The Vegas Golden Knights have the NHL's second-best record, which is batshit for an expansion team this deep into its inaugural season. With 56 points in 38 games, not only do they have the inside track on the top seed in the West, it would take a historic collapse to miss the playoffs. This is the most impressive, unbelievable run in Vegas since Rain Man.
As we approach the midpoint of the season, you probably have a lot of questions about the Golden Knights. Luckily for you, I am here to answer all of them.
How is this happening?
I'm going to be honest, up front, and offer full disclosure of the fact that I don't fully understand it.
Then why would you put yourself in charge of this FAQ?
I needed something to write this week and it's the biggest story in the NHL right now. At least I'm truthful about not having a definitive answer.
Fine, so what are your theories?
First and foremost, the Knights are good. Way better than anyone expected, obviously. They are probably the fastest team in the league and while there has been some luck involved, they have been more good than lucky. They're not like, for example, last season's Columbus Blue Jackets.
In what way have they been lucky?
When Marc-Andre Fleury suffered a concussion in the Knights' fourth game of the season, the team was left with a collection of goaltenders that had slightly more NHL experience than any blackjack dealer in Vegas. Then Malcolm Subban got hurt. Then the Knights signed what I think was an actual blackjack dealer and the team didn't miss a beat. That's lucky.
So then they're not that good?
No, they are. But when an expansion team loses its best player, and that player is the goaltender, that's usually the end.
So how did they get so many good players when the expansion draft rules allowed teams to protect their best players and in cases when there were more players than protection slots, those teams could make deals to prevent Vegas from taking those players?
Here's the thing about a lot of the NHL's general managers—they're fucking idiots. There are a lot of guys running teams whose credentials are having played hockey for a living in the 1980s or 1990s, and, you won't believe this, that doesn't necessarily guarantee you know how to manage a roster. That leads to these guys exposing players that are very good but were on teams that didn't value their abilities, so that's how you have Dale Tallon giving Vegas two really good players for the cost of an off-strip buffet. But that's also how you have someone like William Karlsson, who was on a good team but clearly his abilities weren't properly judged by coaches and management. When you have a lot of teams run by dummies, you can take advantage of that as a general manager.
Isn't George McPhee the Knights' GM?
Didn't he play in the 1980s?
Didn't he give a bunch of money to Vadim Shipachyov, a 30-year-old Russian that he determined wasn't good enough for the NHL after like 11 minutes of ice time?
This is the general manager of the year you're questioning.
Didn't he waste Alex Ovechkin's best years in Washington and trade Filip Forsberg for Martin Erat?
Look, I said these were theories, not facts. But if you throw a blind squirrel into a room full of nuts, that squirrel will grab a few nuts that can score 20 goals and play well at 5-on-5, especially if another squirrel abandoned some quality nuts because they were assembled by another squirrel that valued analytics.
Isn't the coach pretty good?
I've always been a Gerard Gallant fan, and he guided the Panthers to 91 points and 103 points in his first two seasons before he was fired after an 11-9-1 start with an injury-riddled team last season. If I had to pick between the two, I'd give Gallant the Jack Adams before I gave McPhee the GM of the year honor, but they'll both likely win.
You have any other theories?
One I like just as much as the General Managers Are Mostly Dumb theory is the Western Conference being way worse than anyone realizes. Last year was the first time since the season-long lockout that the East won the overall head-to-head matchups with the West, so Vegas is catching the conference at the perfect time. Arizona and Vancouver aren't even trying. Peter Chiarelli has sabotaged the Oilers in such a way that he may be on the Knights' payroll. Calgary stinks for some reason, and Anaheim has dealt with key injuries all season. Five of the eight teams in the Pacific have a negative goal differential as of the first week of January.
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The West is bad and the Pacific is extremely bad. Three of the five worst possession teams are in the Pacific while Vegas is a top-10 club in that area. If you can assemble an above-average team and place it in a below-average conference's worst division, you can do some damage.
If you take away the injuries to all the goaltenders, which did little to slow the Knights, the team has been relatively healthy all season. An expansion team is always lacking in depth compared to an established team, so it's been fortunate for the Knights that it hasn't had to be tested outside the crease this season.
What about the Vegas Flu?
It's definitely part of why Vegas is 17-2-1 at T-Mobile Arena. Only the players that come to town know how much it matters, but it certainly does. I think it has less to do with guys showing up to the rink with raging hangovers and more to do with being ready to work in a place that doesn't have that context for players, who see it as a vacation/party destination. You have to remember that hockey players are 88 percent robot and just having their senses exposed to the Strip probably leaves them disoriented for 24 hours. If you have six guys on your team that go to Vegas to party in the summer, those six guys probably don't know how to wire their robot circuitry for a hockey game and it screws everyone else up.
Why aren't you giving more credit to the players?
I am! In my own way. Jonathan Marchessault, who just signed a six-year extension to stay in Vegas, has been great on two teams. Reilly Smith was always good and the Panthers bailed on him over Tallon being a pissy baby and a down year in terms of shooting percentage. David Perron and James Neal have been good for a while. This Alex Tuch guy always had potential. The Ducks allowed Shea Theodore to leave for some unknown reason. Nate Schmidt can play. Fleury has a .943 save percentage and that will eventually correct itself but he's still a starting-caliber goaltender in the NHL.
So is there an overall correction coming?
The Knights are on pace for 121 points. They will not finish with 121 points. But their PDO isn't that far above 100, so it's not as though they have the symptoms of a bad team that's playing way over its head. Even if a hard correction comes, they'll have a hard time finishing with fewer than 100 points.
Would you bet on them to win the Stanley Cup?
Considering their path to a conference final goes through the Pacific and then whatever remains in the Central, I'd say it's pretty darn good. All they'd have to do is… oh wait. Oh no.
I just realized the perfect end to the season.
What is it?
Vegas wins three rounds only to lose in seven games… to the Washington Capitals, McPhee's old team. Ovechkin skates the Cup around Vegas, then throws the greatest celebration party in NHL history at the Bellagio.
Why are you such a dick?
SWEEEEEEEEEET GOLDEN KNIGHTS! OH OH OH!