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Is The Vegas Golden Knights’ Run As Amazing As Leicester City’s?

Last summer, when it was time for bookmakers to release the odds on the upcoming NHL season, the expansion Vegas Golden Knights were an afterthought. According to the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook, they had the worst chance to win the Stanley Cup of any team in hockey, at 200-1. How long are those odds? The Cleveland Browns, who are perennially terrible, currently have much better odds (100-1) to win the 2019 Super Bowl.

Congratulations to you, then, if you put a few bucks on Vegas at the beginning of the season: All the Knights have done since is finish the regular season with the fifth most points in the NHL, then sprint through the Western Conference playoffs while losing just three games. That torrid run has landed them a spot in the Stanley Cup final — and opened up comparisons with other unlikely Cinderellas. For us, the one that immediately sprang to mind was Leicester City’s unlikely run to the English Premier League title in 2015-16, which also stunned pundits and bookmakers. But which was truly the more impressive feat?

Let’s get one thing out of the way early on: The Golden Knights aren’t your average expansion team. In fact, we published a piece way back in October in praise of their expansion roster. We didn’t think they’d win the Stanley Cup — though we were cautious not to entirely discount the upstart desert dwellers — but we also didn’t think they’d be as bad as others in sports media figured they’d be. In terms of goals versus threshold (GVT) statistics,1 the Golden Knights had the most talent of any expansion team that joined the NHL since 1991.

The Golden Knights managed to nab some key pieces in the expansion draft — a former 40-goal scorer plus several former 25-goal scorers and a Stanley Cup-winning goalie who’d been drafted No. 1 overall and was once considered a cornerstone to one of the decade’s most successful franchises. Even then, instant success for Vegas looked unlikely: Since 1991, the average expansion team had only managed to collect 57 points in its inaugural NHL season. But Vegas ended up blowing away those expectations en route to the best expansion season in the history of North American pro sports.

Like the Golden Knights, Leicester faced long odds at the beginning of its championship-winning campaign. Infamously, the sportsbook Ladbrokes offered 5,000-1 odds against Leicester winning the EPL title. That number, which was bandied about constantly in the wake of the Foxes’ surprise championship, was probably a sham, set to entice people to place any bets on Leicester at all. The notion of any team having such long odds in a 20-team league is a bit absurd, even by the parity-hating standards of European soccer. To put 5,000-1 in perspective, consider this: Texas Southern’s odds of winning the 2018 NCAA men’s basketball tournament — as a No. 16 seed that had to first get past a play-in game, then rattle off six straight wins over major schools — were only 1,000-1 this past March.

The “real” odds of Leicester’s victory were staggering enough, though. Leicester had to play near-perfect soccer for the final two and a half months of the 2014-15 season just to avoid relegation.2 According to our Soccer Power Index (SPI), Leicester City was the 12th-best team in England entering the 2015-16 Premier League season. Preseason odds for the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons indicate that the 12th-best team in the league would have roughly 465-1 odds to win the Premier League. That may not be 5,000-1 long, but it’s quite long by North American standards. (See Browns, Cleveland, above.)

Though there was an argument that Leicester City’s odds should have been even longer, the greater consensus is that bookmakers grossly underestimated the Foxes. (And the bookmakers have admitted as much.) After their championship, at the beginning of the 2016-17 season, Leicester City found itself as the 13th highest valued team in the Premier League according to TransferMarkt, a website that assesses the talent value of each club-soccer player and team.3 Leicester was never the best team in England, even when it won the Premier League crown, but it wasn’t the worst team in the EPL, either. Sure, the league title was improbable — but it probably wasn’t 5,000-1 improbable. That’s why the 465-1 number above seems about right in retrospect.

(Here’s more evidence that Leicester City eventually settled into a tier befitting its true talent level: In the two seasons since winning the Premier League title, the Foxes have finished 12th and ninth, respectively. That might look disappointing when compared with their extraordinary 2015-16 season, but it also makes perfect sense when viewed through the lens of the team’s transfer-market value and other metrics.)

In the case of Vegas, the Golden Knights’ long odds were certainly influenced by the fact that they were an expansion team — conventional wisdom assumed it was inconceivable that an expansion team stocked with hockey men who’d never played together could win the Stanley Cup. But Vegas’s odds also fall short in comparison with Leicester’s because an improbable championship run is slightly easier in the NHL than the EPL. Hockey has a salary cap to promote balance; soccer teams spend money like it’s going out of style. Hockey’s standings have a wacky loser point to introduce needless confusion; soccer’s table is cold and uncompromising. Hockey’s playoffs are a crapshoot; soccer doesn’t even bother to have playoffs.

Of course, like Leicester, Vegas also might return to earth next season. There’s no question that forward William Karlsson has been a revelation,4 but his shooting percentage is bound to regress, which means he’s probably not going to be a back-to-back 40 goal scorer. Likewise, goalie Marc-Andre Fleury is having by far the best postseason of his career, and one of the best postseasons in NHL history — a feat he’s unlikely to replicate next season. When Leicester City won the Premier League, Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez each had the best seasons of their respective Premier League careers. And while each player has been very good since, neither has managed to produce the numbers he did during that magical championship run. The Knights have their share of players who fit the same description.

But whether they’ll be good again next year doesn’t matter much to Vegas right now: They’ve already made history as the first NHL expansion team to make a championship series in 50 years. And though the 1967-68 St. Louis Blues did indeed make the Stanley Cup final in their first NHL season, they did so by winning a six-team conference stocked exclusively with other teams playing their first NHL season. The Golden Knights had to navigate a notoriously difficult Western Conference playoff stocked with established NHL franchises. Now, they are just four wins away from becoming the only NHL expansion team to win a Stanley Cup in their inaugural season.

Maybe Karlsson only scores 27 goals next year. Maybe Fleury transforms back into the inconsistent goalie we saw in Pittsburgh. If they do so for the defending Stanley Cup champions, though, it’s a safe bet that no one in Las Vegas will care.

Footnotes

  1. GVT was developed by Tom Awad of Hockey Prospectus and is similar to baseball’s VORP, in that it seeks to determine a player’s value in goals above what a replacement player would contribute.

  2. The Foxes wound up finishing 14th.

  3. At the beginning of the 2015-16 season, Leicester was the 19th highest valued team in the Premier League via TransferMarkt, which probably dramatically underrated the team’s roster. But even the 19th-best team in the EPL has roughly 2,400-1 odds on average, according to the FiveThirtyEight model. So no matter how you slice it, those 5,000-1 odds were much too long.

  4. Part of this must be because he’s played about 42 percent more minutes per game in Vegas than he did the previous season in Columbus, and also that he’s been tasked with more offensive zone responsibility.

Terrence Doyle is a writer based in Boston, where he obsesses over pizza and hockey.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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