It’s a Sunday afternoon practice on the road, the day after a big win in Ottawa. For the Vegas Golden Knights, it was an opportunity to get together and do a few drills and feel pretty good about coming into Toronto with a 9-4-0 record. But not for George McPhee. The Knights’ GM, who plays pinochle with a sense of purpose, is intently watching his charges, politely declining to be interviewed until practice is finished. He speaks for a couple of minutes, then says, “Thanks, but I’ve got to go. I’m off to Mississauga to watch Nic Hague, one of our prospects.”
If you had said before the season that the Golden Knights would come into Toronto tonight with the fourth and fifth goaltenders on their depth chart as the better team, you would not have had many supporters, even among the Golden Knights themselves. Vegas is undoubtedly the surprise story of the early season. But what makes it even more impressive is that McPhee has been able to straddle two tracks – one where he puts together a respectable roster and another where he stockpiles young players and draft picks. Those are supposed to be mutually exclusive, particularly when you’re starting a team from scratch.
So now we have to come to a couple of realizations. The first is that the Golden Knights are not your typical expansion team. The second is that we should probably all hit a reset on our expectations for this year, since the Knights would barely have to play .500 hockey the rest of the way in order to be in a position to secure a playoff spot. Or as McPhee puts it himself in an interview with thn.com: “We’re not interested in being a doormat for any team.”
Yes, there is a very real expectation that the Golden Knights can hang with the best in the league. But we have to be realistic about it. This is not a team that is going to win nine of every 13 games it plays this season, but there is no reason to think the Golden Knights cannot at least be right in the mix for a playoff spot right to the end of the season. Sometimes you watch teams and you know they simply can’t sustain in the long-term the level of play at which they’re performing. The Golden Knights don’t give you that feeling. This is very real.
“We want to win,” McPhee says. “We want people of Las Vegas to be proud of their team. We want to be proud of our team. We want to be treated with respect. We’re trying to be a very good franchise from Day 1. Let’s see how it goes.”
In a little over three weeks, Vegas coach Gerard Gallant will mark the one-year anniversary of standing on a curb in Raleigh waiting for a ride to the airport after being pulled off the bus and being fired by the Florida Panthers. Since then, he landed the Vegas job and is positioning himself as an early frontrunner for the Jack Adams Trophy. And the Panthers? Well, they’re where they have been for so much of their recent history, losing games, giving up a lot of goals and being closer to winning the draft lottery than securing a playoff spot.
“I knew we had a bunch of good hockey players after the draft and expansion draft were over,” Gallant says. “I looked at the list of players we had and said, ‘You know what? This is a much better team than anyone expected.’ Did I think we would be 9-4 at this time? Not a chance. But I knew we had some guys that were competitive and good hockey players.”
And it is that level of competition, one that started from Day 1 of training camp, that has made the Golden Knights such a tough out. With the exception of a handful of players, Vegas had a group of players who were eager to prove their worth after sitting on the cusp of other organizations. They had promise. After all, if you’re going to pay $500 million to join the board of governors’ annual cricket match you can’t be left bereft of NHL talent. But like Gallant, the Golden Knights really weren’t all that sure of what they had.
And what they had turned out to be much better than anyone expected. They were so good, in fact, that they were able to take Vadim Shipachyov out of the equation and resisted the urge to hand a job to a player simply because they had signed him to a big contract.
“I think with this expansion team, the rules gave us a chance with some pretty good young players,” says Golden Knights defenseman Nate Schmidt. “Guys like William Karlsson, guys that just need a little kicking up to have a chance. I played against Oscar Lindberg in the minors, one of the best players I’ve ever played against. He was fantastic. But you know, he was a fourth line guy…but it’s all about getting that opportunity. And look at all the guys, you’re exposed by your team, I don’t want to say discarded by any ways. But you’re in a place where you can look at it as a long-term future. So, that’s why I think our guys are so excited about this team in Vegas, because guys are seeing what can happen when you get an opportunity.”
And so is the rest of the hockey world.