You probably don’t need to read this to know how incredible the context of the Vegas Golden Knights sweeping the Los Angeles Kings was, but just in case — that’s the winner of two of the last five Stanley Cups losing to a team that didn’t exist a year ago.
At first glance, Vegas is the feel-good movie of the year. They’re a much closer rendition of The Mighty Ducks than the actual Anaheim Ducks — who played more like the movie’s rivals from one of the lesser sequels (animated series included) if Sunday was any indication.
At second glance, GM George McPhee and his scouting departments are putting NHL GMs on notice. The message they’re sending is “I did in one day what you couldn’t manage even with years spent drafting, and development over me.”
Is that fair?
Vegas’ draft was a little different. The mechanisms in place allowed them to be more competitive straight out the gate. But with a few exceptions — namely Marc-Andre Fleury and James Neal — there was no real star power, which was a reflection of exactly how limited Vegas was. Opposing teams were more or less able to protect their top six forwards, and top three defensemen.
Before the season Hockey-Graphs had a very intense, very deep dive into grading McPhee’s roster selection, eventually giving Vegas a C+ and concluding that they had a 33 percent chance of making the playoffs. It wasn’t just masters of the analytics universe making these grim predictions. So were discerning writers like Barry Petchesky, who didn’t mince words*:
There are two schools of thought when compiling an expansion team. One is to go get the very best players available, believing that the best way to build a foundation for a team and a fanbase is to be as competitive as you can and give fans a reason to get and stay invested. Another is to be as awful as you possibly can. The Vegas Golden Knights correctly subscribe to the latter.
Before popping frustration vessels in my head, Vegas doesn’t deserve complete kudos. They’re a good shot generating team, but not a great one. William Karlsson came out of nowhere. Two more biscuits this season, and he would have had more goals than he had points in his previous two seasons combined. Plus he’s only 25 years old, which is not exactly a peak production window. There’s also Florida’s awful money logic that straight gifted Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith a pair of Vegas sweaters — two players who would be second and fifth in scoring on Florida’s roster.
However, a good portion of Vegas’ success also came from taking advantage of teams who had “no room” for prospects clearly capable. If Anaheim didn’t have that Clayton Stoner contract, they could have protected a defensemen as good as Shea Theodore, and the same goes for Washington’s inability to protect Nate Schmidt. Both formed half of the top-four blue line no less.
Justin Bourne thought Vegas’ success put GM’s “on blast”, if you will.
If you’re a GM looking at Vegas, you’d be blind not to immediately question if your 13th and 14th forwards, seventh and eighth D — even some of your guys in the AHL — have the potential to breakout like some of the Knights forwards. But further to that, they should examine the opportunity they’re giving these guys when they do put them in the lineup.
For Dallas Stars fans, this should resonate. Remember Patrik Nemeth, who got passed up in the depth chart by Greg Pateryn, and Jamie Oleksiak?
He’s playing (albeit with some injuries) 25 minutes a night for a playoff team. And he was candid with Scott Burnside about the difference (emphasis mine).
I think right away off the bat they gave me a chance to play regularly and get pretty good minutes, and when you do that, when you get the regular minutes, that’s when you can improve your game. That’s when you can work on things from game to game instead of being worried about if you made a bad play that you’re going to be brought out of the lineup.
Bourne’s article has a lot of great takeaways, like not being afraid to make your GM look bad (something the next Dallas coach might consider when thinking about Martin Hanzal’s role on the team).
Overall, the biggest one goes back to opportunity. When you draft good players, they put up good numbers because they’re playing with good players. None of them hit point per game clips in fourth line minutes while playing with grinders and veterans on expiring contracts. Denis Gurianov didn’t score last night’s game-tying goal against Ontario with just eight minutes of ice time. And Roope Hintz didn’t have two points in the same game because he was coming back from a healthy scratch.
If Jim Nill wants to win another offseason, it must start from within, not around. Vegas might be an anomaly — a team driven by the feeling of proving everyone wrong in a system that fed these emotions — but you can still learn lessons from the unexpected; Dallas gambled with veterans and lost. Maybe now’s the time to gamble with inexperience and let the chips fall where they may. That’s what Vegas did, and they’re looking okay.
*Credit where credit’s due. He was nice enough to say “oops.”