As we approach the three-week mark of the 2017-2018 season, several storylines are beginning to take shape. Several teams picked to contend for the Stanley Cup this season are off to slow starts (Looking at you Oilers and Wild), while teams not chosen to compete are surprising hockey experts around the world (Well done Colorado, Los Angeles, and New Jersey). While these teams will jockey for positioning all season, one storyline is undeniable. The Las Vegas Golden Knights are a lot of fun to watch. Yes, that is right. The Golden Knights have captured the hearts of hockey fans everywhere just seven games into their inaugural season. The squad that General Manager George McPhee put together is playing at a fast-pace, with unrelenting fore-checking and aggressiveness. The players are not afraid to take chances and are making the most of their opportunities. Notably, unlike the underwhelming fan experiences we are seeing at Los Angeles football games, Vegas’ home-ice atmosphere is absolutely rocking. What many feared would be an arena filled with corporate suits and high-rollers given free tickets by casinos has proven to be a legitimate hockey hot bed.
The NHL is not exactly known for being the most innovative league in America, but with this move, they take a step in the right direction, opening up the wild world of Vegas for all sports fans to enjoy. If you haven’t had the pleasure of watching this team play, here is why you need to change that.
Vegas Golden Knight
The success of any successful NHL franchise boils down to the talent that is put on the ice. That said, it’s no wonder that new teams forced to build through an expansion draft often flounder as they try to piece together a bunch of castaways from other organizations. However, Vegas is an exception to that rule. While you won’t find anyone on Vegas mentioned in the same breath as Sidney Crosby or Connor McDavid, GM George McPhee has done a masterful job putting together a team that can compete on a nightly basis.
The General Manager
Starting with the Expansion Draft back in June, McPhee had to select his team from a pool of unprotected players not sheltered by their former teams. Rather than waiting to see what players were available to him, McPhee took serious action wheeling and dealing through numerous trades that netted him draft picks in exchange for his promise not to select certain players. The brilliance of this move cannot be understated. McPhee ushered Vegas into the league with the only asset to their name being their right to make selections in an Expansion Draft, and turned it into Vegas’ future draft selections. In doing so, McPhee has managed to assemble a team that can win, while also keeping an eye towards the future.
Moving to the other executive leading the charge, the Golden Knights are in good hands with head coach Gerard Gallant at the helm. Gallant led the Panthers to a Southeast division title during the 2015-16 season before being let go 20 games into the following season in a move that many are still scratching their heads over (Adding to a long list of questionable management decisions the Panthers have made over the years). As head coach of the Panthers, Gallant had shown himself capable of getting the most of a both his young core and experienced veterans. He is also known as a “player’s coach” who will be able to build strong relationships as well as an established and bought-into overall culture that will make Las Vegas a tough place to play (and not just because of the night-life).
Perhaps the most notable player selected by McPhee during the Expansion Draft was James Neal, the sniper and playmaker who was a part of Nashville’s run to the Cup Finals last season. Neal is the kind of player that you seldom see in an Expansion Draft and has quickly become a fan favorite. Not only does he lead the team in points (8, including 6 goals), but he has been doing it in the most clutch circumstances. Neal already has back-to-back game-winning goals: one on a spectacular move opening night in Dallas, and the other in overtime the following night against the Coyotes. Yes, Neal is certainly making a case to stay in Las Vegas for the long term, bringing both steady offense and a veteran presence to a team that many assumed would lack both.
Another notable Expansion Draft selection has been goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. Before being placed on the injured reserve with a concussion, Fleury was off to an incredible start to the season, winning his first three starts before being injured against the Red Wings. The former Penguin is out to show his critics that he still has a lot of good hockey left in him. Let’s hope he can continue his stellar play once he returns to the ice. That being said, when he did go down, it was hard not to assume the Knights play would go down with him. However, in another surprise from the team that just can’t stop surprising, Vegas has been riding the young Malcolm Subban in nets since Fleury’s injury and they have not lost a step. A 2012 first round pick by the Bruins, Subban seemed destined to sit behind incumbent Tuukka Rask for the foreseeable future. However, the Bruins had placed Subban on waivers and on October 3rd, the Golden Knights claimed him. Since coming in for Fleury, Subban had gone 2-0, and in fitting fashion, beat the Bruins last week while only allowing one goal. Subban was looking great in his third start, against the Blues, but was forced to exit the game early with a lower body injury that will sideline him for about four weeks. Like Fleury, it seems Subban has found a home in Vegas, earning the trust of his teammates, as well as management. Hopefully he can play with the same amount of confidence once he returns to the ice. While the injuries are certainly unfortunate, fans can find a silver lining in the fact that their team owns the rights to two really solid goaltenders.
Why would I bring up negativity in an article about how great this team is? Well, in the modern media climate, you aren’t really a professional sports franchise until the media reports that something is wrong. In the case of Vegas, the biggest negative story to come out of the franchise has surrounded Vadim Shipachyov, a Golden Knights prospect who reportedly wanted out of Vegas due to a lack of playing time. Shipachyov was quick to refute this, which is nothing knew. However, they then went on to actually remedy the situation (take note Marc Bergevin) by allowing Shipachyov to play following an injury to Erik Haula. In his first game as a pro, Shipachyov showed a ton of potential scoring his first goal and showing instant chemistry with line mate, Alex Tuch. The two seem to work well together, and Golden Knights’ fans can get used to that. This Vegas team can turn even the most insignificant negative press into a positive. Moves like that have allowed them to compete immediately against teams that have been building their rosters for years.
Aiding in the success of the Golden Knights is the atmosphere that is being cultivated in Las Vegas. After playing their first two games on the road, the Golden Knights play their next seven games at home. This has allowed them to embrace their hometown and really show fans what it means to see a professional hockey game in one of the most entertaining cities in the world. Anyone who has watched the team’s hype-up prior to puck drop knows that the announcers in Vegas are trying to create an experience, ushering in a new era of fandom to the tune of crazy drummers with light-up sunglasses. But it doesn’t stop with your typical cheerleaders or MCs. In true Vegas fashion, the team has reached a three-year agreement with Cirque du Soleil which will involve Cirque du Soleil themed nights, as well has performances during intermissions. This is not your grandparents’ hockey game.
The energy created by the hometown fans has propelled Vegas to their 6-1 start. This represents the best start by an expansion franchise in the 100-year history of the NHL. While the team will face a major test ahead in the form of a long East coast road trip, their fun style of play will make it hard for even the most die-hard opposing fan to hate on them.
The Golden Knights are the most talked about team in the league, right down to their mascot. The Twitterverse went positively bonkers with the unveiling of “Chance” the Gila Monster. With most hockey fans unfamiliar with this warm-weather creature, fans had a blast speculating as to its species online.
With a strong home support system, the Golden Knights are showing the world that Las Vegas is an incredible sports town. They are filling the T-Mobile Arena to its 17,500 capacity, even exceeding it on opening night with 18,191 in attendance (Gotta love standing-room only tickets).
So… WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?
Seriously… if you have no desire to watch this team play I don’t know that you can truly call yourself a hockey fan. Overnight, a city that many thought would only be able to support a sports franchise by way of big casino money has become the kind of grass-roots hockey town that anyone would be proud to play in. The sports world has definitely taken notice. With the NFL’s Raiders poised to make the move to Vegas in 2020 and the WNBA’s San Antonio Stars likely to make the move as well, the NHL has built a foundation upon which a great sports city will be built. For that, the league deserves immense credit. While other leagues sniffed around Vegas but proved too cautious to take a leap, the NHL dove in head first, forever planting its flag in the desert. The Golden Knights are hockey’s golden goose.
Please. Go. Watch. Them.
Photo courtesy of: AP News