Welcome to impossible: The Golden Knights and the NHL miracle that makes no sense

Sean McIndoe
The Guardian
<span class="element-image__caption">The Vegas Golden Knights celebrate defeating the Winnipeg Jets to make the Stanley Cup final. </span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: David Lipnowski/Getty Images</span>
The Vegas Golden Knights celebrate defeating the Winnipeg Jets to make the Stanley Cup final. Photograph: David Lipnowski/Getty Images

So what just happened? On Sunday, the Vegas Golden Knights defeated the Winnipeg Jets to advance to the Stanley Cup Final

The win is the latest in what’s been a stunning campaign – they were 500-1 to win the championship at the start of the season – one that’s seen the Golden Knights stake their claim as the best expansion team in the history of North American sports. There’s a very good chance that they’ll win the next round too, becoming Stanley Cup champions in their very first season.  Nobody saw this coming – as a new team, the Knights weren’t expected to contend for anything aside from last place. But they’ve defied all the odds, and are now just four wins away from the most unlikely championship the sport has ever seen.

That sounds like an amazing underdog story. It sure is!

So how did the Golden Knights do it? No idea!

Ha ha. But seriously, how did they do it? Seriously … no idea. I don’t know. Nobody does. The entire hockey world is completely perplexed by this. There’s no logical explanation.

Um, aren’t you supposed to be some sort of expert? Look, I could try to make something up, and pretend that anyone could have seen any of this coming. But I’d be lying. None of this makes any sense.

Let’s back up to where we were roughly one year ago. Last spring, the Golden Knights existed as a name and a logo and not much else. Their roster was pretty much empty. They wouldn’t fill that out until the end of June when they got to pick one player from the other 30 teams at the expansion draft, although their rivals would get to protect most of their key pieces.

The most optimistic view at the time was that if the Knights absolutely nailed each and every pick, they could be good enough to make the playoffs.  Then the expansion draft came and went, and most of us figured the Knights had screwed it up. They’d taken too many old guys. They’d loaded up on depth defensemen. They’d passed over most of the high-risk, high-reward picks, instead landing a few decent players and a whole bunch of filler. The reviews were brutal. They were going to be terrible.

Wow. So nobody believed in this team, except for the Golden Knights themselves? Oh no, they also thought they’d be bad.

Here’s team owner Bill Foley, in an interview conducted after the draft but before the season started, describing his vision for their inaugural season. He’s asked how good the team could be, and answers that “if we’re going to lose a game, we’d like to lose by a goal or two, not lose by five or six.” That’s it. That was the plan, as described by the team’s owner. Just try not to lose by six goals. 

Is this just one of those crazy playoff runs where a bad team gets hot for a few weeks? No, which is what makes this so weird. Hockey is a game that’s prone to upsets, where a few hot streaks and a dose of good luck can take a mediocre team a long way. That’s how we got the Miracle on Ice at the 1980 Olympics.

But that isn’t what the Golden Knights did. They were good right out of the gate, getting off to an emotional start and then winning eight of their first nine games. The had an eight-game winning streak midway through the season. They finished with 109 points and won their division easily, then swept the first round of the playoffs. This is no fluke. They’ve been good since day one. 

That … makes no sense. That’s what I keep saying!

Go back to the expansion draft. I heard that the whole thing was rigged to make sure the Golden Knights would be good, is that true? The Knights had paid a record $500m expansion fee to the NHL, the theory went, and in return the league had served up a revised set of expansion draft rules that were guaranteed to result in the team being good right away. That’s led to some fans pushing the idea that this isn’t some great underdog story at all – it’s just a league that sold out its established fan base to serve up a championship on a silver platter to the new guys.

But there’s a glaring problem with the whole  line of complaint, and we’ve already hit on it: absolutely nobody thought the Knights had a good roster after the expansion draft. None of us. The idea that this was all inevitable is the worst kind of revisionist history. Ignore it when you hear it.

So who gets the credit for what the Golden Knights are doing? There’s plenty to go around. We could start with Marc-Andre Fleury, the goaltender. He’s one of the few big names the team added at the expansion draft, coming over from the Pittsburgh Penguins. He’s been spectacular, especially during the playoffs, and strong goaltending goes a long way in the NHL.

The team also got a boost from its two leading scorers, William Karlsson and Jonathan Marchessault. Then there’s head coach Gerard Gallant. He’s done a fantastic job, and has the Knights playing fast, entertaining hockey that saw them finish fourth in the league in goals scored. He’s going to win coach of the year honors in a landslide.

But most of the credit is going to general manager George McPhee. He’s the one who put this team together, navigating the expansion draft and the various trades that went with it. It’s one of the best jobs of roster construction the league has ever seen.

Wait, the GM is some kind of genius? Couldn’t that explain all of this? In theory, sure. Maybe George McPhee is some sort of hockey savant who’s playing 3D chess while everyone else in the league is eating the checkers. That would actually be a valid explanation.

Except … at his previous job, McPhee made one of the worst trades in NHL history. With Vegas, his biggest and most expensive post-draft acquisition was a Russian free agent who lasted three games in the league. At the trade deadline, his big move was trading three draft picks to acquire a player the team isn’t even using. That’s the guy who’s running laps around the rest of the league.

Um … Don’t take this the wrong way, but… No, go ahead and say it, we’re all thinking it.

Is it possible that all this is happening because nobody in the NHL actually knows what they’re doing? This is actually the most plausible theory we have.  If the Knights have proven anything, it’s that it’s quite possible that nobody in the NHL is good at their jobs. Nobody. Not the other general managers, who coughed up a championship-caliber roster while protecting far worse players. Not the scouts, who told them which players were good. Not the coaches, who’ve been preaching boring defensive hockey when apparently a bunch of castoffs can win a Cup with speed and offense. Not the media and other experts, who were completely wrong about how good this team would be. And not the fans, who spend so much time trying to figure out a sport that apparently doesn’t make a damn bit of sense. We’re all fools. All of us.

Is all of this actually good for the NHL? That’s up for debate. Many fans love it. It’s a fun story, and everyone enjoys a good underdog. There are plenty of diehard fans who can’t get enough of what the Knights are doing. And there are plenty of new fans who are being lured in by the whole story.

But other fans aren’t happy, either because they’re jealous, bitter, or just don’t like the idea that the NHL is apparently a largely random league where a bunch of people act as if they understand what’s happening but nobody actually does. Nobody’s right or wrong – it’s really more of a personal preference thing. Let’s just say it’s an ongoing debate, and we’ll hear plenty about over the next two weeks, and probably beyond.

So what happens now? The Vegas Golden Knights win the Stanley Cup, probably in four straight games. The city goes crazy. They have the best championship parade anyone has ever seen. Hollywood immediately gets to work on the movie. The Knights go down in history as one of the greatest underdog stories in the history of sports. Every star free agent flocks to Vegas, and they build a super-team of all-stars to dominate the league for years to come.

Then next year, they finish dead last.

That wouldn’t make any sense. Exactly.

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