James Neal, the Vegas Golden Knights and the power of defiance

William Carrier and the Golden Knights have been giving the fans something to cheer for this season. Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

NEW YORK -- The term "expansion team" is a pejorative in hockey parlance. These teams are viewed like that shelf at the supermarket that holds deeply discounted items that have reached their expiration date, aren't selling or are damaged goods. These players are castoffs. They're misfits. They're the unwanted.

The Vegas Golden Knights are, in fact, an expansion team, even if they've yet to play like one. Their 8-1-0 record leads the NHL in points percentage (.889), and they have the fewest goals allowed (19) and the second-best goal differential (plus-14) in the NHL entering Monday night's game at the New York Islanders. Vegas is the first team in NHL history to win eight of its first nine games in its inaugural season.

Its success is fueled by many factors -- getting seven straight home games to find its footing, as well as the emotional heft of representing the city in the aftermath of its most tragic day -- but the main factors are that the expansion rules handed a better class of players to the Golden Knights than previous expansion teams, and that these players are, frankly, really pissed off that they were exposed in that draft.

"Guys are just a little bit upset with everything that happened," said defenseman Nate Schmidt, formerly of the Washington Capitals. "You don't want to be picked in the expansion draft. You want to be protected by your team."

James Neal certainly did. His last game for the Nashville Predators was June 11, when the Predators were eliminated in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final by the Pittsburgh Penguins. Ten days later, Neal was exposed in the expansion draft and became a no-brainer selection for the Knights.

"It's always tough to leave a team, but especially when you're so attached to them," said Neal. "I knew there was a possibility. Especially being in the last year of my contract."

Neal, 30, has seven goals and three assists in nine games for the Knights, a terrific start after a down season overall (23 goals, 14 assists, 41 points, minus-10 in 70 games) in Nashville. He acknowledged the collective chip on his teammates' shoulders as a motivating factor in their record start.

"There is, for sure. It's a chance for guys that didn't get a chance on their former teams to play a bigger role," he said. "Maybe guys that didn't have the best season have a chance to turn it around."

Schmidt remembered Neal's struggles last season. "When we played against James Neal last season, he was on the fourth line in Nashville. Now, it ended up better for him at the end of the year, but he's come here and played really well for us because we need him to. We rely on guys that rise to the occasion," he said. "It takes the pressure off a lot of guys, to have guys like Neal and David Perron and Reilly Smith that are proven goal scorers in this league. It takes the pressure off of guys who played lesser roles in other cities."

Players like Nate Schmidt.

He played four years with the Capitals, getting 15:29 in average ice time last season at 25 years old. In nine games with Vegas, the smooth-skating defenseman has six points and is skating a career-high 21:24 per game.

"You look at all guys, they came from places where ... not that they were undervalued, but there wasn't a whole lot of room for them, or room for them to grow. Like anything you do, you've got to water the seed and give it room to grow," said Schmidt. "I think that's why guys here are playing well. They have expectations for themselves because they're playing a bigger role and guys are running with it."

The amazing race

Last week, the Knights were literally running with it.

The team took part in "The Amazing Race" around the city, a real-life version of the television reality show: Getting clues and going from site to site in a race against each other. For some, it was their first big exploration of the city. For all of them, it was ... well, a competition among professional competitors.

"My team shredded everybody," said Schmidt, proudly. "We had to wait in the spa at one of the places because we had to wait for the other teams to actually catch up."

It was a spirited event, the kind of thing teams might employ if they're in a rut during the season. The Knights have known no ruts in their brief history. They're a team many expected to be 1-8-0, not the reverse.

"That is true," Schmidt said, with a laugh, "but winning cures a lot of things, when you're at home and playing well. You get rolling a bit. You see the good side of guys, not the side when you're feeling down after a loss. That's definitely helped our culture because guys see what it takes for us to be successful."

It falls to coach Gerard Gallant to find that unique balance between keeping the gravy train rolling and providing needles for any inflated egos or unrealistic expectations in his dressing room.

"We had an unbelievable start," said Gallant. "Everything has gone our way. But we have to battle every night to not be the worst team in our conference."

Like his players, Gallant has something to prove. He was unceremoniously fired 22 games into the 2016-17 season by the Florida Panthers after leading that moribund franchise to the postseason in the previous year. The front office was at war with itself, and Gallant took the fall for not being a favorite of the regime that held the power.

"For me, I loved my 2½ years in Florida," he said. "We had a hell of a team. We were moving in the right direction. But sometimes people just want a change, want to do something different. Was I upset because I lost my players? Absolutely. I thought we were doing the right things, so that made me upset. But I wasn't upset about getting fired, because sometimes ownership or management wants to go in a different direction. That's fine. The good thing about it is that people realized what we did in Florida, and I got another chance to do it."

(There is something delightfully subversive about Gallant's getting fired by the Panthers due in part to the shoddy analytics of his teams, and then having Vegas jump out to this start despite the fourth-worst possession numbers in the league. In fairness, they Knights won a few blowout games that would negatively affect their Corsi, but the fact remains.)

Jacques Lemaire has told a story about the first time he laid eyes on the Minnesota Wild's expansion team, when he and his assistant coach delayed their first meeting with the team to have an adult beverage and lament the terrible hand they'd been dealt. Gallant said he had no such desire when meeting the Knights.

"You looked at the list when [the expansion draft] was over and you realized that we had some top players here," Gallant said. "Some real good hockey players here. It's not like back in the day when Minnesota and Columbus had their drafts and they had a lot of third- or fourth-line players; we had five or six first- or second-line players on our team. The rules were better for us. The guys are taking advantage of that.

"I have a lot better feel from the expansion draft. I know all my players by name now. It took some time. Believe me."

There's now little doubt that the expansion draft set up the Golden Knights rather well, which is what a $500 million expansion fee and the necessity to attract fans in an emerging market will get you. Most teams protected seven forwards, three defensemen and one goalie, which allowed the Knights to compile a collection of quality defensemen and goaltenders and a few proven scorers buoyed by a group of players seeking the chance to show they are, too.

The offensive balance has been staggering. Sixteen players have scored goals, including all but one forward (Brendan Leipsic), while five Knights have scored winning goals.

"Everyone is eager," said forward Cody Eakin. "Everyone wants to prove to themselves or prove to someone else that they're here for a reason. You look around the room and you see 25 good players. 'Eager' is the word to use."

This wasn't the plan

James Neal's phone has been blowing up after every Golden Knights game, filled with messages from former teammates who are following Vegas' unprecedented success.

"Oh, I hear it," he said. "I definitely hear it. Guys are chirping a little bit. But it's all good."

Chirping the hottest team in hockey? Should they be genuflecting at this point?

"That's right," said Neal, with a laugh.

Before the season started, Neal's future in Vegas was fairly obvious: He has an expiring contract, meaning he would be a coveted asset before the trade deadline. Moving him for a draft pick or two would be on-brand for an expansion team, especially one whose owner, Bill Foley, has repeated several times that making the playoffs by year three is the plan.

But what if the Golden Knights continue to defy the odds? What if they're within sniffing distance of a playoff spot in the Pacific Division by the time the trade deadline arrives?

Consider this: Over the past four seasons, the eighth-place team in the Western Conference has averaged 92 points. Vegas already has 16 in nine games. To earn 92 points, they would need 76 in their final 73 games, which is a .521 points percentage.

If the "impossible" happens, do they keep someone like Neal or still move him with an eye toward the future?

"Seriously, for me, it's way too early for that," said Gallant. "Yeah, we're 8-1-0. We have the best winning percentage. But, I mean, it's an 82-game schedule. We're taking it one at a time. I'm not feeling pressure going into games. I want to win. That's my job as the coach. But I realize the situation that we're in. It's a long-term plan, but it's a short-term goal for me to win every game."

Has Foley stormed into his office yet, foaming at the mouth that the Knights' inaugural-season success wasn't part of the plan?

Gallant laughed. "No, definitely not," he said. "He's so excited when we win games. He wants to win every game. He's like a member of the coaching staff."

Despite the joyous start, there's still a prevailing wisdom that this house of cards will come crashing down for Vegas. Maybe on this, their first real road trip. Maybe as their astronomically high PDO (106.55) and team save percentage (0.943) regress, or maybe when that league-high shooting percentage (13.1) does the same. Maybe when those possession issues combined with their perilously low shots per game (28.9) finally haunt them.

Maybe when they realize they're an expansion team.

Unless, of course, the Golden Knights are already aware of this and actually have two chips on their shoulders: proving the teams that exiled them to Vegas wrong, while also proving wrong those who believe the expansion Knights couldn't possibly be this good in year one.

"There's just a combination of different things going on in this locker room as individuals," said Neal, "which is why the best thing about us is how quickly we've come together to play for each other."