best, one-two punch in next with Marc-André Fleury and Robin Lehner. They’re a big, heavy, skilled team that plays smart defensively and can just as easily put up a lopsided score if the opposing team falls asleep.
As of Tuesday morning, they’re in the top five for goals and have allowed the least amount of goals in the league, which isn’t surprising with their d-core and goaltending.
pecial teams-wise, the group has struggled on the man advantage, as they’ve only converted 18.2 per cent of the time, good for 24 in the league. Their penalty kill on the other hand is remarkably good to no one’s surprise — as they sit at 86.1 per cent, which is first in the league.
The gap from the West Division’s top three teams (Vegas, Colorado and Minnesota) to the teams fighting it out for the fourth and final playoff seed is quite large. The top three teams all have over sixty points, while Arizona and St. Louis are duking it out with over 40 points. But with Vegas’ ticket already punched, the rest of the season will be a battle trying to keep Colorado and Minnesota at bay for the top spot in the division.
Not having to play either Colorado or Minnesota in the first round will be highly beneficial, but playing St. Louis or Arizona won’t result in a slam dunk series win either. Vegas would be heavily favoured, but anyone who watches hockey knows nothing is given in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Either way, Vegas is in a great spot heading into this year’s playoffs. And when the pandemic finally ends (sooner than later, let’s hope), I’d encourage anyone to attend a game there whenever your favourite team is in Las Vegas.
I mean, Vegas is a fantastic spot regardless, but the entire atmosphere around the team is top-notch. From the ownership, management, staff, players and fans, the Vegas Golden Knights have been nothing but great for the league. Strolling off the strip towards T-Mobile Arena is awesome and the entire show before, during and after the game has to be top five in the entire league. The arena is in a perfect spot and it’s absolutely beautiful inside and out. While some were concerned if the NHL would work in Vegas, I think that notion has been dismissed quickly.
And I think having a successful team is absolutely a crucial cog to it working, but I think it would have worked regardless. The fans in Vegas are great and there are tons of them. Being the first pro league team to enter into Las Vegas was a big step for the NHL and their gamble has paid off for everyone involved. And with a great team assembled, they look to be a viable Stanley Cup contender for the next several years.