Three weeks into the NHL season, there’s little that makes sense in the standings. The Montreal Canadiens and the New York Rangers — Eastern Conference stalwarts in recent years — have combined for three wins.1 Meanwhile, several of the league’s recent doormats — like the Philadelphia Flyers and the New Jersey Devils — are looking surprisingly dangerous. But perhaps the biggest oddity of all is this: The Vegas Golden Knights are playing some good hockey.
Of course, it’s early and the Knights are up against some tough narratives: The quixotic practice of desert hockey hasn’t exactly worked out for the NHL to this point (looking at you, Phoenix), and no expansion team from the past 26 years has made the playoffs in its first season. But no expansion team from the past 26 years — or in the history of the NHL, for that matter — has gotten off to this good of a start, either.
The Knights’ six wins in seven tries are remarkable considering how their expansion brethren have fared. Among the other nine expansion teams that began play since 1991, only three — the 1992-93 Tampa Bay Lightning, the 1993-94 Florida Panthers and the 1993-94 Mighty Ducks of Anaheim — managed to win more than one of their first seven games. And then there’s the case of the putrid 1992-93 Ottawa Senators, who didn’t win their second game until their 23rd try.
What’s more, there’s reason to believe the Knights aren’t hovering around the top of the Western Conference standings by accident. The team’s roster — like all expansion teams — is largely a Frankenstein’s monster of the rest of the league’s broken parts. But the Knights cobbled together a decent group of players! (As far as expansion teams go, and as far as teams in the 2017-18 NHL go, too.) According to goals versus threshold (GVT) statistics,2 the Knights entered the NHL with one of the best expansion rosters of the past three decades.3
|PREV. CAREER GVT|
Right wing James Neal — who leads the Knights in scoring this season — recorded 40 goals in the 2011-12 season and has scored at least 50 points four times in his career. Winger Reilly Smith brings more scoring touch (he notched 25 goals with the Florida Panthers in 2015-16) and respectable possession metrics to the table. And while winger David Perron’s career scoring pace of 48 points per 82 games doesn’t qualify him as an elite scorer, it still makes him a nice addition — through seven games, he’s tallied the third most points for the Knights. Vegas even managed to nab a three-time Stanley Cup-winning goaltender in Marc-Andre Fleury.4
But despite scoring some key pieces in the expansion draft, the Knights are still an expansion team. The average expansion team since ’92 collected just 57 points in its first NHL season — which is to say that the average expansion team hasn’t been very good.5 And before the season began, some writers predicted that the Knights might even be very bad. (The regular kind of bad or, worse, the historically kind of bad.) Still, there’s hope for the Knights — they may just have to wait a few years.
Five of the other nine expansion teams improved enough early on to qualify for the playoffs by their fourth season, and only three teams — the Atlanta Thrashers (who are now the second incarnation of the Winnipeg Jets), the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Nashville Predators — took at least six seasons to earn their first playoff berth. However, none of them became .500 teams by the end of their fifth season, and only a handful have become postseason mainstays.
One of those mainstays is the San Jose Sharks. Their first-season roster was middle-of-the-pack as far as expansion teams go, and while they struggled mightily early,6 they’ve been by far the most successful expansion team of the past three decades in terms of playoff appearances: In their 25 seasons, they’ve made the postseason 19 times. But then there’s the case of the Thrashers/Jets, whose first-year roster matched San Jose’s in terms of previous season GVT but who, after 17 seasons, still haven’t managed to win a playoff game.
An expansion team’s previous career GVT isn’t a guarantor of immediate success, but of the nine expansion franchises that came into the NHL between 1991 and 2001, only the Florida Panthers — whose previous career GVT is second only to the Knights — took less than a decade to get to the Stanley Cup Finals, making it in just their third season.7
The Panthers, like the Knights, were able to snag an established goal scorer (Scott Mellanby) and goalie (John Vanbiesbrouck) in the expansion draft, so they had some crucial puzzle pieces in place from the jump. They also drafted well early on — they snatched Rob Niedermayer in their inaugural draft and Ed Jovanovski the following year — and that mix of fresh talent and solid veterans came together in a magical, rubber rat-infested run to Eastern Conference preeminence. We’re not sure how Vegas will draft, but if they’re able to score the right players, they may find themselves in a similar position as those early Panthers teams.
But the sun has rarely shone in Sunrise since that early success — in the 20 seasons subsequent, the Panthers have made the playoffs only four times. For the Panthers, previous career GVT correlated with early success, but it meant little in the way of long-term franchise well-being.
Truth is, expansion franchises since 1991 haven’t had a whole lot of success in terms of championships won. Only two — the Lightning and the Ducks — have lifted Lord Stanley’s mug, and neither did so within their first decade of existence.
The Knights are off to a historically great start, but history also suggests they’re still probably looking at a spring void of playoff hockey. And if it’s a Stanley Cup they’re after, the Knights shouldn’t hold their collective breath. But who knows: maybe the Knights, with their historically good expansion roster, will shock the NHL.