Knights in Shining Armour
November 21, 2018
Only a year after forming, NHL ice hockey team the Vegas Golden Knights came out of nowhere to reach the sport’s top championship, the Stanley Cup Finals. Sean McIndoe tells the remarkable story of the newcomers who almost swept the board.
The most important thing to know about the 2017-18 Vegas Golden Knights season is that nobody saw it coming. Literally, nobody. Certainly not the so-called experts. Not the fans, or the media, or the bookmakers, who saw the Knights as the biggest long shots in the league. Not the players themselves, or the general manager who built the team, or even the man who paid US$500 million to bring the franchise to life.
In August 2017, team owner Bill Foley told ESPN that his hopes for the first season were that “if we’re going to lose a game, we’d like to lose by a goal or two, not lose by five or six.” That was it. Don’t lose by five or six. That was the best-case scenario.
The ice hockey world is notorious for nobody ever agreeing on anything. But in the summer of 2017, finally, everyone was on the same page: the Vegas Golden Knights would be awful. And then they came within three games of winning the Stanley Cup, the sport’s most significant trophy. This simply doesn’t happen in the NHL, where expansion teams are typically not just bad but embarrassing. Take the example of the 1972-73 New York Islanders who shattered the league record for goals allowed. Or the 1992-93 Ottawa Senators who were so bad that they were accused of losing on purpose. Or the 1974-75 Washington Capitals who didn’t win a single away game until the season was almost over, then celebrated by turning a garbage can into a makeshift trophy.
The Vegas Golden Knights weren’t expected to be that bad; the league had tweaked the expansion draft rules to ensure the new team could at least be marginally competitive. But that was as far as the optimism went, especially after their general manager George McPhee had finished assembling his roster from the scraps and cast-offs made available by the rest of the league.
The consensus at the time was that he hadn’t done a very good job. And then the season arrived, and the Knights started winning. And they didn’t stop winning for eight months. That’s the truly amazing part of this story. Ice hockey is a sport where upsets are expected. One hot goaltender, or a few lucky bounces, and a bad team beats a good one. It happens all the time. But the Knights weren’t just a bad team that fluked its way to a lucky win or two. They steamrolled the league, almost from day one.
They won their first three games, and eight of their first nine. They were locked into a play-off spot by mid-season. They finished on top of their division by a wider margin than any other first-place team.
So what on Earth happened? Even today, nobody’s quite sure. There are explanations, but they all come with a “but”. They built the team around veteran goaltender Marc-André Fleury, who had a magnificent season… but he was hurt for much of the first half. They got a 43-goal season from center William Karlsson… but he’d scored just 18 goals in his three previous seasons combined. They signed a Russian star, Vadim Shipachyov… but he lasted just three games before heading home. They enjoyed a 75-point year from Jonathan Marchessault… but only after the Florida Panthers had bribed them to take him off their hands. (That last one still confuses everyone to this day.)
If anything, the Knights’ success may have been as much about what was happening off the ice, as the residents of Las Vegas rallied around the team with the sort of support that typically takes years for a professional sports franchise to build. The team’s home opening game came just days after the city was rocked by a tragic mass shooting, giving the community its first chance to heal together. The Knights handled the moment perfectly, with veteran defenseman and Las Vegas resident Deryk Engelland delivering an emotional speech to the crowd. “We are Vegas strong,” he told fans. The moment seemed to forge a bond between city and team, one that only grew as their shocking season played out.
And then the playoffs arrived, and the story somehow got even better.
The NHL post-season is where the men are separated from the boys; ice hockey fans love to bleat on about the Stanley Cup being the hardest trophy to win in all sports. The Knights opened against the Los Angeles Kings, a team that had won two championships since 2012. They swept them aside in four straight games. They beat a very good San Jose Sharks team next, then dispatched a stacked Winnipeg Jets squad in five.
In the end, the Knights fell short against the Washington Capitals in the final, losing in five games. Now, heading into their second season, most of the experts are predicting an inevitable fall back to earth. It was a nice run, the thinking goes, maybe even one of the greatest sports stories ever told. But it can’t possibly happen again.
After all, when have the experts ever been wrong?
Originally published in issue 19 of Populous Magazine. Subscribe for free to receive a copy.