After starting from scratch in 2016, the Golden Knights will play for Lord Stanley's Cup in their first season. A prospective Seattle hockey franchise, if tapped by the NHL as its 32nd team as expected, might soon find itself at the same daunting, yet thrilling juncture.
LAS VEGAS — Standing in a hallway outside the Vegas Golden Knights’ locker room recently, George McPhee thought back to the day it all began.
This was long before the Golden Knights became an NHL phenomenon and the most successful first-year expansion team in the history of the four major sports. This was before the sellout crowds and the mounting expectations, before the T-Mobile Arena near the Vegas strip hummed with a cacophonous joy each game night.
It was July 2016, and McPhee had just been introduced as the Knights’ general manager by majority owner Bill Foley, who with his fellow investors had paid $500 million for the right to become the NHL’s 31st team. It was 11 months until the expansion draft, 15 months until the puck dropped for the first regular-season game.
When the news conference ended, everyone left. But McPhee went upstairs, sat in his unfurnished office, took a deep breath and began calling people about coming to work for the Knights.
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“I had no idea what we could offer them in terms of company benefits, health care and all that,” he said. “That’s how rudimentary it was. We were literally starting from that point.”
The prospective Seattle hockey franchise, if tapped by the NHL as its 32nd team as expected, might soon find itself at the same daunting, yet thrilling juncture, a blank slate ready to be written upon. There is undeniable power in being able to create one’s own vision of team building, yet the sheer magnitude of the task at hand — building the infrastructure virtually from scratch — was readily apparent to McPhee.
He was an NHL lifer who had turned 59 a few days earlier. McPhee played seven seasons for the Rangers and Devils, and had worked in management for three decades for the Canucks, Capitals and Islanders before Foley convinced him that Las Vegas, incongruously, was a place where hockey could thrive. Whenever they held an event, Foley told him incredulously, more people kept showing up. McPhee took the plunge and dived headfirst into the unknown — and the unsullied.
“It is something that most managers in the NHL would love to do at some point in their career, because you really get to build it from the ground up and create your own culture,” McPhee said. “You don’t have to dig out from under whatever the previous administration had done.
“But there also is a tremendous responsibility, too, to give your market a chance to succeed. You don’t want to be a laughingstock. You want to win.”
The bar is set
The Knights have set a high bar for Seattle’s ownership group, which would have to pay an even higher expansion fee than Vegas did — $650 million. The Knights have not only become immensely popular in Las Vegas, but they have emerged as one of the top teams in the league, with the clinching of a playoff berth imminent. Originally established as 500-to-1 by the Vegas sports books to win the Stanley Cup, the Knights are now considered legitimate contenders to do so.
Though they have cooled slightly of late, a rash of injuries contributing to a 5-6 mark in their past 11 games entering Wednesday’s game with Vancouver, the Knights led the Pacific Division with a 46-25-1 record, and their 97 points trailed only Nashville in the Western Conference. By all measures, Vegas is blowing away all standards for expansion.
According to ESPN research, the Knights are the only one of 63 expansion teams in the NFL, NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball since 1960 to have a winning record, and would be one of just six to make the playoffs. But that’s a little misleading, because four of the previous five came out of the NHL in 1967-68, when the league placed all six expansion teams in the same division. The only other expansion team to make the playoffs was the NBA’s 1976-77 Denver Nuggets.
‘And away they went’
Once hired, McPhee picked the brains of others who had gone through the expansion process — most notably Doug Risebrough, who ran the expansion draft for the Minnesota Wild (2000-01), and Bobby Clarke, who masterminded the 1993-94 Florida Panthers.
If McPhee has any advice for the next expansion GM, it would be to focus on putting together the scouting staff as quickly as possible. Though McPhee hired 35 people in a whirlwind first 60 days and made the key hire of coach Gerard Gallant in April 2017, the emphasis always was on getting the scouts out to watch games as quickly as possible, with the expansion and amateur drafts looming.
“I accepted the job July 13, and there were tournaments to see in August,” McPhee said. “You certainly have to get your amateur staff together, and there’s a lot to that. It’s not just finding the right people and getting the right territories covered. It’s, ‘What kind of scouting software are you using, and how are you going to do this?’ ”
By September, with the scouting staff having been outfitted uniformly with laptops, iPads, cellphones and software, the entire group met for an intensive, three-day planning session.
“And away they went,” McPhee said.
The Knights were painstaking in their preparation for the draft, holding myriad internal mock drafts to cover every contingency.
“I really feel like — and I heard George say this — when it was over, there were no surprises,” said team president Kerry Bubolz, who left his post as the Cleveland Cavaliers’ president of business operations to come aboard in October 2016.
An assist from the NHL
Certainly, the NHL helped ensure the Knights could have a quicker path to early success than previous expansion teams by the way it set up the expansion draft. Existing teams could protect either seven forwards, three defensemen and one goalie or eight skaters and one goalie. So instead of protecting 14 or 15 players, as was the case in previous expansion drafts, teams were able to protect just nine or 11. That meant that good players were available, if you knew where to look.
The other significant factor, McPhee said, was the salary cap, which handcuffed many existing teams but became a powerful tool in Vegas’ favor. The rules called for the Knights to take one player from each existing team.
“Teams were looking to move certain contracts, and you can extract value to do that, because you have cap space,” McPhee said.
By all measures, McPhee maneuvered brilliantly, executing 10 side deals in addition to the draft. The key selection was standout goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who had won three Stanley Cups but was left unprotected by Pittsburgh after 23-year-old Matt Murray had led the Penguins to a second consecutive title last season.
Others who have emerged this year include William Karlsson, who went from a sporadic scorer with Columbus to a team-leading 39 goals with Vegas; journeyman forward David Perron, who has 50 assists and leads with 66 points; and Erik Haula, formerly of Minnesota, who has 28 goals.
The league has said that the next expansion draft would operate under the same rules, so Seattle would have the same opportunity to thrive early. It’s a calculated strategy by commissioner Gary Bettman, it seems, and a wise one. Why saddle a new team trying to make inroads in its market with what is typically a woefully non-competitive inaugural team? It doesn’t make business sense. Of those 63 previous expansion teams in the four major sports, 21 had the worst record in their league, and they had a total .331 winning percentage.
“I think Gary did a smart thing — let’s give them the opportunity to at least, if they make good decisions, be successful and competitive,” Bubolz said. “It didn’t guarantee you were going to win a division, but it did give you the opportunity to be competitive in every game.”
What the Knights perhaps weren’t counting on was the hunger that drove their players, who rallied around the fact that their former team had cast them adrift. That motivation even fit Gallant, the coach, who had been fired by the Panthers 22 games into the 2016-17 season despite leading them to the playoffs the previous season.
“We’re getting close to the end of the year, and we’ve been talking about that every single day all year,” said defenseman Shea Theodore, who played with the Seattle Thunderbirds from 2011-15. “That’s something we all focus on, and definitely when we’re playing other teams, you play for that guy, and that just makes it much more meaningful.”
“I don’t know if it’s a chip so much as an opportunity,” defenseman Deryk Engelland said.
Gallant said he scoffed initially at the notion that the Knights were playing with chips on their shoulder. Then he noticed an inescapable fact.
“Every guy played real well against his old team, so there probably was a chip on their shoulder, and they wanted to prove people wrong,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a chip on their shoulder any more. I think every player that’s in that locker room is real excited to be with the Vegas Golden Knights, and they’re really enjoying their time.”
Pulling together after tragedy
And fans in Vegas are ecstatic. The success has certainly helped energize the fan base, and so has the distinction of being the city’s first major pro sports team (with the NFL’s Raiders soon to follow). But the team’s bond with Vegas deepened after the tragic mass shooting on the strip that killed more than 50 people. It happened Oct. 1, 2017; the regular season opened five days later.
The players and staff immersed themselves in the community, visiting hospitals, meeting with police, signing autographs for those in the blood-donor line and buying tickets for surviving victims and first responders. But the signature moment came at the home opener Oct. 10, when after a 58-second moment of silence to honor the 58 who were slain, Engelland — the only player on the team who resides full time in Vegas — gave a short but moving speech.
“To the families and friends of the victims, know that we’ll do everything we can to help you and our city heal,” Engelland said. “We are Vegas strong.”
Reflecting on the aftermath of the shooting, Engelland said, “Guys in here wanted to do whatever they could to make a difference. Even after the (season-opening) Dallas game, I got text messages from guys in the fire department saying, ‘The spirits you’ve lifted around this town is crazy.’ I told the guys on the bus, and they were excited just being able to help the people affected by it. To be able to do that speech, it’s going to go down as probably the top thing in my career.”
Said Bubolz, “I don’t think it’s something you think about rather than just do. … I remember on that Tuesday, it was just this empowered energy in the office like, ‘We’ve got to play a part in the healing.’ ”
A satisfying journey
Oh, yeah — the Knights also won eight of their first nine games, and the love affair was in full bloom. Four months later, when I visited the Knights, McPhee could look back at their journey into existence with a sense of deep satisfaction. He flashed on the day of the expansion draft, when the Knights went from conceptual to a tangible collection of hockey players.
“It was interesting, because it was over, we were done, we made our claims and we had to call our players to tell them,” he said. “Then everyone started walking out the door, and that was it. It’s over? It was kind of a sentimental moment there when the guys were walking out.”
Of course, the sentiment didn’t last long, and the reflection was short-lived because McPhee flew to Chicago after the draft and attending a celebration for fans. He arrived at 3 in the morning and met with staff five hours later to prepare for the amateur draft two days later.
Barring a major unexpected setback, Seattle soon will get to experience those heady days of fashioning a franchise out of thin air. It will be exhilarating, nerve-racking, and exhausting. And one other thing.
“It’s been a hell of a lot of fun,” Bubolz said. “I’m being serious here. It’s been the funnest year and a half I’ve had in my professional career. It’s been an absolute blast.”