Maybe it rings hollow (or Haula?) here in Minnesota, since the Wild bowed out of the playoffs with another early exit, but if you stayed tuned to the NHL playoffs you have seen the Vegas Golden Knights skate further into the record books.
The Knights are on to the Western Conference finals, otherwise known as the Wild’s mirage in the desert for the past 15 years.
In the process, the Knights have had the most successful first year ever for an expansion franchise — not just in hockey, but in the four major professional sports leagues.
Each sport has teams that found success in their first few seasons of existence. There are multiple examples of teams such as the Milwaukee Bucks in 1971 and Arizona Diamondbacks in 2001 winning league titles shortly after their conception. But usually it takes a rocky first year of growing pains before a leap to championship contention can happen.
The Knights threw out that conventional wisdom, using the expansion draft to craft a contender under General Manager George McPhee. It’s easy to argue now that the expansion draft rules may have favored the Knights a little too much (one general manager told TSN it was like he was “held hostage” by the Knights during the process), but no analysts were giving the Knights much of a chance when the season started.
The best expansion team in baseball was the Los Angeles Angels, who went 70-91 in 1961. In the NBA it was the 33-48 Chicago Bulls of 1966-67. The Carolina Panthers went 7-9 in 1995 for the NFL’s best mark, while the 1994 Florida Panthers previously held the NHL’s best expansion record at 33-34-17.
There are some historical caveats. Hockey heads might remember the St. Louis Blues made the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season in 1968, the year the NHL expanded from the Original Six to 12 teams. But the six new teams went in the West Division, meaning one of them had to make the finals. St. Louis just happened to be that team after going 27-31-16 and eliminating the Flyers and North Stars on the way.
The mighty Canadiens swept the Blues to win the Cup.
Given that the Knights came into a fully formed league and had to take the discards of 30 teams, their run to the conference finals is more impressive than what the Blues accomplished.
All signs point to Seattle as getting the next NHL expansion franchise, and given the Knights’ success don’t be surprised if the rest of the league makes it harder for Seattle to duplicate what the Knights did.
But Vegas had to have a lot go right to get where it is. It hit a home run with a lot of its picks, identifying players such as William Karlsson and Jonathan Marchessault who were due to break out if given larger roles.
Then there’s former Wild players Erik Haula and Alex Tuch, both of whom have been instrumental in this playoff surge. It might sting for Wild fans to see the newbie have stunning success when the Wild has been stuck for so long, but it’s rare when you get to see history in the making, and the Knights certainly are worthy of being called historic.