One of the big surprises in the hockey world this 2017-18 season is obviously how good the Las Vegas Golden Knights were. In their first season as a hockey team in the NHL as an expansion team with a brand new roster, meaning that they didn’t just move from one city to another, they stayed consistently really good over the entirety of the season. With a record of 51 wins, 24 losses, and 7 OT or shootout losses they finished third in the western conference, first in the pacific division, and fifth in the league with 109 points. Then from there, they dominated in the opening three rounds of the playoffs, sweeping the Los Angeles Kings in the first round and only losing three games in the next two rounds, as they made it to the 2018 Stanley Cup Finals against the Washington Capitals. This is quite an impressive amount of accomplishments for a team in its first season. So what made them an elite team in the NHL in just their first season?
One common theory or hypothesis is the surprise factor, meaning that teams did not expect them to be good. This is one that may be true, for other NHL teams may not have paid to much attention to the Golden Knights and could have even underestimated them. Being a brand new team, not many people really expected them to do so good this season, and did not expect them to be trading draft picks for players at the trade deadline in February, but that is what happened. We have seen similar situations like this before, but usually with the surprise factor, other teams tend to take notice after the first half of the season and you would expect a steady decline of a team like the Golden Knights in the second half of the season. This did not occur though, and Vegas stayed hot. In order to find out if it was indeed the surprise factor we will really have to wait and see how they do next season, but I’m not too sure that it was a surprise factor. Regardless though this is another good example of why you should never underestimate an opponent.
Perhaps Vegas just had, not the best players, but the right group of players to form great chemistry. In my opinion, it is better to have better chemistry than better players and Vegas could have done just this. When building the USA Miracle team for the 1980 Olympics, Herb Brooks mentioned how he was looking for the right players, not the best ones. Las Vegas could have drafted a group of players that really meshed well together and formed all-star chemistry, bringing out the best in each other and propelling them to be one of the top teams in the league. We have seen this before with the 1980 USA gold medal winning hockey team and this could have very well happened with Las Vegas. If you get players together who have the right attitude and mindset, and mesh well together, great things can happen with a team. A forward line of players who have all-star chemistry can outplay a forward line of all-stars with poor chemistry.
Another guess as to why the Golden Knights were so golden, is that the players had breakout seasons or got the ice time they needed to show that they were really good NHL players. Not only did Vegas do surprisingly well, but so did some of their players. For example, in two 81 game seasons (first relatively full seasons) young forward William Karlsson compiled just 15 goals and 30 assists for 45 points. This season he had more points then the past two combined with 43 goals and 35 assists for 78 points in 82 games. Other players also improved 20 plus points for new season career bests such as Jonathan Marchessaul (75 points), Erik Haula (55 points), and defenseman Colin Miller (41 points), who in his last two seasons played a combined 103 games, but only managed 29 points. So, a combination of players doing surprisingly well and getting ice time they never got before, could have allowed them to be able to show what they were capable of. I have often thought that sometimes what a player needs to be great is ice time and a chance to be show what they are capable of as a player in the NHL, this could have been what happened with Vegas. Players got a better chance to prove themselves in the NHL, by garnering more ice time on a brand new team with a brand new roster and only one All-star skater in veteran forward James Neal.
A fourth possibility could just be the leadership the team was under through the coaching staff, ownership, general manager, and their superstar goaltender and three-time Stanley Cup champion Marc-Andre Fleury. Or maybe, and quite simply, they were just a good team. The hockey world had its low expectations for the Golden Knights this season and they wanted to prove the hockey world wrong. My guess is that it is a combination of surprise, right group of players, leadership, and players getting to prove themselves that made them so good. No matter the case, the Golden Knights have made sports history, giving people a sports topic that is an exciting one and at times confusing topic. Feel free to let me know your thoughts on the Golden Knights in the comments or any other hockey topic you would like to bring up.