The stunning start to the inaugural National Hockey League season of the expansion Vegas Golden Knights is wonderful news – if you live in Las Vegas.
If you’re a fan of the sport in general? Not so much.
The Knights have bolted out to a 10-2 home record after Sunday's 3-2 OT win over Arizona at T-Mobile Arena, putting them in a playoff position. They’ve already won more games in six weeks than the Winnipeg Jets did in their entire second season. And they’ve tied Ottawa for wins in the expansion Senators’ complete first season.
The Knights have worn it well with a cheeky Twitter account that has no trouble rubbing it in over their success:
• “we have five goals we must know how to hockey.”
• “we must be good or something ”
• “everyone seems to think it’s hard to take a trip to las vegas and come out a winner so we don’t like to disappoint them. Us: 5 Them: 2”
And so on.
In addition, the handle at the Vegas sports books is up 40 per cent on nights that the Knights play. People in a town that usually sees hockey as an afterthought are enjoying watching a game and betting between periods on the results.
But for the rest of the league, the Knights’ unlikely success is bad news – and not just because their teams are losing to coach Gerard Gallant’s ragtag assortment. The biggest takeaway from the Vegas phenomenon is that the NHL will think it’s so successful that they’ll do it again with more expansion teams.
The NHL needs more teams the way the Cleveland Browns need another losing season. The talent supply is already precariously stretched across 31 teams. One might say, in fact, that the Knights success is proof of just how thinly talent is spread.
When an expansion team can cobble together an ad hoc lineup and dominate, that speaks to just how thin the margin of winning has become and how widely the elite talent in the league is distributed.
But if you’re commissioner Gary Bettman, who sees his personal success measured in numbers of teams as opposed to quality of play, the Vegas story seems an open invitation to bring Seattle, Quebec City, Houston and god knows what other burgs into the fold. As the expression goes, when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When you’re Bettman, any success is a reason to dilute the product with more expansion teams.
The commissioner-for-life still can’t reconcile that while there may be a small army of teams, there’s only one Stanley Cup. And while it’s a great accomplishment to win the Cup, there are 30 unhappy fan bases every year that don’t get the big prize. Building a winning tradition means having your franchise win the Cup at least once. But it’s safe to say that in 25 years, there will be teams that still haven’t won the sport’s ultimate reward.
Speaking of the product, there are many more head scratchers besides the unlikely Knights. Many thought Tampa Bay might be leading a division as we headed toward the America Thanksgiving period. But New Jersey, St. Louis and Los Angeles?
Or that the lower reaches of the divisions would see such highly-rated teams as Edmonton, Boston, Chicago or Minnesota bumping along in mediocrity? The potage in Edmonton is especially puzzling.
Since the Oilers waxed Calgary on opening night – and were instantly anointed favourites by experts like me to face Toronto in the Cup Final – Connor McDavid’s team has been a hot mess.
The Oilers’ minus-14 goal differential through Sunday probably tells the story. McDavid is brilliant but the Oilers’ secondary scoring is non-existent. That’s never a good thing in a league where coaches stay awake devising defensive, not offensive, schemes to frustrate opponents.
Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh Penguins are just keeping themselves above water despite an abysmal minus-8 goal differential. Many believe the veteran Pens – and other teams not named Golden Knights – are pacing themselves for the long schedule ahead. That might be true. But no one wants to leapfrog five or six teams in the final month within your division simply to get a wildcard playoff spot.
One other oddity in this Season of the Knights is the streaky play of some teams that seem to go from abysmal to outstanding at the drop of a hat. The best example might be the Montreal Canadiens, who started the season looking like they wanted to battle Arizona for the first overall draft pick. At one point, they’d lost eight of nine games. A lynching was planned for Mount Royal.
But faster than you can say Newsy Lalonde, the Habs have rattled off five straight victories to forestall the pitchforks and flaming torches coming down Rue Ste.-Catherine. For Montreal and so many others bunched in the clogged middle of NHL parity, their fate won’t be revealed for a while yet.
By which point the Vegas Knights might have finally come down to earth. Or traded for John Tavares in preparation for a long playoff run.
Troy Media columnist Bruce Dowbiggin's career includes successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he is also the publisher of Not The Public Broadcaster.