One of the joys of writing in this space has been going back and validating my speculation when I am right, but lately, I have gotten just as much amusement from how wrong I have been because it reminds me that I do not know much, but neither do most people. If every season went according to script, there would be no fun in continuing to watch. For me, Game of Thrones reached a new level as a TV series when the show got further than the books, and I could focus on what was actually happening instead of how it was deviating from the original source material. I turn 28 tomorrow, and I have seen all of my teams win championships. If the unexpected did not continue to happen, I would have no reason to go on as a sports fan.
Last September, I wrote that the expansion Vegas Golden Knights were going to struggle out of the gate, but at least they were getting a great play-by-play announcer in then-Boston Bruins radio announcer Dave Goucher. A bad team in a non-traditional hockey market is how it is supposed to begin, but the time it takes to build a contender builds character or the thousands of new hockey fans the NHL is cultivating. It took the Nashville Predators nearly 20 years to make their first Stanley Cup Final, but when they got there last June, the fans were ready, and the intensity of Nashville’s hockey fans pleasantly surprised a lot of people in the United States and Canada. I was so wrong to have such low expectations about Vegas in year one.
Not only were the Golden Knights not bad, they were among the best teams in the NHL all season. Not only did the Golden Knights make the playoffs, they won their first playoff series. Not only did the Golden Knights win that series, they swept their budding nemesis, the Los Angeles Kings. Even if they lose in the next round to the San Jose Sharks–who themselves swept the Anaheim Ducks–the Knights have already won. This kind of success by a first year expansion team (not including teams that moved and their new cities received instant contenders like the Colorado Avalanche or the Los Angeles Dodgers) is unprecedented.
The immediate success of the Golden Knights says a lot about the level of competitive balance in the NHL. Vegas GM George McPhee is no super-genius; he is a competent hockey executive, but if he were operating on another level as the rest of the league like Theo Epstein or Bill Belichick have in their respective sports, the Washington Capitals would have won at least one Stanley Cup in Alex Ovechkin’s prime. Superstar executives that get played by Brad Pitt in movies don’t exist in that sport.
Maybe it’s the salary cap, or maybe it’s the simple fact that everything about hockey is a crap shoot on some level–ice is slippery, and a random bounce of the puck can change a season–that allows for a roster built out of players the preexisting teams did not want enough to protect to shake up the conference and immediately be good at hockey in the same league where the Buffalo Sabres, Carolina Hurricanes, and Arizona Coyotes have been rebuilding for years and still cannot make the playoffs. As exciting as this is, the overnight success in their inaugural season must be so frustrating for fans of struggling franchises.
The best thing for the growth of hockey in the United States (besides sending the amazing crop of young American NHL talent to the Olympics, but that’s another rant for another day), would be thriving Western Conference rivalries between Vegas and Los Angeles, Vegas and San Jose, and Vegas and Nashville. It has been an incredible ride, but I am the last person to predict how far they will go. I couldn’t believe they had a winning record. It’s great to not know anything sometimes.