The brightest story in the NHL this season is the Vegas Golden Knights. An expansion team this season, the Golden Knights were expected to be among the league's bottom feeders. Most people, including myself, thought Vegas would finish outside of the playoffs, and would look to the 2018 Entry Draft to continue growing towards the future.
It wasn't until the season began that these predictions were proven incorrect. Vegas is in fact heading to the playoffs, and will face a wild card team after clinching the Pacific Division title over the weekend.
This is an incredible feat for an expansion team. No expansion team in NHL history has had more than 83 points in a season. The Florida Panthers were the best expansion team until this season with a 33-34-17 record, and made the playoffs in their in their third season.
But Vegas is a legitimate good team this year, and after building a team of players other teams thought they didn't need, the Golden Knights have a real opportunity to to something else no expansion team in NHL history has ever done: win a Stanley Cup in their first season.
So how did we get here? Can Vegas really win the Cup this season? And what are they Golden Knights going to look like next season?
I'll answer the second question first: yes. Vegas plays a fast, tenacious brand of hockey. If Vegas can keep playing the way they have played in the regular season, there is no reason to suspect they won't challenge for a championship. This year comes with little data to suggest the Golden Knight will or will not succeed. How their players handle the playoffs will dictate how far they go.
How this Vegas team got here is a different story. The Golden Knights were assembled in an Expansion Draft where they acquired one player from every team. They picked up a star goalie in Marc-Andre Fluery. Vegas picked up some talented, young defensemen like Nate Schmidt and Shea Theodore. And then, some of their forward acquisitions have played very well, like William Karlsson who sits third in the NHL with 42 goals.
But is their success sustainable into next season? Over the last few years, we have seen teams like the upstart Colorado Avalanche of 2013-14 who won 52 games, struggle to be consistent year-to-year. The following season, those Avalanche missed the playoffs by nine points.
It's really hard to bet against Vegas right now, but I have to believe they will regress a little bit in 2018-19. They received excellent goaltending this season from a number of different players. You simply cannot expect goalie Marc-Andre Fluery to career best season next year. Fluery's 2.14 GAA is below his career average of 2.56, while his save percentage this season is much better than his career average of .913. This year, he's at .931.
I don't believe the Golden Knights will fall off a cliff like the Colorado Avalanche example, but the idea that we are witnessing the next great dynasty is a little far-fetched at the moment.
I simply don't expect William Karlsson to shoot 23.3% next season. He will likely not his 42 goals again, but I do see him as a 30-goal scorer. It's just so hard to score 40 in a season, and Karlsson is just riding the Vegas first year experience with the rest of the club.
What happens to David Perron? The forward sits third on the team with 66 points, but it might be difficult for Vegas to bring him back. I don't know if they want to invest the kind of money he will command this summer in free agency. James Neal's 25 goals this season could also leave town this summer.
The Vegas Golden Knight have the right build for the modern game. They have a fast, physical team capable of playing all styles of hockey. They can outskate you, something they do quite often. They can outscore you. They sit fourth in the NHL with 3.29 goals/game. They also play a strong game in their own end, only giving up 2.66 goals/game (6th best in the league).
I like the Vegas team going forward. I think they have a lot of the ingredients of a Nashville Predators team. They aren't deep down the middle in big-name players like a Pittsburgh Penguins, but they play well in all three zones, and haven't looked overmatched very many times this season.
My guess would be the Vegas Golden Knights will regress next season. How much all depends on how their top players this season play next year, but they likely can't replicate the incredible success they had this season. But at the same time, if you're looking at the Pacific Division, it's their division to lose.
The San Jose Sharks are an older team that isn't going to win any scoring titles. The Los Angeles Kings don't have enough secondary scoring in my opinion. The Calgary Flames are in the same boat as the Kings, and they need to get deeper in goal. The Edmonton Oilers would be a great team in the early 2000s. The Arizona Coyotes and Vancouver Canucks are rebuilding. The Anaheim Ducks present the toughest competition in my mind, and would be an early favorite of mine to win the division (depending on the health of the team, of course).
No matter what, this season is a great one for the Vegas Golden Knights, and only time will tell how far they go this season. I think they will be a very competitive team for years to come, something I would not have predicted this time last year.