The Vegas Golden Knights were the result of a bunch of bad ideas.
The first was expanding, again, in a southwesterly direction. The second was choosing, again, to plant a flag in a desert. The third was calling the team the Golden Knights (presumably because of Las Vegas’s rich, medieval history).
It was emblematic of the way things are done in sports now – it was a solution in search of a problem.
Do you have a bunch of dumb money? An arena sitting empty? A local population that neither knows anything about nor cares for hockey? Well, does the NHL ever have an idea for you! An ECHL team in the city folded in early 2016. That somehow suggested that what the market needed was more hockey. The NHL jumped in that summer, crowing that it had the marketplace to itself. The NFL upstaged a few months later by announcing it was moving a franchise there.
The club was staffed up with players other teams judged surplus to basic requirements. Few of them had any name recognition.
The only thing everyone seemed certain of is that once loosed on the Strip, most of the roster would soon be rotating through 12-step programs.
The team itself wrote off the year before it started. Then the worst mass shooting in U.S. history happened a couple of blocks down the road.
Nothing about this should have worked. And so it has.
The Golden Knights will hit the halfway mark of their NHL season in a week. As the new year ticked over, they sat first in the Western Conference, winners of seven in a row, the NHL’s hottest team in more than meteorological terms.
We’re past the fluke stage. You can’t fake your way through 40 games.
Though this team doesn’t do any one thing brilliantly, it does just about everything well. It’s been great at home, incredible with a lead and – let’s not get all meta on this part – lucky.
Currently, their biggest star by media impressions is GM George McPhee.
For most of a year, since Vegas began preparing for the expansion draft, McPhee faced one type of question with many permutations – “Would you trade Player X for Player Y.”
When Vegas started out surprisingly well, that changed – “How much is it going to take for you to give up Player X.”
Now it’s become, “Don’t you think you should keep Player X? And Y? And Z?”
McPhee is so taciturn in interviews, he may actually be talking in his sleep. He’s good at deflecting the trade question. Whenever it comes up, he bangs on about a “master plan” that sounds increasingly like “I have no idea.”
The questions nobody bothers to ask McPhee is, “How the hell did you do this? And why can’t anyone else?”
It’s absolutely certain the answer would neither excite you nor be any sort of answer. Something about smart guys in the room and being fortunate enough to have great ownership and a great bunch of blah blah.
That’s not the point. If McPhee had a formula, he wouldn’t share it. And McPhee, I will guarantee you, does not have a formula. He took some good guesses and, like the team itself, got lucky. Aside from a few genuine savants, that’s all successful sports management is – having a pedigree, knowing the lingo and good fortune.
What matters about those questions is how stupid it makes a lot of other people in the league look.
Where are all their unwanted rabbits pulled from obscure hats? Where’s their Jonathan Marchessault? Why can’t their scouting department identify that sort of overlooked/underappreciated player? Why can’t they figure out a way to finagle an all-upside young player like William Karlsson?
In essence, where is their managerial creativity?
Buffalo is functionally an expansion team, and has been for a lot longer than Las Vegas. They took Jack Eichel second over all a while ago and are now waiting for him to grow up (in several senses). That’s about it.
These decisions are not informed by a deep understanding of the professional landscape. Any nitwit with a copy of The Hockey News and the ability to count to two would’ve made the same call.
Ditto the Edmonton Oilers and all their No. 1 picks and bottom-fifth record. How much insight has their millions spent on executive salaries brought them so far?
It’s one thing to stand up at a podium and explain that building a contending hockey team is a lot harder than it looks from your couch. It is another to do it when George McPhee, a man literally coming out of the desert, has done it in a few months.
With that in mind, what’s Marc Bergevin’s excuse? Because I don’t think it’s a lack of local patience, involvement and understanding.
How can anyone in Ottawa’s or Calgary’s ownership structure talk straight-facedly about abandoning town because things aren’t just right for hockey when Vegas has made the game work in a place that is inhospitable to human habitation.
This doomed enterprise on hockey’s outer ring is making a lot of people in the establishment end of the NHL look foolish.
Some already think the Golden Knights are the best expansion team in sports history. Let’s see where they are in April. And then again in May.
But what McPhee and his team have already achieved is proving that professional hockey is not R&D at a physics laboratory. It doesn’t take years of study and experimentation. With the right person making the right decisions in the right moment, it can turn over successfully in short order.
Most in the NHL won’t want to think too hard about that. They would like their team-building project to be more of an artistic endeavour – which is to say that it costs a lot of money to stage, and often bombs.