When a sports team is starting out, most observers set a very low bar for expectations. The hope is the first season isn’t too disastrous, there’s gradual improvement over the next five to 10 years, and the team eventually becomes a playoff contender.
There are rare exceptions to this rule. Consider the Vegas Golden Knights, which is having one of the most successful inaugural seasons of any North American-based team.
The National Hockey League’s newest franchise won its first game, home opener and was the last undefeated team in the 2017-18 regular season. It won the Pacific Division title, the first expansion team to accomplish this feat since the New York Rangers in the 1926-27 season. It broke the total points record (83) for an NHL team in its inaugural year, finishing with 109. It’s gone 12-3 in the playoffs to date, beating the Los Angeles Kings (four games), San Jose Sharks (six games) and Winnipeg Jets (five games).
The Golden Knights are not only Western Conference champions, but they’ve also reached the Stanley Cup Finals. Only two expansion teams have ever accomplished this: the 1917-18 Toronto Arenas (in the NHL’s first season) and the 1967-68 St. Louis Blues (they played in a division of expansion teams and reached the Cup final by beating those same squads).
Are we witnessing the greatest sports story of all time?
Perhaps, but that’s a tough call.
If we look at recent examples, it doesn’t perfectly align with Leicester City’s 2015-16 English Premier League title at 5000:1 odds. The Chicago Cubs’ 2016 World Series victory (after a 108-year drought) and the Boston Red Sox’s 2004 World Series victory (after an 86-year drought) were probably more significant. Greece’s 2004 Euro Cup win over Portugal seemed like divine intervention, as did the win by University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) 74-54 over the University of Virginia earlier this year – the first time a No. 16 seed beat a No. 1 seed in the NCAA basketball tournament.
Meanwhile, some hockey purists have complained about the 2017 expansion draft rules for the Golden Knights.
The NHL forced existing teams to protect fewer players than ever, to ensure that new teams would be more competitive in the future. Hence, the Golden Knights picked players of a slightly higher quality. This included Marc-André Fleury, a stalwart goalie who helped the Pittsburgh Penguins win three Stanley Cups.
Then again, it’s important to keep some perspective.
It’s always been a mug’s game to select one great sports moment over another. Major accomplishments can be compared and contrasted, but the differences in rules, strategies and possible outcomes makes it impossible to be completely subjective.
The Golden Knights’ inaugural season, therefore, has been superlative by comparison to most other teams, active and defunct, in NHL history. It’s already become a part of hockey lore, whether or not it wins the Cup.
The NHL expansion draft may have been a little more advantageous for this team but few would have ever expected a season like this. There’s only a tiny handful of very good players and one recognized superstar. A decent number of wins was always predicted but a deep playoff run was never thought to be in the cards.
The Golden Knights are an example of an expansion team that gelled to perfection with a combination of luck, skill and talent. To assume that future NHL expansion teams will have the same success is premature.
This just may be one of those rare exceptions where the stars were properly aligned for a first-year club.
The Golden Knights’ stunning rise to the top of the hockey world is the type of feel-good story desperately needed in sports.
But it doesn’t mean the bar of expectations for expansion teams should be raised just yet.
Troy Media columnist and political commentator Michael Taube was a speechwriter for former prime minister Stephen Harper.
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