For those seeking games to watch that don’t feel like Groundhog Day, however, the NHL Stanley Cup Final, also in progress, features a far more interesting storyline. The Washington Capitals and the Vegas Golden Knights are the last two teams standing, meaning one franchise is guaranteed to make history. Can the Capitals win the Stanley Cup after coming up short in each of their previous 42 seasons? Or will the Golden Knights prevail and cap in grand fashion the best season by an expansion team of the four major North American sports in the last 50 years?
Why are we talking hockey on a Phoenix Suns blog? Easy. The Golden Knights are a story of hope, of defying the odds and doing what no one else thought possible.
Vegas entered the 2017-18 season as 500-1 long shots to win the Stanley Cup by some sportsbooks. Their owner, Bill Foley, said, “We don’t have high expectations for this year.” Los Angeles Kings defenseman Drew Doughty told reporters after a December loss at the hands of Vegas, “There’s no way they’re going to be a better team than us by the end of the season.” But the Golden Knights wouldn’t be written off so easily. They finished with a record of 51-24-7, fifth-best in the NHL. They swept Doughty’s LA Kings in the first round of the playoffs. Even sitting in the 3-1 hole they occupy at the hands of the Capitals is a far cry from what was unreasonably expected, let alone reasonably. Win or lose — and the odds are long on the former — their season has been an unqualified success.
No one expects the 21-61 Suns to emerge from the West next season, but the Golden Knights used avenues also available to Phoenix in orchestrating their jaw-dropping ascension from nothingness. Perhaps general manager Ryan McDonough and the Suns can look to the frozen north of Las Vegas and steal a tip or two to extricate this team from its current outpost in the depths of Hell.
(Full disclosure: I know as much about hockey as I do animal husbandry, and I try not to pry too deeply into either. But, really, how badly could this go? Also, what’s that black thing the players keep swatting around the ice court?)
Define a culture and build to that vision
Going into the expansion draft, Vegas was not content with being the league’s punching bag. They were realistic in their expectations but also intent on constructing a team that would compete in every game. Wins would be nice, but effort was mandatory.
“We were looking for the most talented people we could get but they had to be hard-working because you can accomplish things with a team of workers,” general manager George McPhee said. “We wanted low-ego people who were ready to work.”
The Golden Knights emphasized team above all else, and anyone unwilling to buy into that vision wasn’t long for the uniform. The clearest example of this was the decision to send to its farm system center Vadim Shipachyov, a marquee signing early in the Golden Knights’ existence that the team overpayed to acquire. Shipachyov came with a lot of hype and was expected by many to be one of Vegas’ best players this season. But he did not live up to the hype and, despite his contract, was dispatched twice to the AHL before he retired and returned to Russia.
“Not having that player make the team may have been our best move all year because it sent the message to everyone that nothing matters other than the way you compete and perform,” McPhee said in a New York Times quote.
He elaborated in an interview before the Stanley Cup Final. “We just tried to make it clear to all of our players, it started with camp obviously, but it’s been this way all year long. It doesn’t matter where you were drafted in your career, how many teams you’ve been with, what your contract status is, what your age is. You’re going to be on this team if you’re a right fit and a right personality and ready to work. If you’re that kind of person, we’ll find room for you.”
The Golden Knights didn’t let being an expansion team toy with their thought process. They had the mettle to demote a highly paid, high-profile player and turn to their next option, William Karlsson. Karlsson, who averaged six goals per season in his first three years, fit the identity and culture of the team better than Shipachyov and rewarded management’s faith by turning in his finest season as a professional, scoring 43 goals.
Vegas stocked its pantry with young players who had the potential for breakout seasons if given an expanded role; this isn’t disputed. However, they did not hand these players anything. If someone played, it was because they had earned their time on the ice. That was the culture McPhee and coach Gerard Gallant installed, and they stuck to it. No waffling. And it paid off for them in spades.
It’s a strategy the Suns will ideally allow new coach Igor Kokoskov to implement. He spoke of how the NBA isn’t a development league during his press conference last month, but the front office must empower this line of thinking next season. Former head coach Jay Triano benched Josh Jackson for a game back in January to send him a message, but his roster depth was not conducive to sending regular messages of that sort, especially once the injuries (“injuries”?) piled on. A roster stocked with hard-working, viable NBA players and a zero tolerance policy toward the kinds of immaturity that have plagued the Suns in recent years would be an excellent step forward.
Add solid veterans and use cap space wisely
The Golden Knights had a huge advantage cap-wise. As an expansion team, their cap was wide open while most teams were in a crunch. Understanding this, they wheeled and dealed during the expansion draft, taking on deals other teams wished to shed in exchange for assets.
The most striking example of this was the deal for Karlsson. Vegas agreed to select Karlsson from the Columbus Blue Jackets instead of other, more promising Columbus talent in exchange for a 2017 draft pick, a 2019 draft pick, and taking on the boondoggle contract of injured forward David Clarkson — a contract they could easily absorb. They also snagged 30-goal scorer Jonathan Marchessault after the Florida Panthers agreed to leave him unprotected if the Golden Knights would take on the burdensome contract of Reilly Smith. All Vegas had to send in return was a fourth round pick.
By the end of the expansion draft, McPhee had capitalized on his cap space to come away from the process with more than a team filled with washed-up veterans and career vagabonds as is the norm for most expansion teams. He’d finagled two of the top 15 draft picks in 2017 along with talented young players such as Karlsson, Marchessault, and defenseman Shea Theodore.
But Vegas didn’t push all their chips in for youth. When the Pittsburgh Penguins chose to protect young goalie Matt Murray over then 32-year-old and three-time Stanley Cup champion Marc-Andre Fleury, the Golden Knights snatched him up. In return, Fleury posted what may very well be his greatest season in net, giving his new team career bests in save percentage (.927) and goals against average (2.24). They also took defenseman Deryk Engelland (35 years old at the time) and wing James Neal (almost 30). Both have played significant roles for the Golden Knights during their playoff run.
McPhee didn’t go the route of all youth, hoping the crop would develop along some sort of line of time. He sprinkled in key veterans who could not only provide leadership to a youngish team but also contribute to winning on the ice. It was a balance, and Vegas struck it perfectly.
Phoenix can’t replicate this strategy exactly, but as one of few teams with cap space entering this summer, they can concoct their own version. There will be free agents, both young and veteran, that cash-strapped teams struggle to pay. There will be teams looking for cap relief. There will be logjams to clear. Whatever the situation, the Suns are poised to be players. What remains in doubt is their willingness to dive into the deep end and commit to a teambuilding strategy that consists of more than nebulous speech regarding future competitiveness. That’s not an endorsement of reckless spending, but it’s time McDonough takes off the floaties.
Ha ha. If you would kindly turn six, we can discuss what this really means.
McPhee and the Golden Knights did extensive homework before they executed their plan, but some things really are a crapshoot. No one predicted Fleury would have his best season at 33 years old. No one knew Karlsson would finish third in the NHL for goals or that a team of self-styled misfits would have so many players turn in career years. Credit goes to everyone who did the work because the team’s success is no fluke, but from the favorable expansion draft environment to avoidance of serious injuries or locker room rifts, this team was definitely on Tyche’s good side.
And that’s okay. You play the hand you’re dealt in sports and hope your decisions hit big instead of bust. (Last gambling reference. Promise.) Every successful team requires a dollop of luck. Just ask Mike D’Antoni. Or maybe don’t.
Granted, the Suns and McDonough can’t control this last point, but it’s worth hoping Phoenix didn’t use up its luck when the numbers 9, 12, 6, and 1 were pulled from the hopper last month.