Hockey is the only North American sport to have an expansion team make the finals in their first season. It has happened twice. The St. Louis Blues made the Stanley Cup Finals in their first two seasons of existence, although they played in a division with the other five expansion franchises at the time. The Vegas Golden Knights are the other team to accomplish this feat, doing so by going 12-2 in their remarkable playoff run this year.
The difference between the Blues initial success and that of the Knights is that the Blues barely got by a lowly Philadelphia squad. Vegas swept a perennial west juggernaut in Los Angeles, while ousting another contender in San Jose in six. The Knights then dispatched the red-hot Winnipeg Jets in five games. St. Louis had a losing record going into that postseason, 27-31-16. Vegas went 51-24-7 in their inaugural campaign, fifth best in the NHL. Some could argue that the expansion draft back in the 1960’s wasn’t fair to the new teams because the original six franchises had so much influence. While that may be true to an extent, Vegas general manager George McPhee was much smarter in building the initial Knights roster.
McPhee started shaping the Vegas roster into the elite squad it is today not by hunting for superstars, but by looking for undervalued talent whose teams did not want to pay them. McPhee made a plethora of trades during the expansion draft, receiving key contributors such as Reilly Smith, Alex Tuch, Shea Theodore, and an abundance of draft picks to acquire more key contributors in the expansion draft, such as Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson, Marc- Andre Fleury, Erik Haula, and William Carrier. He continued at the trade deadline when he acquired quality scorer Tomas Tatar. These Golden Knights are a team of cast-offs and contracts that no one wanted. None of this would be possible, however, without the hiring of head coach Gerard Gallant.
George McPhee got a steal of a head coach hiring Gallant. Gallant had previously coached the Florida Panthers, where he was with Vegas stars Smith and Marchessault. Under Gallant, the Panthers made the playoffs as the Atlantic Division champions, before falling to the Islanders in six games in the first round. Gallant is notorious for helping young talent develop, explaining why under Gallant, Reilly Smith and Jonathan Marchessault developed into top six forwards. This year, William Karlsson and Erik Haula have really come into their own as scorers under Gallant, as Karlsson netted 43 goals goals this season, that was good for third best in the NHL and Haula scored 29 of his own, shattering his previous career high. This in turn has contributed to the run that Vegas is on. The tandem of McPhee and Gallant have built a quality team in Vegas, bringing them all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals. McPhee created a team building model that many other GMs will surely try to replicate, and he will hope to see his creation reach the summit against Washington.