We’ve come a long way since June 21, 2017, when we saw the Vegas Golden Knights select their first team in the expansion draft. First, we discussed if they would finish bottom of the NHL standings, with many believing that they could finish a few places above the worst team, but then they strung together some wins, and then some more wins, and, at the halfway point, they sat top of the Western Conference.
It’s been an incredible story to follow, with this ragtag batch of players assembled under general manager George McPhee playing exciting hockey under head coach Gerard Gallant. It certainly hasn’t gone to plan for the league, or even for the franchise, with so many of their picks running out of contract at the end of the season posing as presumed trade bait six months ago.
The conversation about the Vegas Golden Knights has emphatically changed from how long it’ll take for them to contend to whether they can win the Stanley Cup! It’s been an unprecedented season from Vegas in their inaugural campaign and, right now, their standing means that they’re in the running.
Team play key to the Golden Knights
Everything done by the Vegas Golden Knights is done as a team: they defend as a team, with the defensemen focussing on their responsibilities rather than glory at the other end of the ice, and the forwards are very unselfish, spreading the play as much as possible. After 40 games, all of Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson, Reilly Smith, and David Perron have over 30 points – with none above 40 – as well as James Neal and Erik Haula being close behind on 28.
The team ethic is what is driving this newest of NHL teams, with no player the assumed go-to guy who has a points quota to meet in the season. This is what has made them so difficult to beat, as teams have to stay honest regardless of what line is rolled out onto the ice, and why they’re now the joint-second favorite to go all the way in the latest NHL odds, now at +1100.
Perhaps a lack of a superstar is beneficial
If you look at any other team standing in a divisional playoff place, you can quickly and easily identify their main superstar player: Washington has Alex Ovechkin; Tampa Bay has Steven Stamkos; Boston has Patrice Bergeron; St. Louis has Vladimir Tarasenko; San Jose has Brent Burns, etc. The Vegas Golden Knights, on the other hand, simply have strong players at each position.
James Neal, Marc-Andre Fleury, and David Perron were their more recognizable stars picked from the expansion draft but Fleury’s drop to Matt Murray with the Pittsburgh Penguins over the last couple of seasons means that you would be excused for assuming that Vegas was without that traditional superstar that heads the franchise.
So, can Vegas do it?
We’ve got a long way to go in this NHL season; we’ve only just passed the halfway point, in fact. The biggest trial ahead for the Vegas Golden Knights is the trade deadline. Coming up on February 26, the focus will be on the deals that Vegas doesn’t do, as opposed to the players that they acquire.
If recent activity is anything to go by, the Golden Knights have u-turned on their perceived plans of shipping players for picks. They’ve given hefty contracts to some of their impending free agents, such as Marchessault and Brayden McNabb, but major players in Neal, Perron, and Clayton Stoner are still set to be free agents – as of 40 games in – this summer, making them prime trade chips for playoff hopefuls. If just two of those three remain and Vegas cash in on the other for some big picks down the line, the Golden Knights should continue their dominant play. George McPhee’s activities at the deadline will dictate the remainder of their season.
If the Golden Knights come out of the trade deadline intact, they could very well go deep into the playoffs. Having defeated the final four teams of last year’s Stanley Cup finals a combined seven times from seven games, it’s clear that they can take on the best of them.
But the playoffs are a completely different beast altogether and experience plays a huge role. If they did, somewhat mystically, make it to the finals, they’re sure to face tough opposition in a team like the Tampa Bay Lightning, who have been rampant this season.