We’re still a rollercoaster ride away from discovering if the Golden Knights were indeed a Stone’s throw from a Stanley Cup, but what is clear is their success story is still hurtling. Short of winning a championship in Year 2, Vegas’ encore season was always going to feel anticlimactic, but if viewed in a silo, their prodigious performance remains unprecedented.
Entering the stretch, the Knights were hovering around .600, double-digits positive in goal differential and among the very best 5-on-5, consistently outshooting and outchancing opponents. By comparison, since Buffalo and Vancouver joined in 1970, no other expansion club has had a winning record or qualified for the playoffs in either of its first two seasons. The critics, who wondered if Vegas caught lightning in a bottle in Year 1, have been silenced. Mostly.
The dissenters say the joyride isn’t sustainable. High-end draft picks, won via losing, are vital for long-term well-being, they say. A scan of history lends some credence to the doctrine. The Buffalo Sabres and New York Islanders are the most successful post-1970 newbies. The Sabres were gifted the first pick in ’70 and took Gilbert Perreault. In the ensuing years, Buffalo drafted Jim Schoenfeld and Rick Martin at No. 5 overall. The Sabres made the playoffs seven of the next eight years, getting to the Cup final in 1975. The Islanders picked Billy Harris and Denis Potvin at the pole position in their first two drafts, followed by Clarke Gillies fourth overall in draft three. After some brief pain, the Isles became an elite club, forging the start of its dynasty in Year 8.
The plan isn’t foolproof. The high picks have to pan out, and expansion clubs have been responsible for some of the all-time worst lunch bag letdowns. Greg Joly (Washington), Alexandre Daigle (Ottawa) and Patrik Stefan (Atlanta Thrashers) were all No. 1 overalls who were overall disappointments.
Where does this leave Vegas? Is their window to win already closing due to a lack of lottery picks? The data suggests it’s a definite maybe. The Knights are one of the oldest teams in the NHL, with an average age just greater than 28. Detroit and Minnesota lead the pack at 29. Marc-Andre Fleury turns 35 in November, and there is no heir apparent. Other core players such as Paul Stastny and Max Pacioretty have already had their 30th birthdays. Leveraging them for picks and prospects becomes dicier as they grow greyer. And it’s not as though Vegas already has a wealth of whiz kids. In our recently published Future Watch, the Knights ranked 25th of the 31 teams in prospect depth, earning a C-plus grade.
Hypothetically, had the Knights skated a more traditional expansion route, they would have been in the running for building blocks such as Rasmus Dahlin, Andrei Svechnikov and Brady Tkachuk last year; Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko this year. Of course, with the lottery, there are no guarantees.
There still is time for the Knights’ brain trust to replenish (or is that plenish?) the system in the coming years, and Vegas owns nine picks in the first five rounds this June (three third-rounders, three fifth-rounders), but with each ‘W’ they post, their task becomes that much tougher. They’re going to have to hit on winners consistently in trades and the draft and, perhaps sooner than later, have the stones to make difficult decisions.