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Is the Vegas Golden Knights’ Success a Result of a GM’s Shrewd Moves, or an NHL Overcorrection?

After the expansion team advanced to the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs on Tuesday night, The Ringer’s resident hockey fans joined together to discuss what makes this team so unprecedentedly good

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Plain and simple, the success that the Vegas Golden Knights have achieved this season is unprecedented. The team that was just being formed 10 months ago has now become the first NHL expansion team to make the playoffs in its inaugural year, and, after Tuesday night’s 1–0 win over the Kings, the league’s first expansion team to sweep its first playoff series. Earlier this year, FiveThirtyEight even called the Knights “The Best Expansion Team In the History Of Pro Sports.”

But this success has led to some questions. Are the Knights in this position because of GM George McPhee’s ability to craft an exceptional team, or is it because the NHL changed its expansion draft rules to help Vegas succeed early? (The 30 existing teams could protect only nine or 11 players in last year’s draft, while in 2000 — the most recent previous expansion draft — teams could protect 12 or 15 players.) On Wednesday, The Ringer’s resident hockey fans joined together to discuss how the Knights got to where they are.

Donnie Kwak: Is this a hot or tepid take: The Golden Knights are not some cute “underdog” expansion surprise story because the league loaded them with more talent than any expansion team in any league ever, and in fact we should hate them for that because they have an unfair advantage.

Matt James: Maybe the expansion draft rules were too kind — you can definitely make that argument. I’m sure the Arizona Coyotes (who haven’t made the playoffs since 2012) would love to just redo their whole team with expansion draft rules. Maybe even some mid-tier teams would like to do the same.

But you have to give Vegas credit. Even if the expansion draft is too kind, they still had to put together a team from nothing and navigate all of the intricacies of the expansion draft rules.

Megan Schuster: I read something about this the other day that mentioned McPhee basically fleeced the teams that were scared to give up a good player in the expansion draft through trades.

The Wild alone gave up Alex Tuch to get the Knights to take Erik Haula over some of the other players they had exposed, and Tuch and Haula have both been great for Vegas.

Kwak: Hopefully someone as good as McPhee will helm the Seattle project. Maybe the argument here is that the NHL got expansion right? And this should be the norm moving forward — creating insta-contenders?

James: We’ll know for sure once Seattle finishes with the worst record in the NHL in its first year.

Kwak: Atlanta United got their expansion right in the MLS, too.

Schuster: I’d be really curious to see what Vegas would have looked like this year under a different GM. I wonder whether it was just McPhee creating his own advantage, or that the Knights really got that much extra help from the rule changes.

Kwak: As a Capitals fan, I can say GMGM [McPhee] is one shrewd dude.

Rubie Edmondson: If the Knights win the Stanley Cup, they should blow up the NHL and let each team start from scratch. It’s the only solution.

Cory McConnell: Please, no.

Rodger Sherman: It’s also interesting just from the perspective of: What does a league owe an expansion team? Some recent expansion teams (the Charlotte Bobcats in the NBA and the Cleveland Browns in the NFL) have just been utter shit for their entire existence. They got the stench of losing on them early, thanks to unhelpful expansion drafts, and haven’t really been able to shake it. I think leagues do have an interest in avoiding a blighted franchise, even if it comes at the expense of the other teams in the league.

Kwak: The Knights do have some (somewhat similar) precedent — the Florida Panthers made the Cup the third year after joining the league. Though they’ve made the playoffs only four times in the 21 seasons since.

Schuster: The Wild and Blue Jackets had been the most recent NHL expansion teams, in 2000, and the Wild weren’t over .500 until their third season, and Columbus didn’t make the playoffs until its eighth.

Kwak: It doesn’t behoove a league to have an expansion team be crap.

Sherman: But any success comes at the expense of 30 other owners.

Edmondson: The Knights’ success makes the whole league better and (sorry) that’s especially important for the NHL. The league can’t really afford to have an expansion team become the Cleveland Browns.

James: RIP to the Atlanta Thrashers, and then years later Atlanta gets an MLS team that packs a football arena for every game.

McConnell: Here’s my nuanced Vegas take:

Schuster: My issue with that line of thinking is: I’d rather see Vegas win than a team like the Penguins for the third-straight year.

James: Well, certainly the Vegas fan base hasn’t earned a Stanley Cup yet, but as far as the players go, they’re all guys who weren’t viewed as important enough to keep. So I can’t hate them until at least next year. Too good an underdog revenge story on the player side.