–The Vegas Golden Knights have obliterated all records for NHL expansion teams.
–The Golden Knights have improbably made the Stanley Cup Finals.
–The Golden Knights play their home games in the brand new T-Mobile Arena.
There’s been a lot of talk about the Vegas Golden Knights since they won their Western Conference Final series against the Winnipeg Jets and advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals. Much has focused on the betting angle, particularly how Las Vegas locals who bought ‘Knights to Win Stanley Cup’ tickets early on as a souvenir are now staring at a big payday. Even among non-betting types there’s been a lot of enthusiasm–who doesn’t love an ‘underdog story’ even if the underdog in question quickly morphed into one of the best teams in the Western Conference. There’s also been the ‘haters’–a Vegas Stanley Cup would be bad for hockey, the NHL gerrymandered the expansion draft to make them good and even the old ‘it’s fixed’ canard that comes up anytime anything unexpected happens in sports.
One component of their success hasn’t received much discussion but IMO it’s a very salient point–the economic and competitive dynamic of sports is markedly different now than it was a couple of decades ago. It’s hard to believe, but that’s how long it has been since any of the four major North American sports had a true ‘expansion team’ enter the league. The last true expansion team to join the NHL (as opposed to a franchise relocation) was in the year 2000 when the Columbus Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild joined the league. Prior to the Golden Knights, the last ‘true expansion team’ in any North American major sport was the Houston Texans who joined the NFL in 2002. In the NBA, you have to go back to 1995 when the Vancouver (now Memphis) Grizzlies and Toronto Raptors were added. In Major League Baseball, it was the Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Devil Rays (now called simply the ‘Rays’).
Sports were a big business at the start of the 21st Century but they’re much bigger now. The NFL, for example, had revenues of $4.28 billion US in 2001. Last year, they brought in $13.16 billion US. The NFL’s financial performance is staggering and the league is the richest and most lucrative professional sports organization in the world. The other sports might not be in their league but they also have big money involved. Major League Baseball’s revenues exceeded $10 billion US for the first time in 2017–the 15th straight season of increasing revenues. The NBA brings in over $7 billion US per season. The NHL brought in $4.1 billion US in revenue last season. The entire US professional sport ‘industry’ has seen revenues grow by 3 to 5% per year every year for the past decade.
THE VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS ARE THE FIRST EXPANSION TEAM IN THE ‘NEW ERA’ OF SPORTS
Given the money involved in professional sports today it’s not surprising that the NHL had a highly vested interest in giving the Vegas Golden Knights a fighting chance from the outset. The rules of expansion drafts had changed several times to make new teams more competitive. In 1972, the New York Islanders and Atlanta Flames joined the league and in the expansion draft every NHL team was allowed to protect two goalies and fifteen skaters. In the 2000 expansion draft, every NHL team had the choice of protecting one goaltender, five defensemen, and nine forwards or two goaltenders, three defensemen, and seven forwards. The Nashville Predators and Atlanta Thrashers were the newest teams in the league at the time and they didn’t have to expose any of their players to the expansion draft. In 2017, each NHL team was allowed to protect seven forwards, three defensemen, and one goaltender or, one goaltender and eight skaters regardless of position. There were a number of stipulations about which players were eligible such as requiring two years of professional experience. The result was that each of the 30 NHL teams would lose one top-four defensemen or third-line forward.
No longer can leagues afford to leave a franchise ‘twisting in the wind’ for a few years hoping they find some competitive traction. Such was the case in the 1970’s–for example, in the 1974 expansion the Washington Capitals and Kansas City Scouts put up a combined first year record of 23-121-16. The Capitals didn’t reach the playoffs until 1983 but the previous summer there was serious talk of relocating the team. The Scouts moved to Denver and became the Colorado Rockies in 1976. The only sniff of success they had was one playoff appearance in 1978 where they were swept by the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round. After four more losing seasons the team moved to New Jersey and became the Devils. Even then, the Devils would miss the playoffs for five more seasons before a run to the conference finals in 1987-1988. They’ve been competitive ever since and have three Stanley Cups to show for it. Even so, no fan base should be forced to endure these endless years of mediocrity like the early ‘one playoff appearance in thirteen seasons’ run of the Scouts/Rockies/Devils.
This is in marked contrast to the debut season of the Vegas Golden Knights. Obviously, no one expected them to make the Stanley Cup Finals in their first season but the playoffs were a very realistic goal in a Pacific Division that has a good deal of parity. Everything about the Vegas franchise has been ‘first class’ from the outset. They quickly hired an excellent GM who quickly hired an excellent coach. The days of teams having to start life in a sketchy arena while a better facility is (hopefully) built are long gone but Vegas stepped in to what is arguably the most state of the art arena in the world playing home games at the T-Mobile Arena. The Las Vegas market might not have reached the current level of insanity early on but the team received excellent support from the community even before they stepped on the ice for the first time.
A GREAT JOB BY ALL INVOLVED WITH THE VEGAS TEAM AND A LESSON FOR BETTORS
Also working in the Golden Knights favor–the hockey talent pool is deeper than ever. When the Flames and Islanders joined the league all credible hockey players came from Canada. US players were still a novelty. Today, there’s hockey talent from all over the world in the NHL and the game has reached a very high competitive level in the United States. It’s reached a point where the state of Arizona can produce the first overall pick in the draft (Auston Matthews). Equipment–particularly goaltender equipment–is significantly better. The game is more exciting with team speed and goaltending at a premium.
Of course, none of this minimizes the impressive work done by the Golden Knights on and off the ice. They might of been a capable team under any circumstances but it took a great front office performance and a great coaching job to reach this point. The team ‘gelled’ immediately, has great chemistry and an amazing work ethic. To a man, the players the Knights drafted have taken the opportunity and run with it–particularly William Karlsson and Jonathan Marchessault who have gone from journeymen players to superstars. Marc-Andre Fleury arrived from Pittsburgh with a chip on his shoulder and had a phenomenal season. Most importantly, the Knights never got the memo that the ‘couldn’t win’–another testament to the excellent coaching and player leadership on the ice and in the locker room.
From a betting and oddsmaking standpoint, there is an important lesson to take from the 2017-2018 Vegas Golden Knights. The competitive dynamic of sports change over time. The mistake that I made along with every other NHL handicapper, oddsmaker and analyst was to use the performance of expansion teams that came into the league nearly 20 years ago as a rubric for evaluating the Golden Knights. The axiom that ‘expansion teams have to suck’ is as outdated as ‘you need a power running game to win in the NFL’ or having the expectation that ‘Original Six’ NHL teams have some sort of qualitative advantage over the rest of the league.