By MIKE HERNDON
Everybody remembers the new kid in class. He’s a little nervous at first, unsure of where he fits in. Let’s help him feel at home, the teacher said. He doesn’t know anyone; he’s new.
And most of us did what we could. We said hello in the hall. We let him sit at the lunch table with us. But we didn’t let him in on the inside jokes until we checked him out for a while, made sure that he was cool, that he was one of us, that he could be trusted.
And we darn sure didn’t let him take over from the jump. He didn’t get to be captain on the kickball field the first day. Even if he was cool enough to hang out with us, he didn’t get to pick what we were going to do on Saturdays. Not yet. He had to pay his dues, just like we had to pay ours.
Gary Bettman and the NHL apparently don’t remember any of this. How else to explain how quickly the Vegas Golden Knights have moved to the front of the class? Amazing, really – an expansion team making it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals in their first season. After Monday’s night’s 6-4 Game 1 win, these 300-to-1 underdogs are now just three wins from hoisting the Cup. It’s the feel-good story of the year. We are all Vegas.
Well, all except me. I like the idea of the house taking a beating as much as the next guy, but this bandwagon will ride on without me.
And, of course, it’ll also be without fans of the Knights’ Stanley Cup foes, the Washington Capitals, a franchise that has never won a Stanley Cup in its 44-year existence and has developed a reputation for falling apart in the playoffs despite a star-studded roster, gaudy stats and regular-season success.
To fans of long-suffering franchises like the Caps, the Knights’ rapid success has to sting a bit. How were they able to do this so quickly while Washington is making only its second finals appearance in 44 years? Vegas GM George McPhee must be a damn wizard (and he did, of course, help build Washington’s roster too while he was there from 1997-2014).
Vegas’ overnight success might seem a little less incredible, though, when we understand that this new kid was given a hall pass on the first day.
In the 2017 expansion draft set up by the NHL in order to allow Vegas to stock its roster, the other 30 teams in the league were given two options to protect up to 11 players. They could choose to protect seven forwards, three defensemen and one goaltender, or eight skaters (forwards or defensemen) and one goaltender.
They were required to leave unprotected at least two forwards and one defenseman who were under contract for the next season and had played at least 40 games in the previous season or 70 in the previous two seasons.
Compare this to the 2000 expansion draft, when Columbus and Minnesota joined the league. That year, teams were allowed to protect nine forwards, five defensemen and a goaltender, or seven forwards, three defensemen and two goalies.
The altered expansion draft rules put several teams in untenable positions where they had to leave talented players exposed.
Yes, there were some curious decisions by some GMs, such as Columbus leaving William Karlsson unprotected and Florida offering up Jonathan Marchessault. Those two players led the Golden Knights in scoring this season with 78 and 75 points, respectively. But had the NHL stuck with the 2000 rules, those calls would have been a bit easier for the existing franchises, and the onus would have been placed more squarely on Vegas to get creative.
So why did the NHL feel the need to change them? Were they so lax that they didn’t allow the Blue Jackets and Wild a chance to compete?
While it took Columbus 10 years to reach the playoffs, Minnesota advanced all the way to the Western Conference finals in just its third season.
That wasn’t good enough for the NHL. Instant success is apparently what Bettman and crew were after for Vegas and that’s exactly what they got.
It’s a great story, sure, and credit McPhee with being smart with what he was given. But you can call me old-fashioned or whatever you want: Expansion teams should have to pay their dues. They shouldn’t just be handed the keys to the car the minute they turn 16.
Bettman says the expansion draft rules won’t likely change, however, if and when the league adds a 32nd team – perhaps in Seattle. And who wouldn’t want in with these types of deals? It’s good to be the new kid.
(Photo of Marc-Andre Fleury by Michael Miller/Wikimedia Commons.)