We are at the midway point of the NHL’s 2021-22 schedule, and once again, the Vegas Golden Knights are setting the standard for expansion teams. Despite being bitten especially hard by the injury bug, Vegas is the best team in the Pacific Division. Sometimes, you just have to take a step back and be in awe of what the franchise has done, what it continues to do, and what its future looks like.
Consider: only two Golden Knights players – second-year winger Keegan Kolesar, and veteran defenseman Brayden McNabb – have appeared in all 42 games they’ve played. Everyone else has missed at least one game, and some of their best players have been sidelined for significant periods of time: star forward and captain Mark Stone has played only 23 games; forward Max Pacioretty has appeared in only 16 games; experienced D-man Alec Martinez has played only 11 games; and the newest Golden Knight, former Buffalo Sabres star center Jack Eichel, has yet to skate in any games as he continues to work his way back to action after a serious neck injury.
And yet, despite all these absences, Vegas leads the Pacifc, with a 25-15-2 record and 52 standings points. Their offense has been terrific -- they’ve got the seventh-best goals-for average (3.40) per game – and head coach Peter DeBoer has managed to guide them to be a better road team (with a 12-5-0 mark) than a home team (13-10-2).
The best part of Vegas’ current situation? There’s much room for them to grow and improve. Their special teams are middling, and their goaltending has been slightly below-average; starting netminder Robin Lehner’s individual numbers (a 2.95 goals-against average and a .907 save percentage) aren’t intimidating, and backup Laurent Brossoit (2.78 G.A.A. and .900 SP) isn’t about to take over the No. 1 job.
Golden Knights owner Bill Foley has done his part in his organization’s success, shelling out more than $92.6 million in salaries (as per CapFriendly.com). But Vegas GM Kelly McCrimmon has used his Long-Term Injured Reserve clauses to keep them under the 81.5 salary cap ceiling. McCrimmon will need to make moves once Stone, Eichel and Pacioretty rejoin the team, but that’s a very good problem for a GM to have. McCrimmon has to clear out a few fringe players, and he should be able to find new homes.
Vegas’ triumphs in their first four-and-a-half seasons has probably set expectations unreasonably high for expansion teams. Their trip to the Stanley Cup Final in 2017-18 may have led to Seattle Kraken fans’ expectations this year. It’s nice to think your new team can be competitive right out of the gate, but as Kraken fans can tell you, it’s more likely for expansion teams to struggle in their early years. Seattle is at the bottom of the Pacific, 32 points behind the Golden Knights. And the Kraken aren’t likely to be much better next season. GM Ron Francis will have cap flexibility in making moves this summer, but teams don’t give up on good players very easily. He may need to wait until at least halfway through next season before he can maneuver the Kraken toward playoff contention.
For now, though, you have to give Vegas coaching and management much credit for continuing to put out a first-rate roster, regardless of who is playing for them on any particular night. They are going to get a big boost from the return of Eichel, Stone, and Pacioretty, and they will continue to set the bar for expansion franchises.
As Seattle is showing, it’s going to be extremely difficult for teams to clear that bar.