The Golden Knights' success wasn't rigged: Here's how they were built

On the eve of the NHL expansion draft in June, Vegas Golden Knights GM George McPhee was in his last conversations with his peers. These weren't comfortable conversations: The draft rules favored the Knights in a way they had never favored another NHL expansion team, forcing many of the other 30 clubs to surrender players they didn't want to lose or grease the palms of McPhee with players or picks to ensure they didn't lose them.

"We have lots of defensemen lined up, we have lots of centers, and we have scoring on the wings, a little more scoring than we anticipated. And the goaltending looks solid," McPhee said, contemplating the list for a moment. "It's what we're trying to accomplish: To have a competitive club that people are going to enjoy watching play and then have the draft picks to draft our way to being a championship team."

As it turns out, the Knights did draft their way to being a championship team -- through the expansion draft, rather than during what owner Bill Foley believed would be a five-year build to a Stanley Cup Final. Although no one around the Knights predicted this unprecedented success for a first-year team -- not only in hockey but in all of sports -- McPhee acknowledged a few days after the expansion draft that the Knights had some good pieces.

"We like our team right now. We've got speed up the middle, scoring on the wing, veterans and young guys on defense. We're in a good place," he said. "This could not have gone better, in my mind." The press didn't listen to McPhee. Some headlines:

  • The Hockey News: "How good will the Golden Knights be? Not very."

  • Deadspin: "Wow The Golden Knights Are Going To Be Bad."

  • Newsweek: "Vegas Golden Knights Are Going To Suck in 2017-18 And Here's Why."

Perhaps most damning: The sportsbooks in Vegas listed their new home team with 250-1 odds to win the Stanley Cup in its inaugural season, the highest of any club. (Oh, and our Power Rankings? Here ya go.)

The unprecedented success of Vegas in Year One has caused a truly bizarre ret-conning of the expansion draft, as if the Knights were simply gifted a Western Conference championship team. There was no certainty for greatness. For every home run, there was something foul. Looking back at the formula, it was equal parts shrewd scouting, players exceeding expectations and a hearty helping of leverage.

Yes, the rules were set up so that Vegas would be better than expansion teams in the past. But the Knights certainly weren't expected to be this good right off the bat. Here's how the Golden Knights were made:

Anaheim Ducks

The pick: Clayton Stoner, D

The Ducks wanted to protect defensemen Josh Manson and Sami Vatanen. They loved Shea Theodore, too, but were willing to put him out as a sacrifice as long as Vegas took on Clayton Stoner's burdensome contract. The Ducks likely don't regret this; they traded Vatanen for Adam Henrique, while Manson had a great season. Plus, they didn't have to give up draft picks. Meanwhile, 22-year-old Theodore impressed many in Vegas, and the impending restricted free agent should be a big piece of the Knights' future. Stoner was buried on injured reserve.

Expectation: Satisfied

Arizona Coyotes

The pick: Teemu Pulkkinen, LW

Pulkkinen was a speedy winger who needed some seasoning to become a regular. The Coyotes were fine letting him walk, especially as he became an RFA (they had plenty of wingers in the system). No regrets there. The Golden Knights were smart to avoid Jamie McGinn's hefty contract and Brad Richardson, who was returning from a terrible leg injury. Pulkkinen's 29 goals and 65 points in 75 games for the AHL Chicago Wolves were pleasant but not a shock; he could compete for the Golden Knights' roster in 2018-19.

Expectation: Satisfied

Boston Bruins

The pick: Colin Miller, D

A 25-year-old defenseman, Miller had seen regular time for two seasons with the Bruins. It was expected that the Bruins would protect him over 29-year-old defenseman Kevan Miller because Colin is younger and has top-four potential. The Bruins did not. So Colin Miller was selected and promptly led all Knights defensemen in points (41) while playing 82 games. It turns out Boston decided to hang on to Miller Lite.

Expectation: Exceeded

Buffalo Sabres

The pick: William Carrier, LW

Buffalo viewed the 22-year-old Carrier as a player with speed and promise. The Golden Knights viewed the Sabres' expansion offerings as slim pickings and thought the 2013 second-rounder was an easy choice. Sure, Buffalo could use a young, ascending player such as Carrier, but GM Jason Botterill prioritized saving goaltending prospect Linus Ullmark. Carrier added spark and a level of grit to Vegas' bottom six in limited action (30 regular-season games) but has missed time these playoffs with injury.

Expectation: Satisfied

Calgary Flames

The pick: Deryk Engelland, D

The Knights took the unusual step of drafting Engelland despite the fact that he was a pending unrestricted free agent. He had been a serviceable depth defenseman for the Penguins and Flames, but he set career bests in points (23), average ice time (20:17) and fewest penalty minutes (24) this season. And he was so much more than that: The 36-year-old Vegas resident served as a city ambassador for his teammates, and his emotional speech on opening night after the shooting massacre on the Strip helped immediately bond the team with the city.

Expectation: Exceeded

Carolina Hurricanes

The pick: Connor Brickley, C

Brickley was an unrestricted free-agent forward when McPhee selected him, coaxed by a fifth-round pick from the Hurricanes to lay off their other exposed players. The 25-year-old ended up leaving for the Panthers, with whom he had 12 points in 44 games. McPhee said there would be some throwaway picks. This was one of them, but he got a draft pick out of it.

Expectation: Satisfied

Chicago Blackhawks

The pick: Trevor van Riemsdyk, D

Even for a team that seems to be in perpetual salary-cap hell, the Blackhawks didn't have much to offer. It was either van Riemsdyk or Marcus Kruger ($3.1 million cap hit). The Blackhawks preferred getting Kruger's contract off the books, so they sacrificed the young defenseman. The Golden Knights shipped both to Carolina. They didn't get much in return, but again, they didn't have a lot to offer.

Expectation: Unfulfilled

Colorado Avalanche

The pick: Calvin Pickard, G

There was some thought that the Avalanche might expose starting goalie Semyon Varlamov, whose numbers were in decline, who was coming off two surgeries and whom McPhee drafted while with the Capitals. Instead, it was Pickard exposed by the Avs. He was quickly flipped to the Maple Leafs for 22-year-old AHL forward Tobias Lindberg, who didn't play a game in the NHL this season.

Expectation: Satisfied

Columbus Blue Jackets

The pick: William Karlsson, C

This is ground zero in the great "Why didn't they see this one coming?" debate. We now know "Wild Bill" Karlsson as a 43-goal scorer, a top-line center and a Selke Trophy-level defender. At the time, the Jackets felt he was "a young player who's getting better" at a log-jammed position.

So they used him as incentive for the Knights to lay off several players they didn't want to lose -- forward Josh Anderson, defenseman Jack Johnson, goalie Joonas Korpisalo -- as part of a deal the teams agreed to back in March: The Knights received a first-round pick (flipped to Winnipeg for their No. 13 pick) and a second-round pick in 2019 to select Karlsson and take on the last three seasons (and $15 million) of injured forward David Clarkson's contract. Again, they had several directions to take here. They stumbled down the exceptional one.

Expectation: Exceeded

Dallas Stars

The pick: Cody Eakin, C

The Stars coveted the 26-year-old with a strong defensive game, but with then-new coach Ken Hitchcock preferring Jason Spezza, Tyler Seguin and Radek Faksa as his top three centers, Eakin became expendable. McPhee liked Eakin since he drafted him with the Capitals. Eakins' responsible defensive play was no surprise. He could have contributed more offensively, but you have to consider his bottom-six role and the players he was lined up with in that regard.

Expectation: Satisfied

Detroit Red Wings

The pick: Tomas Nosek, LW

Everyone in hockey thought this would be goalie Petr Mrazek, who was exposed by Detroit, if only so the Knights could flip him in a trade. But they didn't do much of that. Instead, left wing Nosek, with 17 NHL games to his credit, was the pick. He had 15 points in 67 games in a bottom-six forward role for Vegas. This was OK, as Nosek helped on the penalty kill, but Jared Coreau or Riley Sheahan might have been a better selection.

Expectation: Satisfied

Edmonton Oilers

The pick: Griffin Reinhart, D

Edmonton didn't have room (or patience) for Reinhart, who has played only 37 NHL games since being drafted fourth overall in 2012. It's understandable that the Oilers gave him up, but he was totally worth a flier for the Golden Knights. Reinhart got lost in the defensive logjam and spent the season in the AHL (where he appeared to be solid but not spectacular). This could still work out for Vegas if Reinhart makes the club next season, but with so many young defensemen ahead of him, it's hard to imagine Reinhart getting a regular spot.

Expectation: Unfulfilled

Florida Panthers

The pick: Jonathan Marchessault, C

There are few decisions in recent NHL history as maligned as the one Florida GM Dale Tallon made in opting to protect defensemen Mark Pysyk and Alexander Petrovic rather than Marchessault, who led the team with 30 goals in 2016-17. Vegas jumped at the chance to draft the 5-foot-9 forward, whom McPhee called "a hard-working player with no ego." Marchessault had a career-high 75 points this season, including 27 goals. He has 18 points in 15 games in the playoffs.

It gets worse for Florida: After suffering buyers' remorse on a five-year contract extension they handed him the previous summer, the Panthers also shipped winger Reilly Smith to Vegas for a fourth-round pick. Smith had 22 goals and 38 assists for Vegas, forming an unstoppable top line with Marchessault and William Karlsson. What a blunder. What a blessing.

Expectation: Exceeded

Los Angeles Kings

The pick: Brayden McNabb, D

McNabb had been pushed out of the Kings' rotation by the end of last season; even still, Los Angeles prayed that the Knights might take Dustin Brown's or Marian Gaborik's contracts off its hands. Few predicted that Brown would have a renaissance campaign this season; then again, it's impossible to predict if he would have rebounded just as well on another team. Regardless, Vegas opted for the 27-year-old McNabb, who performed a bit above expectations as a regular, skating a career-high 20:09 per game.

Expectation: Satisfied

Minnesota Wild

The pick: Erik Haula, C

McPhee has said that the Wild were one of a handful of teams that he knew he had in a bind. They had to expose defensemen Matt Dumba and Marco Scandella but didn't want to lose either. So McPhee agreed to draft Haula, a fourth-line restricted free-agent forward, if the Wild surrendered one of three prospects. They settled on 21-year-old power winger Alex Tuch, the 18th overall pick in 2014, with Minnesota getting a 2018 third-round pick. Haula had a career-high 29 goals and 55 points in 76 games. Tuch had 15 goals and 37 points and was a physical menace for Vegas. It was robbery at the time, and it became worse than expected for the Wild, as both players skated meaningful minutes for Vegas in its postseason run.

Expectation: Exceeded

Montreal Canadiens

The pick: Alexei Emelin, D

Last summer, the Canadiens were going through a defensive shuffle while trying to clear cap space. Hence the goodbye to Emelin and his $4.1 million cap hit. There wasn't much seller's remorse in Montreal -- let's just say Emelin's absence wasn't the catalyst for the Canadiens' collapse. The Golden Knights took Emelin with the intention to flip him and found a partner in Nashville's David Poile, who sent over a third-rounder. That seems like fair compensation for a player who ended up being a one-year rental.

Expectation: Satisfied

Nashville Predators

The pick: James Neal, LW

Nashville used the eight-skater option in order to protect its top four defensemen and forward Calle Jarnkrok. Neal was left exposed despite 77 goals in the past three seasons, as the 30-year-old was entering the last year of his contract. Vegas saw him as a 20-plus-goal winger who could be flipped to a contender that needed scoring in the wing for a first-rounder at the trade deadline. Neal scored 25 goals and ended up providing scoring on the wing to a contender: the Vegas Golden Knights, who kept him at the deadline thanks to their success.

Expectation: Satisfied

New Jersey Devils

The pick: Jon Merrill, D

Merrill never developed with the Devils, playing four injury-plagued seasons there. The Knights liked his size on defense (6-foot-3) and felt that, at 25 years old, he could still develop. Merrill was a frequent healthy scratch this season and in the playoffs, yet McPhee gave him a two-year contract extension. OK, then.

Expectation: Unfulfilled

New York Islanders

The pick: Jean-Francois Berube, G

This trade gets overshadowed by McPhee's other masterstrokes, but the Knights selected Berube after the Islanders traded them the No. 15 overall pick last summer (defenseman Erik Brannstrom), a second-round pick in 2019, defensive prospect Jake Bischoff and the final $6 million salary year of Mikhail Grabovski. That was to keep the Knights from swiping Brock Nelson, Ryan Strome, Calvin de Haan or Thomas Hickey. Berube, a free agent, left for the Blackhawks. The picks were worth it to lay off the others.

Expectation: Satisfied

New York Rangers

The pick: Oscar Lindberg, C

The Rangers were hamstrung by protecting a young core while managing no-movement clauses, and they had to expose players they liked, such as Lindberg. Vegas was enamored by the then-25-year-old's speed and took him instead of guys such as Jesper Fast, Antti Raanta and Michael Grabner. Fast might have been the better pick. Lindberg never found his footing in Vegas (11 points in 63 games) and has cracked the lineup in just three playoff games.

Expectation: Unfulfilled

Ottawa Senators

The pick: Marc Methot, D

McPhee saw Methot as a veteran sage on the blue line who could share his 11 years of NHL experience with the young defensemen. Then he decided he had too many defensemen, so he traded Methot to the Stars for junior goalie Dylan Ferguson and Dallas' second-round pick in the 2020 draft. The Knights missed an injury-limited season for Methot (36 games). Ferguson was called up from juniors and appeared on an emergency basis in one November game.

Expectation: Unfulfilled

Philadelphia Flyers

The pick: Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, RW

The Flyers always liked Bellemare, a defensive and penalty-killing stud whom they signed at age 29 after his long stint in Sweden. Unfortunately, they liked him too much, then found his two-year, $2.9 million contract extension no longer palatable. Bellemare's departure left open a roster spot for a young player such as Jordan Weal. Vegas happily swooped in and found Bellemare to be everything it wanted and more, especially as a team leader. This one worked out for both sides.

Expectation: Exceeded

Pittsburgh Penguins

The pick: Marc-Andre Fleury, G

Do the Penguins have regrets about parting with Fleury? They had conviction about the younger and cheaper Matt Murray, and though -- in a thorny twist -- Murray wasn't as good as Fleury this season, it was probably the right move for the future. The Golden Knights needed a face of the franchise. They knew Fleury would win them some games. They couldn't have known he would be this spectacular.

Expectation: Exceeded

San Jose Sharks

The pick: David Schlemko, D

The Sharks were fine parting with the journeyman Schlemko, whom they had for only one season, and had internal candidates (Joakim Ryan plugged in quite nicely) to replace him. The Golden Knights plucked him with intentions of flipping him. They did, sending him to the Canadiens for a fifth-rounder. It's hard to call this a disappointment or success; he was a Knight for only a day. But it's fair to wonder if Vegas might have gotten more out of Brendan Dillon or Dylan DeMelo.

Expectation: Unfulfilled

St. Louis Blues

The pick: David Perron, LW

This one was obvious. After the Blues decided to bring back Vladimir Sobotka from the KHL, and somewhat inexplicably protect future Knight Ryan Reaves, Perron was the odd man out. He was also 29 and coming off an 18-goal season in 82 games. He scored only 16 goals but added 50 assists to give him 66 points in 70 games for Vegas, skating on the second line with James Neal. He has added seven points through 11 games in the postseason.

Expectation: Exceeded

Tampa Bay Lightning

The pick: Jason Garrison, D

Lightning GM Steve Yzerman engineered a big deal to get Garrison's $4.6 million cap hit off the books -- and to protect Tampa Bay's younger defensemen. Garrison was put on waivers by Oct. 27, then spent most of the season in AHL purgatory. He disappointed Knights fans who expected some production out of the veteran, but perhaps this was the endgame all along. It's unclear if McPhee had any expectation that Garrison would contribute, but he squeezed a second- and a fourth-round pick out of Yzerman, plus the negotiating rights to Nikita Gusev (who ended up re-signing in the KHL).

Expectation: Satisfied

Toronto Maple Leafs

The pick: Brendan Leipsic, LW

A winger with a bit of a pest streak to him, Leipsic was a 23-year-old RFA the Knights signed to a two-year deal. He had two goals and 11 assists in 44 games before McPhee flipped him at the trade deadline for defenseman Philip Holm.

Expectation: Satisfied

Vancouver Canucks

The pick: Luca Sbisa, D

The Canucks were waiting for the former first-round pick to step up as a top-four defenseman. The Golden Knights were willing to take the chance on Sbisa's $3.6 million cap hit, envisioning the 28-year-old as a leading mobile, two-way defenseman. It's understandable that Vancouver -- wading through a rebuild -- would brace for a divorce and that Vegas would find Sbisa attractive. He showed flashes of what he could be but struggled to stay healthy, skating in just 30 regular-season games. The Golden Knights might ask the pending unrestricted free agent to return, but likely at a reduced rate.

Expectation: Satisfied

Washington Capitals

The pick: Nate Schmidt, D

McPhee swerved the hockey world (and especially his former team) by bypassing celebrated Capitals backup goalie Philipp Grubauer for Schmidt, a smooth-skating, 25-year-old defenseman who played top-four minutes in the playoffs. McPhee signed him and envisioned him as a franchise cornerstone. Schmidt played a career-high 22:14 per game and posted a career-best 36 points in the regular season before an even more impressive postseason.

Expectation: Exceeded

Winnipeg Jets

The pick: Chris Thorburn, RW

The scrappy 34-year-old free-agent forward was selected after the Jets flipped first-round picks with Vegas -- swapping No. 13 for No. 24 -- and traded a third-rounder in 2019 to the Knights. This was so McPhee would lay off players like defenseman Toby Enstrom. Thorburn subsequently signed with the Blues, where he had seven points in 50 games. The Knights drafted highly rated prospect Nick Suzuki with the Jets' pick.

Expectation: Satisfied


The Golden Knights made some other notable additions along the way, and here's how they fared:

Ryan Reaves, RW (trade, Penguins)

Reaves' movements over the past year still don't make a ton of sense. The Penguins acquired him for a first-round pick, then didn't fully utilize him. They then traded him to the Golden Knights for a fourth-round pick, along with salary retention to facilitate a Derick Brassard trade. Nonetheless, Reaves was a factor in the series win over the Jets -- not just with the game-winning goal in Game 5 but also with his physical presence against a big, bruising team.

Expectation: Satisfied

Ryan Carpenter, C (waivers, Sharks)

The Sharks protected the 27-year-old forward in the expansion draft before waiving him in December, as he was unable to find a regular spot in the lineup. Vegas, as usual, made the right call: Carpenter played 36 games with 14 points and assisted on the series-winning goal to eliminate the Sharks in the semifinals.

Expectation: Exceeded

Vadim Shipachyov, C (free agent, KHL)

The Golden Knights' biggest free-agent signing was one of their biggest whiffs: The 30-year-old forward grew tired of playing in the AHL, made his displeasure known publicly and then "retired" to return home to play in Russia. McPhee later said that, symbolically, standing up to a player with a large contract had a positive impact, which is more than you can say Shipachyov did on the ice.

Expectation: Unfulfilled

Tomas Tatar, LW (trade, Red Wings)

After heavily flirting with the Senators over a potential Erik Karlsson trade, McPhee took the plunge with the Red Wings for the 27-year-old scoring winger. The price tag was preposterous, even for a team flush with picks: Vegas sent a first-round pick in 2018, a second-rounder in 2019 and a third-round pick in 2021 for Tatar. The results have been ... underwhelming. Tatar scored four goals in 20 games in the regular season and one goal in six playoff games while being a frequent healthy scratch. This is perhaps McPhee's worst move thus far ... and Tatar is signed through 2021 at $5.3 million annually.

Expectation: Unfulfilled

Malcolm Subban, G (trade, Bruins)

This was a surprise addition, especially after the Golden Knights appeared all offseason to be committed to Calvin Pickard as their backup. But Vegas pounced once it saw the 2012 first-round pick on waivers. It's a shame that Boston couldn't find a way to make it work with Subban -- or at least reap some compensation -- but the Golden Knights loved what they got. He was terrific when he could stay healthy.

Expectation: Exceeded