Let’s take a minute and acknowledge the Vegas Golden Knights. If you haven’t noticed, this team is darn good. If you had no idea Las Vegas had a professional hockey team, don’t feel too out of the loop. This is the team’s first year in the NHL.
That’s what makes this team so incredible and even purplexing.
Expansion in sports is nothing new. Interest and accessibility to sports — at all levels — has grown at an exponential rate for decades, so it makes sense that professional leagues would build and grow and add more teams. More teams equals more top-tier players and, when it’s all said and done, more dollars.
The NHL has expanded more than just about any other pro sports league. The league started with six teams — the “Original Six” — in 1942. Six times from 1967 to 1991 the number of teams in the NHL changed. It even contracted from 18 to 17 in 1978 before jumping to 21 teams a year later.
Now, 31 organizations make up the NHL.
The 31st team in that long line of expansion is the Golden Knights.
With any addition or subtraction of teams, the league must fill out rosters. That results in an expansion draft, a concept that varies based on leagues but typically places unprotected players from the rest of the teams in the league into a pool, from which the new team — in this case the Golden Knights — selects players to create its roster.
Essentially, the Golden Knights built a roster of the most expendable guys in the NHL — the players other teams didn’t really want.
These might be old players closer to retirement funds than they are long-term contracts. Sometimes they’re players who have bounced around the league and lived out of suitcases for most of their careers.
Whatever the case, the other 30 NHL teams felt they had better options.
Expansion franchises have a steep uphill battle, turning a smorgasbord of a roster into a somewhat competitive professional hockey team.
Let’s look back at the Houston Texans, who were added to the NFL in 2002. That first season, which featured the No. 1 pick in the draft — David Carr — the Texans finished 4-12. They didn’t have a .500 record until 2007 (8-8) and didn’t make the playoffs until 2011 — their 10th season.
The Vegas Golden Knights had the best expansion season, of any professional sport, in history, and they did it by a massive margin.
The Golden Knights won 51 games this year. They scored 109 points, had a plus-44 goal differential and won the Western Division. Only three other teams won more games than Vegas this year.
For comparison, the best NHL expansion team before this season came in 1994 when the Florida Panthers finished a game under .500. They made the Stanley Cup final in 1997.
In fact, no other professional sports expansion team has capped the .500 mark in its first season. The Golden Knights were 13 wins better than .500.
The Los Angeles Angels (MLB) finished at .435 in 1961; the Chicago Bulls (NBA) went .407 in 1967; and the Carolina Panthers (NFL) went .438 in 1995.
The Golden Knights beat the LA Kings 1-0 Tuesday to complete a first-round sweep. They’re playing a gritty brand of hockey with a chip on their collective shoulder. They don’t care what history says.
But they’re not playing tough hockey to prove history or doubters wrong. They’re playing tough hockey because they’re clearly good at it. It’s a remarkable story for hockey, and sports in general.
Add in the fact that the deadliest mass shooting in modern US history took place in Las Vegas just five days before the Knights opened their inaugural NHL season — a 2-1 win against the Dallas Stars — and it’s hard not to pull for this team.