Published May 26, 2018
OK. Let me see if I have this straight.
The Stanley Cup Finals are pitting the Washington Capitals, who are in their 43rd season and who have never won the Cup and who took 24 years to make their first Finals appearance, and the Vegas Golden Knights, who weren’t even in the NHL a year ago?
Explain this to me, please.
This is either a great story or a tragedy. Or a farce. I’m not sure which.
One thing’s for certain. This is the ultimate case of “if you make the playoffs, anything can happen,” which NHL teams have been telling themselves for years, whether they believe it or not.
We will either have a Cup champion whose franchise needed 44 years to get it done, or one that needed…one.
Not your father’s expansion team
It used to be where an expansion team in the NHL was better suited for the Ice Follies. They belonged in a rink skating with Mickey Mouse instead of with the Canadiens.
But thanks to the league’s overly generous expansion drafting rules and roster procurement, the Golden Knights are four wins away from stealing the chalice that it has taken established teams decades to hoist.
How do you think the Toronto Maple Leafs (last Cup: 1967) feel about all this?
The Capitals (debut 1974) are in the Finals for just the second time in franchise history. The last time was 20 years ago, when the Red Wings blasted them out in four straight. For over 30 years, the Capitals have mostly been known as the NHL’s great underachievers. So many good regular season teams, so many springtime disappointments.
How long has this been going on? Well, when the Red Wings hired Bryan Murray away from the Capitals to be their coach in 1990, the first question he was hit with by the media was, “How come you couldn’t win in the playoffs in Washington?”
It got to be that you could expect two things in May: flowers, and a Capitals choke job.
This is a franchise that up until last week, aside from the 1998 run, hadn’t really won a big game in its life. Alexander Ovechkin looked to be one of those NHL greats whose fingers would never play for a chance to wear a ring.
And when the Caps found themselves down, 3-2, to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Finals this year, it looked like par for the course—an appropriate metaphor because the Capitals often found themselves swinging golf clubs instead of hockey sticks earlier than expected.
But lo and behold, the Caps shutout the Lightning in both Games 6 and 7, and here they are, finally getting a genuine “kick at the can,” as the hockey people say.
In 1974, when the Capitals burst onto the scene—and when I say “burst,” I mean the same way a water balloon does—the NHL gave no quarter to expansion teams. The league took the franchise fee and supplied the newbies with the dregs of the league, talent-wise. Established teams could protect far more of their core players than were allowed the 2017 NHL teams.
The result? The Capitals went 8-67-5 and their expansion Bobbsey twins, the Kansas City Scouts, were 15-54-11. They were the biggest ice-related disasters since the Titanic.
A Fleury of activity in goal
In 2017, the league’s convoluted rules that governed how existing teams could protect the players in their organization gave the Golden Knights way more to work with than previous expansion teams in NHL history.
In goal, for example, the Knights were able to procure Marc-Andre Fleury, a grizzled, multiple Cup winner with the Pittsburgh Penguins. So what does the 33-year-old Fleury do in 2017-18? He simply has one of the best seasons in his 13-year career, and is 12-3 in the playoffs, with an astronomical save percentage of .947.
In 1974, the Capitals and Scouts goalies might have been suitable for beer leagues. But in Fleury, the Golden Knights got instant credibility between the pipes.
The leading scorer for the Golden Knights in the regular season was Jon Marchessault (27-48-75), who scored 30 goals last year for the Florida Panthers. Yet Marchessault was available in the expansion draft. Go figure. In the playoffs, Marchessault is again leading the way, with 8-10-18.
Something tells me that a player of Marchessault’s caliber wouldn’t have been remotely available in the 1974 expansion draft.
The Golden Knights have been the best thing to hit Las Vegas since the slot machine. Their fans are rowdy and beside themselves. Their home arena should be renamed The House, because they hardly ever lose in T-Mobile Arena—just 10 times in the regular season and only once in the playoffs.
The coach is former Red Wing Gerard Gallant, who daily is making the Panthers look silly for giving him the ziggy a year ago November. Are the Panthers still in the league?
Even though the Golden Knights are hardly the Little Engine That Could, thanks to the NHL’s benevolence, they were hardly anyone’s pre-season pick for the Cup. Yet they won the Pacific Division by eight points. And they’ve been tearing through the playoffs (12-3) like Godzilla through Tokyo.
Before the season, the, ahem, Vegas bookmakers listed the Golden Knights as a 250-to-1 shot to win the Stanley Cup. Someone, somewhere, plunked some money down on that bet last October. Don’t you just despise that person, without even knowing who it is?
Will the Capitals spoil the party?
Are the optics good or bad?
This is all well and good. Well, it’s well—but is it good?
Is it good that a neophyte should enter the NHL and act like it invented the league?
What does it mean for the next expansion team, which appears to be based in Seattle? The league meets on June 20 to decide if the Emerald City should get a team to begin play in 2020. Will the NHL over correct and be more stringent in how the 32nd league team is able to cobble together a roster?
But that’s two years from now. The 2018 Finals start on Monday, and my sense is that the overall NHL fan base is totally down with an expansion team making it to the big stage. It’s the fringe hockey fans and the non-fans who are looking at the NHL cross-eyed, gauging by comments I’ve seen online.
Commissioner Gary Bettman, what kind of a craps game are you running, the naysayers are asking.
I understand that it can look a little specious, this 97-game hot streak the Golden Knights are on. If the NHL was a casino, the Golden Knights would have been escorted out sometime in January. But I don’t think it’s an indictment on the league in general. The NHL is not foreign to teams bobbing up and down, sometimes year to year. In other words, let’s see how Gallant’s boys fare next year.
Ah, “next year.” The official battle cry of so many teams in the league.
They say,”What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.”
You can probably include the Golden Knights in that. I doubt another expansion team will go on this kind of a run.
Wanna bet me?