Happy Anniversary: Looking back on the Golden Knights’ expansion draft one year later

Vegas assembled a roster 365 days ago. Safe to say it’s been a hell of a ride.

It’s been a crazy year, hasn’t it? So much so, you’d think the Vegas Golden Knights had been an NHL franchise for 20 years rather than one.

But the Golden Knights’ first year as an NHL team came to an end Wednesday at the NHL Awards. Vegas, nominated for four awards, won all four — Gerard Gallant is the best coach, George McPhee is the best general manager, Deryk Engelland is a leadership savant that has been a godsend for the city of Las Vegas, and William Karlsson capped off his stellar season by being a good sport.

That’s why it’s so crazy to think that one year ago today, just before 5 p.m. PT inside T-Mobile Arena, the Golden Knights didn’t even have a roster. They had yet to obtain the likes of Karlsson or Engelland. The thought of Marc-Andre Fleury as a starting goaltender and Vezina Trophy candidate didn’t surface. The complex ideology of forming the best top line in hockey with Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith (along with Karlsson) seemed asinine.

“They did an unbelievable job with the Expansion Draft and, I think George said it many times that we were going to try to get good people to be in our organization and I think they did an outstanding job of that,” Gallant said. “Then, we had a lot better hockey players than people thought we did.”

One year ago today, the NHL Awards were a thing. Nobody cared. It was about assembling the group of players that would eventually dub themselves the “Golden Misfits.” A group of guys, castoffs if you will, came together and play hockey in Las Vegas; a concept that still made no sense long after the night at T-Mobile Arena concluded.

I sat in the nosebleeds of T-Mobile Arena on this night. Thousands of fans wore Golden Knights gear before they even know who would be on their team. The chants of “Go Knights Go” were a thing before it was echoed loudly during the regular season. I wish I would’ve polled fans and asked if they thought this was a Stanley Cup Final team. That would’ve been really smart, right?

What a group

  • I listened to the fan reaction each time a pick was announced, starting with the first pick from the Colorado Avalanche, being goaltender Calvin Pickard. May his tenure as a Golden Knights legend forever shine.
  • Then it trickled to names that would eventually play major roles this season. Luca Sbisa, taken with the next pick from the Vancouver Canucks, was a primary first-pairing defenseman for most of this season before injuries derailed his progress.
  • Then there was Jon Merrill, a guy who would score a game-winning goal in a mid-December game against the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
  • That followed with William Carrier, a fourth-line glue guy who had his moments coming from the Buffalo Sabres.
  • Cody Eakin and Tomas Nosek proved to be crucial bottom six guys at the right time for Vegas. Especially Nosek. Long live Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final./
  • I wasn’t sure being so high in the rafters, I’m pretty sure Bill Foley signed a thank you card to Dale Tallon for leaving Marchessault unprotected from the Florida Panthers, while gifting Smith in the process. Two-thirds of what would be a driving force behind a would-be spectacular season coming from the same franchise where the future Jack Adams Award winner once coached. That’s coming full circle, or something like that. /
  • Also, the $10 million man Brayden McNabb was a thing that happened.
  • Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, much maligned in Philadelphia for reasons unbeknownst to anyone, became a pivotal locker room presence and leader in the Golden Knights locker room.
  • Shoutout to Jason Garrison./
  • James Neal, a proven goal scorer, comes to Vegas and scores five goals in the first three games of this franchise’s history. He wasn’t even supposed to be cleared to play because of a broken hand. He set the tone for Vegas’ hot start.
  • Deryk Engelland. Enough said there./
  • Brendan Leipsic, the scoring machine that could./
  • Colin Miller, a puzzle piece to Vegas’ future, showed how lethal he can be with a stick in his hand. /
  • David Perron might be looking for another new home this summer, but his 50 assists anchored a second line that was equally as pivotal as the first line.
  • Oscar Lindberg also had his moments.
  • Can someone tell me where in the hell Clayton Stoner is? But at least he left Shea Theodore at the doorstep and it’s been wonderful ever since./
  • Another duo given to the Golden Knights, by way of Minnesota: Erik Haula (career-high 29 goals) and Alex Tuch (future captain).
  • Of course there’s Wild Bill, who went from six goals in Columbus to doing unfathomable BS like this./
  • Marc-Andre Fleury was plucked from the Penguins, a sad day in the history of a proud Pittsburgh franchise that won three Stanley Cups during Fleury’s long tenure dating back to 2003. I recall a few Pittsburgh fans sitting about six seats down to my left, crying when Fleury took the stage, wearing a sweater that did not have a Penguin plastered in the center. The realization didn’t sink in for a lot of fans until Fleury waved to the Vegas-centric crowd. Little did anyone think Fleury had anything left in the tank by this point. I’d bet all my money  that he probably didn’t think he’d be at T-Mobile Arena one year later, playing for a Stanley Cup with an expansion franchise./
  • Finally, the last pick, Nate Schmidt — a guy who was a healthy scratch for most of Washington’s season, to becoming the best shut-down defenseman on the Golden Knights and has earned way more than the $2.5 million he received in arbitration. That payday is going to be hefty after next season.
  • Let’s have a toast to those still in the organization: Teemu Pulkkinen and Griffin Reinhardt.
  • And a hearty hello to those you probably forgot about: Connor Brickley, Chris Thorburn, J.F. tha gawd Berube, Marc Methot (traded for goalie sensation Dylan Ferguson), David Schlemko, Alexei Emelin, and Trevor van Riemsdyk./

No way it should’ve resulted into this

The end result was ridiculous: 51 wins, a Pacific Division title, and eventually becoming the Western Conference champions. The Golden Knights were not supposed to be this good. Anyone who says they were is someone who got thousands of lumps of coal for Christmas.

Leaving T-Mobile Arena that night, I remember walking by fans and listening to conversations. Folks didn’t really care about the roster, but more of the sentiment that Vegas finally had a hockey team. Fans would soon have jerseys with players’ names on the back. Merchandise would soon be flooding the shelves. That night wasn’t a matter of the Golden Knights playing hockey. Professional sports came to Las Vegas. The dream was realized.

One year later, the expansion draft seems like a distant memory. It’s almost as if it didn’t happen. It’s almost like listening to prospective Golden Knights fans cheering for those players was nonexistent. Who knows if the tears of Penguins fans ever dried?

But alas, most of who you saw on the ice this year will be back next year. The Golden Knights will be in position to go for a Stanley Cup. The expansion honeymoon is over. Vegas is now 1 year old and is a functional, working franchise. And there’s more to come.

“I hope that we do our best to try to win a Stanley Cup,” McPhee said, “because that would be the ultimate success.”