It’s been fun and uplifting to see Vegas off to the greatest start in expansion history, but too many victories could screw up the plans of a team that needs to think long term.
Thanks, Vegas Golden Knights. That’s good enough now. You can stop being so adorable any time. No, seriously. This is getting weird.
Let it sink in that (a) no expansion team in NHL history had started 3-0, (b) the Golden Knights are down to their third-string goaltender in Oscar Dansk, thanks to injuries; (c) their best defenseman, waiver-exempt Theodore, is cooling his heels in the AHL, where he’s on pace for 137 points; and (d) their record now sits at 7-1-0, good for an NHL-best points percentage of .875.
Sure, we can explain away a lot of the hot start. Buoyed by the emotion of an inaugural season and a city rallying against a tragedy, the Knights are 5-1 at home. They’ve only played two road games thus far. They’ve gotten tremendous goaltending from Dansk, Malcolm Subban and starter Marc-Andre Fleury, helping them rank top-five in the NHL in even-strength save percentage and also PDO, which combines SP with team shooting percentage to approximate luck. The Knights also rank 29th out of 31 teams in 5-on-5 Corsi. So a regression has to be coming.
Still, what this team has accomplished is pretty remarkable. Right winger James Neal in particular looks like a front-line NHLer again, with six goals in eight games. Vegas has also, not surprisingly, made the Florida Panthers look foolish for letting go of Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith. This team should become more dangerous on paper if and when GM George McPhee trades a couple defensemen, finally freeing Theodore and center Vadim Shipacyhov to play permanently in the NHL instead of getting shuttled to the AHL affiliate in Chicago because of their two-way contracts.
The question I have is…at what point do McPhee and owner Bill Foley start hoping for a regression in the standings? Things are going so well that they may be going too well. Think back to the franchise’s expansion draft strategy, which involved passing up many superior players in favor of bailing out teams with side deals that netted Vegas draft picks. The Knights ended up with 12 picks for 2017, including three top-15 first-rounders and five picks across the first two rounds. McPhee has already secured 28 picks across the next three drafts. So it appeared the franchise’s approach was to build for the future – even at the expense of winning now. Losses were supposed to pile up, weren’t they?
But they haven’t. And while the Golden Knights have given us a fun, inspiring story to start the season, they may start inadvertently screwing up their long-term outlook if they don’t stop rattling off Ws. A 7-1-0 start means Vegas needs 80 points over its final 74 games, or a .541 points percentage, to reach 94, which was the lowest total of any qualifying playoff team last season. If this Golden Knights team can go 7-1-0 minus its best goalie and blueliner, couldn’t we imagine them going, say, 36-30-8 the rest of the way? That wouldn’t be a world-beater record.
And do the Golden Knights actually want to make the playoffs in Year 1? It could scupper McPhee’s long-term trading plans. Neal is a pending UFA and sets up now to command a gorgeous return at the trade deadline – a first-round pick, easily. Marchessault and David Perron would make nice UFA rentals too. There would also be a market for D-men Jason Garrison and Luca Sbisa. Heck, Fleury would make an intriguing two-year rental for a team seeking an experienced netminder with loads of playoff experience.
Given how many expiring deals the Golden Knights deliberately acquired before the season, it stood to reason they were collecting assets for the purpose of flipping them at the deadline to secure more picks. That strategy has to go out the window if the Golden Knights remain in playoff contention come mid-winter – and that looks entirely possible after the 7-1 start, even with their puck luck bound to correct itself soon. It would be fun to imagine Vegas setting a single-season record for points by an expansion team, making the playoffs, and Neal inking a long-term extension after the season. But a playoff run would mean not piling up any extra draft picks – and not earning any ping-pong balls in the draft lottery. And this team needs to add more top-end prospects to build around alongside Cody Glass, Nick Suzuki and Erik Brannstrom. Four of the past five and six of the past nine Stanley Cup champions were powered by superstar No. 1 overall picks. You want to bottom out if you want to someday reach the very top.
So while this Golden Knights team has been truly irresistible in October, the front office and fan base might be wise to stat cheering for a crap-out at the tables come Novembe