Expansion teams should expect to withstand a few rough seasons right from the beginning. They are the teams whose rosters are comprised of the castaways from other teams, either because they are too old or unproductive, or there happens to be a young stud waiting in the wings whom they would rather protect. As it stands, the expansion draft usually means scraping the bottom of the barrel in hopes of squeezing one or two more seasons out of a player before sending them off to greener pastures. The Washington Capitals (8-67-5, 21 points) in the National Hockey League, the New York Mets (40-120) in Major League Baseball and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (0-14) in the National Football League all demonstrated this.
Some teams take just a few years before making a real impact. In baseball, the Florida Marlins came into existence in 1993. In 1997, they downed the Cleveland Indians to win their first World Series title. They would win again in 2003 against the New York Yankees, marking their second title in 11 seasons up to that point. The Arizona Diamondbacks were established in 1998. By 2001, they downed the Yankees for their first (and only) World Series. The Milwaukee Bucks posted the second worst record in their inaugural season of 1968-1969. They would go on to draft one Lew Alcindor, who later became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and won an NBA title in the 1970-1971 season.
In general, expansion teams are either complete trash, or finish with respectable records that also happen to be under .500. It’s just the nature of the beast. So when the Vegas Golden Knights came into existence, they had the longest odds of winning the Stanley Cup. It would seem that the best they could shoot for was to match the model for expansion successes. That team was the Florida Panthers, who finished the 1993-1994 season with a 33-34-17 record and just missed the playoffs.
Then the season actually started, and Vegas just kept on winning. With only seven games left in the regular season, the Golden Knights tout a 47-21-7 record. They lead the Pacific division with 101 points, which puts them in the discussion for the President’s Trophy, awarded to the team that finishes the season with the most points.
How are they doing it? Look who is in between the pipes: former first overall pick in the 2003 Draft and Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. Fleury is playing out of his mind, going 27-11-4 in 42 starts with a 2.15 goals against average and .930 save percentage. When you look at how the Panthers did it back in their first season, it was through a strong goaltender in John Vanbiesbrouck, who finished with a 2.53 GAA and .924 save percentage. Fleury has even exceeded that performance, so there should be no surprise that Vegas is doing well.
It goes without saying that when defenses do well, it takes a lot of pressure off the offense. And when you look at Vegas, they have the fifth highest goal differential in the league at a +46. The teams that are ahead of them are also the teams ahead of them in the race for the President’s Trophy.
Now, I am not saying that the Golden Knights will win it all this postseason. There are plenty of teams in the East that can certainly knock them off, not to mention what happened to Chicago just last year against Nashville. But even if they don’t go very far in the playoffs, they will still be considered the greatest expansion team of all time.