Vegas Will Be Competitive … in Time

The first round of hoopla is officially over for the Vegas Golden Knights. They’ve selected their initial roster, made their first draft picks, and orchestrated a handful of trades. Now hockey fans are eagerly assessing how the team stacks up against the rest of the league, at least on paper.

Being an expansion team is never easy. It takes years for most prospects to develop, and often even longer for a new franchise to establish an identity. Take the Nashville Predators, who joined the NHL in 1998-99. They finished 12th of 13 teams in the Western Conference that season, and it took them six years to make the playoffs and 12 years to win their first postseason series. Columbus had a similar fate when they came into the league in 2000-01. The Blue Jackets didn’t see post season action for nine years.

The paragon of success for expansion teams is the Minnesota Wild (2000-01). They managed a playoff berth in year three and even won two series that season. But it would be ten years before they won another.

In total, four new franchises have joined the league since 1993 (Columbus, Minnesota, Nashville, Atlanta/Winnipeg). Not one has lifted the Stanley Cup yet.

While the Golden Knights appear to have a good long-term plan in place, Vegas fans can expect similar futility early on. A lot of that has to do with who the team picked in the expansion draft and the deals it made in the process. While they pilfered three-time Stanley Cup champ Marc-Andre Fleury and a couple solid veterans like James Neal, they mostly took youngsters and prospects with a view to contending in the (not too distant) future. GM George McPhee is collecting as many assets as possible – even agreeing to leave some exposed players untouched in return for draft picks. His hope for year one isn’t to make the playoffs, it’s to ice a competitive team that will allow promising young players to grow and develop, all the while stockpiling draft picks and trading for prospects.

We’re still a few months away from the start of the season and the Vegas roster will continue to change, but what they have right now is strong goaltending, a boatload of mediocre (at best) defenseman, and little to no scoring up front. The players you can key as potential difference-makers – say Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith — will be asked to play more minutes and fill bigger roles than they’ve ever had to before.

Even based on last season, when the current Vegas players were in better situations, they weren’t, as a whole, good at generating shots on net. In this age of advanced stats like Corsi and Fenwick, shot generation is widely accepted as a solid indicator of future offensive production. (Since you can’t score if you don’t shoot, teams that outshoot their opponents tend to win, over the long-run.)

McPhee’s goal is to make the playoffs within three years, and he is assembling the young core to make that happen. Playing in the Pacific division with a couple rebuilding teams (Vancouver and Phoenix) will help the team meet that goal. But, in year one, they’re still likely to finish with the worst record in the league.

Fans will have to be patient as Vegas finds its identity. But rest assured that McPhee has a solid plan in place, and it shouldn’t be too long before the Knights reach Minnesota-levels of competitiveness. Hopefully, that’s enough to keep desert-dwellers interested.