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No one would have thought that the newest hockey team in the NHL would be leading the charge to the Stanley Cup in just their second year together as a team. They have a staggering 51-24-7-win loss record, which is unheard of for an extension team. Their success has quite a few people scratching their heads in relative wonderment.
So, why are the Las Vegas Knights so good?
The Vegas Knights are so good because, first, you have a team of dedicated athletes who work hard, have great team chemistry and an experienced coach. Secondly, the NHL drafting process allows for a fair exchange of players that helped this new expansion team put together a competitive roster of players right from the start.
Hockey, like most team sports, needs team players to succeed, meaning that having some talented rock-star players who do not play well with others is a losing combination for the team. The Las Vegas Knights have gotten a great selection of players and coaches, which all started before the team ever put a single skate on the ice. The winning combination was put together during the expansion draft.
Drafting the Las Vegas Knights: Expansion Draft Rules
The drafting process in any sport has a huge influence on the competitiveness of each team involved. Since the Las Vegas Knights were an expansion team, the draft for them was held under the expansion draft rules rather than your typical entry draft rules. This allows a new team to be built from seasoned players in order to create a team that can be competitive in the sport.
Typically, NHL’s annual Entry Draft allows for players to be selected for teams for the next season. The players eligible for the draft come from junior and collegiate colleges, aged between 18-20 years, and players from International teams between the ages of 18 – 21. Also, any North American player over the age of 20 is considered an unrestricted free agent by the League and is free to sign with any team.
The expansion draft rules for teams let the new team, in the case of the Las Vegas Knights, select their players from a pool of existing teams and proven players. Now, this doesn’t mean that they get the right or ability to pick and choose their players at will. The teams that contribute to the expansion draft are allowed certain protections in order to protect their best players and the integrity of their team.
NHL Expansion Draft Rules
Each of the 30 teams in the NHL, now 31 with the formation of the Las Vegas Knights, was given a set of rules to protect their players and offer players during the expansion draft. In 2016, the NHL set forth the rules for the expansion draft:
- Only players who had more than 2 years of experience were to be eligible for the draft.
- Each team could protect 7 forwards, 3 defensemen, and 1 goaltender.
- Each team had to allow their forwards and 1 defenseman that had played at least 70 games in the previous two seasons and under contract for the following season to participate.
- Vegas was given a two-day window prior to the draft to sign any unprotected free agent, any team that had a player signed during this time had their roster protected from selection during the draft.
These rules allowed the Las Vegas Knights the opportunity to build a competitive opening team to begin with. They were able to fill their roster with players who were both competitive and had the experience, and since they were left unprotected by their former teams, they had something to prove on the ice.
Vegas Knights – The Expansion Draft of Their Dreams
The NHL expansion draft follows a different set of drafting standards than for the annual entry draft. This way, you don’t get a team that is comprised of green players, who would undoubtedly be crushed by teams that have more experience, practice, and communication. In the case of the Knights, the rules have proven effective.
A bit of an abnormality here is that the Knights got to have their pick of veteran players without the interference from additional expansion teams.
- While Quebec City had also entered a bid for the 2017 Expansion Draft, they were unfortunately deferred by the NHL based on the value of the Canadian dollar and to maintain the geographic balance in the league.
- Seattle was also attempting to enter a bid as well. In fact, there were three separate ownership groups vying for a bid, but one was never put forth.
While this may be unfortunate for Seattle and Quebec, the whole turn of events was quite fortunate for the Las Vegas Golden Knights.
The Knights enjoyed something in an expansion draft that may never come about again, only having to compete with the bargaining prowess of the 30 established league teams when it came to the accrual of players for their roster.
In some cases, players were practically tossed at the Knights in some of the teams’ efforts to reduce the cost of their own rosters. So every member of the Las Vegas Knights is a veteran of the hockey rink.
Another thing to consider is that because of the protections offered by the expansion draft, most of the rock-star players of the teams were protected, and those that weren’t considered stars were left unprotected in the draft.
This allowed the Las Vegas Knights to pick from players with proven ability. The benefit being these players have more time on the ice than raw talent. Couple that with experience and good teamwork made them a highly formidable team on the ice. This is being proven effective in this year’s season.
The Las Vegas Knights Roster: From the Head Coach to the Players
The players’ abilities and the coaching talent behind the team are the main reasons the team has done so well so far.
The Coach: Gerard Gallant
Coaches can make or break a team as they are directly responsible for the team’s growth in athletic ability and mindset. They lead the team, watching from the sidelines and analyzing their players’ performances. The coach makes on the fly course corrections and provides the plays to use.
They help develop their respective teams’ performance through drills and formations, and how they feel about the game or their players has a huge impact on the game itself.
Gerard Gallant was clearly the right man for the job.
Gallant Helped Foster a Winning Attitude
Coaches live in a world of stress, often a bad call on a play can be the end of a coaching job and they will have to carry that for the rest of their professional career.
Even under an extreme amount of stress, a coach needs to keep the right attitude. Attitude can directly affect the morale of a team. In the case of the Las Vegas Knights, Head Coach Gerard Gallant brought just the attitude they needed.
Gallant’s approach to coaching had a heavy reliance on a team-first philosophy. Being called a ‘players coach’ and ‘old school’ should say something about the man’s style.
With all members of the team, Gallant included, being new to Las Vegas and new to each other, it was important to be able to create a comfortable and competitive atmosphere for the players.
This is something Gallant has managed to do. He sets goals for his players and expects them to be responsible for themselves and reach these goals, being hard on his players when necessary to keep them focused.
Gallant is an All-Around Great Coach
Gerard Gallant is a coach whose name has been up and coming in hockey households the past few years. With 11 years of experience as a player in the NHL and having been a coach since 1995, Gallant has years of experience with numerous successes and failures under his belt.
To put it bluntly, his leadership prowess can be explained by his career accomplishments to date:
- In both 2010 and 2011, he was awarded the Brian Kilrea Coach of the Year Award.
- Also, in 2011, he was awarded the Ron Lapointe Coach of the Year Award.
- As recently as 2018, he won the Jack Adams Award, another Coach of the Year accolade.
- In 2001 he was inducted into the Prince Edwards Island Hall of Fame.
- On multiple occasions, Gerard Gallant has led his teams to the playoffs in international and junior hockey leagues.
Given all of these accomplishments and experience as a superb coach, it was a bit of a shock to the hockey world when he was unceremoniously fired by the Florida Panthers even though he was the coach with the highest winning percentage in the NHL. Supposedly this was due to serious issues in the management of the Florida Panthers.
Regardless of whether it was an in-house coup or a disagreement on how leadership should be approached in the Panthers, Gallant’s contribution to the Las Vegas Knights easily shows his worth as a leader and coach. No other expansion team in the history of the NHL have performed so well in the inaugural season.
This is a direct contradiction to what many believed possible for the team, sometimes referred to as the “Golden Misfits.”
Gerard Gallant’s approach to coaching only proved itself when in 2018 his newly formed team of misfits beat the Florida Panthers, his former team who unwisely fired him, and continued on to the playoffs, something the Panthers didn’t quite manage themselves.
The Goalkeeper: Marc-Andre Fleury
The goalkeeper that the Golden Knights were able to pick up was Marc-André Fleury, a goalie who has proven himself in the past as a valuable player. A former goalie of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Fleury himself has won three Stanley Cups and is still in his prime as an athlete. He recently signed a $21 million-dollar three-year contract.
With a save percentage above .900 since the 2006-2007 season, you can see why he is making the big bucks. To put this in perspective, out of the 1,745 shots that were made against him, he only let 152 get by! (source)
When the expansion draft for the Golden Knights was made, Fleury at the time had a $6 million contract with the Penguins and decided to waive his no-move and no-trade clauses in order to be available for selection. With Matt Murray, another stellar goalkeeper, now on the Penguins team, it provided an incentive for the Penguins to expose Fleury to the draft.
The Scorers: James Neal, Jonathan Marchessault, and William Karlsson
Besides having a goalkeeper with a proven track record, the Knights were able to pick up several veteran scorers from other teams. How they managed to sign these players has many hardcore hockey fans puzzled. Regardless, they managed to sign 3 players with a proven ability to score.
The leading scorers on the Golden Knights Roster:
- James Neal: He joined the Golden Knights from the Nashville Predators. With nearly 800 games under his belt and a shooting average of 11.9% (the national average is 9.11%), you can see why he was a solid pick (source)
- Jonathan Marchessault: He’s another player with a proven track record and an above-average scoring ability with a shooting average of 10.6% (source). The Knights managed to acquire Jonathan Marchessault from the Florida Panthers.
- William Karlsson: When the Golden Knights drafted William Karlsson from the Columbus Blue Jackets, he might not have seemed like the best pick with a fairly unimpressive shooting average, but since joining the teams he’s had an average of 23.4% and 14.2%, neither of which is something to be scoffed at.
These three scorers are essential to the Vegas Golden Knight’s success. To see the importance of scorers on winning teams, just look at the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Penguins have 4 players with proven and consistent scoring ability and have managed to win three Stanley cups since they signed Marc Fleury in 2003.
How Did the Knights Scorers Do in the 2015-2016 Season?
These three scorers did amazing things during the Vegas Golden Knights inaugural season. Let’s look at each of them more closely.
In the 2015-2016 season, Neal managed to have an impressive run, scoring a total of 31 goals. This helped set the Predator’s record for goals scored in a single season.
While Neal was with the Knights for only a single season, providing 25 goals for the team in their 71-game run. The end of the season saw Neal leave the Knights as a free agent to be signed with the Calgary Flames for a $28.75 million contract. However, it was with the Knights that Neal was able to get his second appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals.
In the 2016-2017 season, Marchessault managed to score 30 goals in a 75-game season, a record similar to James Neal, though it was Marchessault’s first full NHL season.
For the very first playing season of the Knights, Marchessault was able to pull off a grand total of 96 points from the regular and Stanley Cup season. This marked him as one of the league’s best players as a winger. In 2018 Marchessault signed a $30 million 6-year contract with the Knights.
Karlsson set a record for the NHL in goals for an expansion team’s inaugural season with a total of 43 goals in addition to 35 assists. He also managed to win the end of season Lady Byng Memorial Trophy, making him the first player since Wayne Gretzky to do so.
Golden Knights – Winning Combinations
With these power players and a great coach on the ice, it isn’t surprising that they are looking ahead to a good next few years. Their scouting team has proven themselves capable of getting the picks to put together a strong offensive and defensive lineup.
With Head Coach Gallant capable of marshaling his player into winning attitudes and conditions, they are going to be a team to watch in the coming seasons.
While many sports fanatics tend to look towards the stats of the players on the teams, the Knights have managed to take players from various locales, with different levels of experience, and start their new team with a bang. While this isn’t everything that should be considered when asking why the Golden Knights have had such a good start, it is of huge importance.
While those responsible for drafting the Las Vegas Knights were able to sign some amazingly talented players, how they placed them was as equally important. By pairing wingers with fellow players that complemented their abilities on the ice, they were able to take players without rock-star fame or ability and create a strong scoring combination.
Everyone wants to see a home run, so to speak, and people have the tendency to look for those big star players but at the end of the day, the winning team was the one that played as a cohesive unit. They acknowledged their fellow player’s strengths and weaknesses and were able to remain flexible in their approach.
Las Vegas and Their Knights
You can’t leave out the Knights home city as one of the reasons they have done so well in their first two seasons. The atmosphere and fans in Las Vegas have impacted the morale of the team greatly. While sports may be thought to be highly physical (and they are!), it is just as much of a head game.
Las Vegas, being a city of many amazing attributes, has been able to provide the Golden Knights a little something that isn’t seen in many other cities if at all. Las Vegas provides a great sense of showmanship.
When you have a city as flamboyant and over the top as Las Vegas, you have at your fingertips some of the best tools to excite fans and build morale. With high morale you can keep the momentum going.
For instance, if you take into account the WFC opening ceremony (see video below) for the Knights. You can see just how the event staff can get the crowd amped up to cheer the Knights on to victory. This is just as important as the players themselves. When surrounded by a home crowd as excited as that one, you can’t help but feel invincible.
It also has a bit of an effect on away teams. When away teams play surrounded by a crowd roaring for their defeat. It can crush the morale of opposing teams, especially if the game gets off to a rough start and always helps pave the way for the Knight’s victory in their home arena.
Shock and Awe: The Momentum of a Powerful Opening
When the Knights started their first game, they played against the Dallas Stars, and they won. Something that wasn’t expected of the brand new team. This added to the momentum and support that they had from Las Vegas residents, who were dubious about the first Big 4 League team in their home town.
They then went on to trounce Arizona in the opening moments of the game, ending the game in a victory 5-2. One can only imagine how this event forever cemented a love and loyalty to the Knights in Las Vegas, earning them something that many expansion teams have fought for with years of effort.
With these victories and the eyes of Vegas’ citizens on them, they went all the way to the Stanley Cup playoffs. This immediate success has left a lasting impression of the team’s professionalism, ability, and drive to succeed in the minds of all hockey fans.
The Element of Surprise
One more thing when considering how the Knights got off to such a rocketing start is that while many of the players on the Knights’ roster are not unfamiliar faces or even fourth lines players, this is the first time they have ever come together as a team. No one, not even Head Coach Gallant could have expected how well they performed together in their inaugural season.
This was yet another advantage granted to the Knights in their first season. Without these expectations, no one knew who or what to look for and no one expected too much. This gave them a definite edge. Normally teams will struggle to find their dynamic on the field, learning through mistakes. But these guys gelled well together and played great from the get-go.
At the end of the day when you take everything into account, what you have is:
- An expansion draft that had rules and circumstances that worked to their advantage.
- A coach that had something to prove after being let go by his former team, but who had the experience and ability to get the job done right.
- A whole slew of solid players that were left exposed by their former teams, obviously not thought of as valuable enough to keep. Many of them, I assume, had a little something to prove.
- A home city that was ready to accept their first league franchise and more than happy to show support for the new team.
- A winning start with their first game and the momentum to keep it going.
Between all of this, you have a team that was well chosen, and comprised of many players in their prime or just coming into it. They were quickly united by a sense of pride and teamwork and maybe a little resentment, all of them now strangers in a strange land, with a battle to fight.
If this story doesn’t become a movie in the future, I am going to be shocked.
The Golden Ratio of the Golden Knights
The Golden Knights of Las Vegas are truly an anomaly for any expansion team. They enjoyed relaxed rules (the most relaxed in the history of the NHL) in the expansion draft when creating their team.
Other potential ownership groups, Quebec, were deferred or simply couldn’t find the support, Seattle I’m looking at you. This allowed the Golden Knights the ability to pick and sign players relatively unfettered.
Then, while it is never wise to act in anger, it does make one hell of a great motivator, and I’m sure that Mr. Gallant was motivated by his previous treatment by the Panthers. The guy was literally fired right before boarding the plane with the team and left to find a cab. That’s one hell of a break-up story in the professional world.
But he lived, and then was appointed to be the first Head Coach of the Las Vegas Golden Knights. I’m willing to bet that whoever made the decision to give Gallant the position knew what he was getting before he made that phone call. You couple that embarrassment and anger with several players that probably felt much like Mr. Gallant and you have a winning combination.
And that my friends are why the Vegas Golden Knights are so good!