‘It’s been a lot of fun’

Ve­gas’ wild play­off run built from ex­pan­sion draft bo­nanza

The Sun Times (Owen Sound) - - SPORTS - GREG BEACHAM

Af­ter Bill Fo­ley agreed to pay a whop­ping $500 mil­lion for the right to put a hockey team in the mid­dle of the Mo­jave Desert, the NHL de­cided his Ve­gas Golden Knights de­served a chance for a swift re­turn on that in­vest­ment.

If the other NHL own­ers had known just how huge Fo­ley’s re­ward would be — and how incredibly quickly he would get it — they prob­a­bly wouldn’t have been quite so nice to the new guy.

It’s too late now, though. Af­ter reap­ing a bo­nanza from one of the most gen­er­ous ex­pan­sion drafts in sports his­tory, the Golden Knights are two vic­to­ries away from an un­be­liev­able Stan­ley Cup Fi­nal berth.

A brand-new team in a league that has been around for 101 years al­ready has a Pa­cific Divi­sion ti­tle, two play­off se­ries vic­to­ries and a 2-1 lead on the Winnipeg Jets in the Western Con­fer­ence fi­nals.

“I don’t think any­body saw us here,” Ve­gas goalie Marc-An­dre Fleury said. “It’s been a lot of fun to be part of it. Re­ally proud of this team and the way these guys have been work­ing. We de­serve to be here.”

Fleury and the other play­ers ac­com­plish­ing this feat re­fer to them­selves as the Golden Mis­fits, yet few of Ve­gas’ ex­pan­sion draft se­lec­tions were truly un­de­sired by the clubs that lost them 11 months ago.

In­stead, gen­eral man­ager Ge­orge McPhee took full ad­van­tage of his op­por­tu­ni­ties to com­pile an un­com­monly tal­ented ros­ter, and coach Ger­ard Gal­lant turned that ros­ter into a bril­liant team in shock­ingly swift fash­ion. But it all started with the draft

that al­lowed McPhee to build this mon­ster in less than a year.

“It had a big im­pact,” McPhee ac­knowl­edged. “The (ex­pan­sion draft) rules were favourable. Gave us some­thing to work with, and gave this team an op­por­tu­nity to be a good team.”

The NHL al­lowed its teams to pro­tect only seven for­wards, three de­fence­men and one goalie, or eight skaters and one goalie. By way of com­par­i­son, when the NHL last ex­panded in 2000, teams were al­lowed to pro­tect a whop­ping nine for­wards, five de­fence­men and a goalie, or seven for­wards, three de­fence­men and two goalies.

The league also re­quired teams to ex­pose play­ers with sig­nif­i­cant NHL ex­pe­ri­ence who were un­der con­tract through next sea­son,

clos­ing loop­holes and help­ing Ve­gas even more. Third-line for­wards and top-four de­fence­men were avail­able from al­most ev­ery team.

The eas­i­est ac­qui­si­tion was Fleury, of course. The Knights got a three-time Stan­ley Cup win­ning goalie with 375 ca­reer vic­to­ries for noth­ing, and he has largely stayed healthy while play­ing at a for­mi­da­ble level.

The Knights also landed the likes of James Neal, a proven vet­eran tal­ent with nine con­sec­u­tive 20-goal sea­sons. He scored 25 goals while pro­vid­ing steady vet­eran lead­er­ship.

They plucked Wil­liam Karls­son, a clearly gifted for­ward who had yet to reach his full po­ten­tial with two NHL teams. The Swede swiftly be­came one of the NHL’s

best play­ers, rack­ing up 43 goals — an NHL record for an ex­pan­sion team’s first sea­son — and 35 as­sists along with a plus-49 rat­ing.

And the ex­pan­sion draft terms al­lowed McPhee to get cre­ative in trades with teams hop­ing to keep play­ers who couldn’t fit un­der the pro­tec­tion umbrella. For in­stance, the Knights ended up with Reilly Smith in a trade be­cause Florida wanted them to draft Jonathan Marches­sault — and the two ex-Pan­thers be­came two of the Knights’ top four scor­ers.

The draft bounty isn’t the only rea­son these up­start Knights have im­me­di­ately en­tered their Golden years.

All of this tal­ent wouldn’t have won so many games with­out

Gal­lant. He built a bal­anced, dis­ci­plined team that has rolled four lines and played re­lent­less two-way hockey while min­ing un­tapped tal­ents such as Karls­son and Eric Haula, who scored 29 goals af­ter never man­ag­ing more than 15 in Min­nesota.

“Ger­ard has done a ter­rific job of mak­ing this a team,” McPhee said. “He has re­ally brought a lot of play­ers along, and they’ve played bet­ter than they’ve played any­where else.”

Fo­ley bought this op­por­tu­nity with his $500-mil­lion ex­pan­sion fee, yet no­body in the sports world ex­pected the Golden Knights to put it all to­gether so swiftly. That in­cludes the 73-year-old Fo­ley, who raised eye­brows around the league when he set a pub­lic goal of bring­ing the Stan­ley Cup to Las Ve­gas within six years — a goal he later re­vised to maybe eight years.

In­stead, there’s an in­creas­ingly strong chance the Golden Knights will pa­rade the Stan­ley Cup down the Strip one month from now. There are 12 other NHL teams that have never won a cham­pi­onship, along with seven fran­chises that haven’t raised the Cup in at least 23 years.

Po­ten­tial NHL ex­pan­sion own­ers in Seat­tle and Houston are prob­a­bly think­ing $500 mil­lion was a bar­gain, since the ex­pan­sion fee is likely to go up when the league even­tu­ally awards its 32nd fran­chise. It also seems im­prob­a­ble that the NHL would ever make it this easy to build a team again.

But noth­ing will erase the Golden Knights’ re­mark­able em­brace of this un­usual mo­ment in hockey his­tory.

“It was im­por­tant to the league and to Las Ve­gas and to Bill Fo­ley that this fran­chise had a chance to work,” McPhee said. “That peo­ple that were com­ing to the games could en­joy the prod­uct and be­come real fans, and we could grow some deep roots in this mar­ket­place. So I didn’t mind the rules.”

ETHAN MILLER/GETTY IMAGES

Ve­gas goalie Marc-An­dre Fleury and for­ward Wil­liam Karls­son cel­e­brate af­ter a win over the San Jose Sharks in the sec­ond round of the NHL play­offs ear­lier this month.

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