Dear Vegas Golden Knights Haters: Enough is Enough

Its not fair, the Vegas Golden Knights got to pick a bunch of all-stars.

I hate their fans and pregame shows.

They don’t deserve a team.

Vegas Golden Knights: The Best Story in Sports

Before getting into all the reasons why those typical “hater” statements are ridiculous and wrong, let’s briefly talk about the history of the Vegas Golden Knights. Almost one year ago, just before the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, we watched George McPhee live at the NHL Expansion Draft. He got to do something all of us armchair GM’s could only dream of; piece together a brand-new NHL franchise.

Constructing the Vegas Golden Knights

Per the NHL’s guidelines, each team protected either seven forwards, three defensemen and one goalie, or eight skaters and one goalie. This quickly took nearly every top-six forward off the board, as well as every top pair defenseman and every team’s current starting goaltender. That being said, there were some exceptions due to teams with gluts at certain positions.

Entering the season, the only known studs on the roster for the Vegas Golden Knights were goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and forwards James Neal and Jonathan Marchessault. (Even Marchessault, despite coming off a 30 goal-season, was unproven past that single year).

McPhee turned a few trades to pick up extra pieces, and the vast majority of the players heading his way were young and had little NHL experience. Besides the big names above, the only other veterans all served depth roles at best through their careers (David Perron, Cody Eakin, Deryk Engelland, etc.). Vegas stocked their cupboards with draft picks and prospects through the expansion process, and committed to long-term success rather than opting for immediate results.

Or so they thought…

The Biggest Surprise in NHL History: The Knights are Immediately Great

For every recent Facebook comment, Tweet, or argument you have seen or heard lately about how the Knights were “obviously” going to be good because they were “handed” their team, there are at least as many from last summer all the way through September saying the exact opposite.

SBNation predicted they’d finish 7th in the Pacific Division, well outside the playoff race. None of these NHL experts had them making the playoffs. USA Today had them dead last.

And most fans heartily agreed. A common theme on social media sites was the debate over whether the Knights or the Colorado Avalanche (coming off a dreadful 48 point campaign) would be worse.

Double-Standard Against Vegas Golden Knights’ Success

Isn’t it funny how people compared the Knights and Avs as relative to one another because both were expected to be awful? Nine months later, both qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Although they were on equal viewing terms at the start of the season, no one seems to be calling Colorado’s improbable turnaround “rigged” or “gifted by the league”. 

(While we’re talking about the Avs, let’s acknowledge just how fantastic their season was. It often got overshadowed by Vegas, but wow were they a pleasant surprise.)

If you viewed the Avalanche year as a great story, then the Knights should absolutely get that same respect. The Chicago Blackhawks, Edmonton Oilers , nd St. Louis Blues all finished well below expectations. People need to put some of the blame on those teams, as obviously others were going to rise and take their spots at the top.

Unexpected Superstars

The Vegas Golden Knights received huge boosts from a bunch of their players that absolutely came as huge surprises. William Karlsson easily wins the “League’s Biggest Surprise” award for the 43 goals he scored after never before reaching even double digits.

Erik Haula more than doubled any goal total he’d posted in the past, reaching 29 (and breaking 20 for the first time ever).

Alex Tuch, a throw-in piece from the Minnesota Wild in exchange for just a 3rd round draft pick, reached 15 goals and 37 points in his rookie season.

David Perron had his best statistical season ever at the age of 32, reaching 66 points. His 50 assists alone exceeded his total point production (goals plus assists) in nine out of his first ten NHL seasons.

Multiple defensemen, including Shea Theodore, Colin Miller, and Nate Schmidt, doubled or tripled their point production to set new career-highs.

Obviously, this whole roster stepped up tremendously. That much elevated play from that many players is impossible to predict, much less “expect” or “guarantee“, no matter how hard you try to argue otherwise. You did not see this coming from the Knights.

So before you say, “Vegas got unfair treatment” or “they were guaranteed to be good”, remember what everyone expected going into the year. After seeing their roster, they still sat as favorites to finish last (or close to it). Just as others fell well short of expectations this year, they flew well above them. That’s the blessing of incredible parity we have in the NHL.

Vegas Fans Riding Momentum, Building a Hockey Market

Now in the Stanley Cup Finals, already with a Pacific Division title and as the reigning Western Conference Champions, the Knights provided plenty of fuel for their fan base to get going. There aren’t many places in the world like Las Vegas, and as the first major professional sports franchise in the city, this Knights team essentially served as an experimental trial-run.

So Far, So Good (So Very, Very Good)

The Golden Knights immediately became part of the “Vegas experience”. Hockey fans now plan vacations to the city with a Knights game in mind. Performers like Logic, Lil Jon and Imagine Dragons hold concerts outside before games, and the organization’s lengthy, Middle Ages-themed pregame shows even made it onto national TV during the Stanley Cup Finals. The building sells out every night, and it frankly looks like an absolute blast day in and day out.

Just because it is different does not make it bad. I’ve seen far too many people referencing these festivities as “a distraction” or “a bad look for the sport”. Nothing could be further from the truth.

New Team and City + Success = Tons of New Fans

The fact of the matter is Vegas is finding ways to appeal to an audience unfamiliar to NHL hockey and professional sports as a whole. It should be no surprise that the “City that Never Sleeps” turned the NHL hockey experience into a party atmosphere for fans to enjoy a complete experience. Players love playing there, and even opponents on the road talk about how electric and loud the inside of the arena gets.

Plus, the team is winning a lot. If I’d never been to an NHL game and my first experience came in Vegas, I’d be hooked. Between the pregame hype, to the crowd’s energy, to the intensity of the sport, to the elite talent of the team, people walk out of T-Mobile Arena every night with a smile on their face.

They’re clearly doing this the right way. A clear non-traditional market is blowing up right now thanks to this perfect storm of fun and success. Rather than judge their methods, re-evaluate and consider how many new hockey fans the Knights are cultivating right now. This is undoubtedly a GREAT look for the game, something the whole sport will benefit from for years to come. Its an easy story to cheer for. Let’s go, Knights!

(Oh, and future Seattle fans: even though you’ll get the same expansion rules, please don’t expect this level of success right away. As unexpected as it was, you must still not expect it from your expansion team. Its better to be happily surprised like Vegas fans, than woefully disappointed if they fall more in line with typical expansion teams.)

Main Photo:
Embed from Getty Images

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