FiveThirtyEight

The Vegas Golden Knights are only halfway through their inaugural season, and they’ve already redefined what anyone thought was possible for an NHL expansion franchise. Against all odds, the Knights are currently 29-10-3 with 61 points, good for the best record in the Western Conference — and only 4 points shy of the Tampa Bay Lightning for the best record in the entire league. It’s enough to make the Knights hockey’s greatest debut team ever, hands down.

But that’s not all: Vegas is also lapping the field of expansion teams across every major pro sport. Even after adjusting for the way records are distributed in other sports, no other brand-new club in modern history came close to doing what the Knights have done so far. Expansion teams just aren’t supposed to have this kind of success this early.

Constructed as a Frankenstein’s monster of unwanted parts from the rest of the league, a new club is usually very bad indeed. In a franchise’s first season, merely being “competitive” — code for losing but keeping things close most nights — is an admirable goal. And going into this season, there were plenty of people who had trouble seeing the Knights even reaching that modest level of success. Most outlets picked Vegas to finish either last or next-to-last in the Pacific Division.

That was a reasonable expectation based on the past performance of first-year clubs. Our own analysis found that Vegas had dredged more talent out of the expansion-draft pool than normal — but that was just supposed to mean the Knights would exceed historical expectations. It didn’t mean we thought they’d make the playoffs, much less that they’d contend for the Stanley Cup.

So far this season, however, Vegas has picked up 73 percent of the maximum number of points in its games and outscored its opponents by 0.7 goals per game. To compare those marks across NHL seasons, we converted them to z-scores, or the number of standard deviations they sat above or below league average. (This helps us account for changes in the league’s spread of talent over time and allows us to make comparisons between different sports — which will come in handy later.) In both categories, Vegas’s z-scores are easily the top marks for an NHL expansion team since the league blew up the Original Six and added six new teams in 1967-68:

Vegas is destroying its NHL expansion competitors

Best z-scores (standard deviations relative to average) for point percentage and goals per game differential, NHL expansion teams (1968-2018)

Full-season statistics are used for all teams except Vegas.

Source: Hockey-Reference.com

The Florida Panthers used to be the model for a successful NHL expansion team. Florida was more than merely competitive in 1993-94 — it finished one win shy of a .500 record and scored exactly as many goals as it allowed. Then, with the good core of talent they had picked up in the expansion draft, the Panthers made the Stanley Cup final three seasons into the franchise’s existence. Before Vegas came along, that was the gold standard for brand-new clubs: solid in the first year, outright good within a couple seasons. But the Knights’ debut has flipped those expectations on their head.

(Yes, it should be noted that the 1967-68 St. Louis Blues made the Cup final in their first season. But that was solely because the NHL dropped all six of its new teams into the same division, the winner of which had to make the final. Every team in the new West division, which housed all the expansion clubs, had a negative goal differential during the regular season, but someone had to win it — and the Blues were that team. They were also swept by the mighty Montreal Canadiens when they played for the Cup.)

Vegas’s season becomes even more impressive when you compare its z-scores to those of the top expansion teams from other sports. No modern MLB expansion club finished a season any better than the 70-win 1961 Los Angeles Angels; no debut NBA team ever topped the 33 wins of the 1967 Chicago Bulls; no NFL expansion team could beat the 7-9 Carolina Panthers from 1995. Hockey does tend to see its teams’ records more tightly bunched than in such sports as football and basketball, but even after adjusting for that with our z-scores, the Golden Knights’ current season blows away any would-be challenger from the NFL, NBA or MLB since the early 1960s:

Vegas beats other sports’ expansion teams, too

How the Vegas Golden Knights stack up against top expansion teams in each league by z-score* of winning percentage, 1961-2018

*Z-score is the number of standard deviations above/below average, relative to the overall league that season.

Sources: Baseball-Reference.com, Basketball-Reference.com, Pro-Football-Reference.com

One thing that jumps out is that many NHL expansion teams had better z-scores than the best expansion teams in the other sports. But why is it so much easier to build a strong NHL expansion team (relative to the league) than in the other Big Four North American sports? I don’t have a great explanation.

Hockey is the sport with the least reliable individual stats — while scouts’ eye tests can be swayed by recency and other biases — so it may be that the caliber of players left available in the expansion draft is higher than in other sports. Or perhaps the outsize value of goaltending means one good pick between the pipes is enough to carry a team of talent-strapped skaters to respectability. Or maybe good coaching deserves more credit than it sometimes gets around the league. Whatever the reason, expansion teams have done better on ice in general, even before Vegas started to blow the doors off the league.

We know that, in the NHL, it takes a lot of games to tell who’s good and who’s bad — which is why even a hot half-season can turn cold overnight. For Vegas, the heat has been generated by MVP-candidate seasons from the likes of William Karlsson and Jonathan Marchessault and a near Vezina-worthy performance from Marc-Andre Fleury — all players who were considered expendable as recently as seven months ago. Peeking under the hood, the Knights’ ratio of shots taken to shots allowed at even-strength is nothing special, even after adjusting for score effects and other factors. And let’s face it: Few teams can sustain this pace for an entire season: Of the 24 teams with at least 60 points in their first 42 games since 2005-06, only one (last year’s Capitals) had a second-half point percentage as good as it did in the first half of the season.

So it would be logical to assume that a second-half regression could be lurking around the corner for the Golden Knights. But the advanced stats don’t suggest that Vegas has been particularly lucky. In terms of expected goals (which measures where a team’s chances come from in addition to their volume), the Knights have the ninth-best ratio in the league.

Regression or no regression, various projection systems consider the Knights all but a lock to make the playoffs, which would make Vegas the first expansion team to claim that honor since the 1968 season’s standings guaranteed that four new clubs would qualify. Even the in-town sportsbooks are paying attention to the possibility of playoff action in the desert: The Knights are currently tied for the second-best Stanley Cup odds of any team in the league.

For an expansion team, all of this seemed unthinkable going into the season. New franchises aren’t supposed to be instant contenders. They’re supposed to struggle, to require years of building before achieving this kind of success. Vegas clearly doesn’t care about any of that. And now we have an entirely new yardstick with which to compare every other expansion club that comes along in the future, no matter the sport.

Filed under