In sports, expansion teams have two functions. They are cash cows for their new partners, based on the exorbitant fees charged to join the fraternity. And they are whipping boys, teams for their new partners to beat up on based on the rag-tag rosters their fancy entrance fees provide them.
Evidence for this can be found with the New York Mets, who were welcomed into Major League Baseball in 1962 and lost 120 games, leaving manager Casey Stengel wailing, “Can’t anybody here play this game?’’ Exhibit No. 2 were football’s Tampa Bay Bucs. Coach John McKay watched the futility his team losing its first 26 game and noted, “We didn’t tackle very well today but we made up for it by not blocking.’’
The deal was, pay the fancy fee to join our little club and then take your lumps. Somehow, the Las Vegas Golden Knights did not get that memo after signing on this season to give the NHL a 31st franchise.
First off, the name is Vegas Golden Knights, without the Las. That’s because residents of this neon-lit town, affectionately known as Disneyland For Adults, don’t use the Las prefix.
Then, there is the matter of the roster. After paying $500 million for the privilege, the Knights got to choose one player from each of the league’s 30 franchises. Vegas cherry-picked wisely, grabbing among others goalie Marc-Andre Fleury from Pittsburgh. That provided the team with a seasoned and well-regarded backstop, a good place to start.
General manager George McPhee also grabbed James Neal from Nashville and he scored the first two goals in the Knights’ season-opening game against Dallas and reached 22 goals by mid-season. Neal and Fleury were both named to the NHL All-Star Game.
Jonathan Marchessault came over from Florida and quickly produced 16 goals and 41 points, earning a six-year $30 million contract extension. William Karlson had a modest 18 goals in his career when he came over from Columbus but in Vegas, he reached 27 by the All-Star break.
The roster includes solid players like David Perron, Eric Haula , Alex Tuch and Reilly Smith up front with Nate Schmidt and Colin Miller anchoring the defense.
The team’s home opener against Phoenix came just nine days after the mass killing at a downtown country music concert and the Knights staged a touching tribute and then won their third straight, the first NHL expansion team to turn that trick. They won eight of their first nine games, another first.
There were winning streaks of six straight at home, two five-game streaks and another of eight straight as the Golden Knights shot to the top of the Western Conference’s Pacific Division. This despite going through four goaltenders in their first 11 games because of injuries to Fleury and his backups.
They soared into first place and by the All-Star break, they were a comfortable nine points ahead of San Jose with 32 wins, second most in the league and had lost just three games at home all season. In their first 10 overtime games, they won eight. They are a gritty, determined crew and so far, they are lighting up a town that is illuminated 24 hours a day and making a bold statement as the best expansion team ever..
Casey Stengel and John McKay would be impressed.