Knights no ordinary expansion team

The Golden Knights may be newbies to the NHL, but they sure aren’t playing like it.

If you had to put money down, the most logical conclusion to make, even right now, would be that the Vegas Golden Knights probably won’t be among the NHL’s top teams by the end of the season.

What they will be, regardless of what happens, is a competitive hockey club that has a very solid chance of placing closer to a playoff spot than to the league’s cellar.

One thing that is crystal clear, however: this is not your typical expansion team. And as strange as this may sound, I thought the Golden Knights’ recent loss at Madison Square Garden showed that more than the team’s red-hot start did. Down to their fourth starting goaltender and kicking themselves repeatedly with unwise penalties, the Knights still managed to keep the Rangers on their toes, forcing them to score at least five goals to skate away with a win. They were able to match their opponents goal-for-goal, which is commendable.

If you look at past expansion teams, the depth of those rosters can’t hold a candle to Vegas’ lineup, to be quite frank, nor have they boasted the kind of widespread production the Knights have thus far.

For example, the 2000-01 Minnesota Wild’s leading scorer was Scott Pellerin, who had a whopping 39 points (albeit in 58 games), while finishing right behind him was future stud Marian Gaborik with 36 in 71 contests. The expansion Atlanta Thrashers were led by Andrew Brunette’s 50 points, followed by Ray Ferraro (44). Nobody else on the roster had more than 33 points.

By contrast, the Golden Knights have at least four players that could break the 50-point barrier (and have before).

James Neal potted 23 goals and 41 points in 70 games for Nashville last season. He just turned 30 September and has scored 21 goals or more in each of his nine NHL seasons, including 40 goals (81 points) with Pittsburgh in 2011-12, 21 in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season and 31 in 2015-16. He has 11 points in 13 contests this season for Vegas.

Jonathan Marchessault was a 30-goal scorer (51 points) in 75 games last season with the Panthers. He already has nine points in 10 games with Vegas.

Meanwhile, David Perron had 57 points for Edmonton in 2013-14, 42 points in 57 games for the Blues in 2011-12, and 50 points in his sophomore campaign (2008-09). He also tallied 46 points last season on a defensive-minded Blues squad. So far, Perron is up to 10 points in 13 games with Vegas.

And don’t forget about Reilly Smith, who has recorded 51, 50 and 40 points in three of his five full NHL seasons prior to this one. He was a 25-goal scorer for Florida in 2015-16 and a 20-goal guy for Boston in 2013-14. He has 10 points in 13 games as a Golden Knight.

Alex Tuch, the 18th overall pick in the 2014 draft, is also a sleeper impact player for Vegas this season. He had a solid year for Iowa (AHL) in 2016-17, recording 37 points in 57 games, and then had five points in three AHL games this season with Chicago before being called up to the big club. Since then, he has seven points in nine games for the Knights and is a potential Calder Trophy candidate, or would be, if it were not for that pesky Clayton Keller.

In addition to the scorers, there is a lot of two-way ability on the roster, something just about every other expansion franchise lacked in its inaugural season. Vegas plays well without the puck, too, which is another reason why they have found success early on.

Erik Haula and Oscar Lindberg were already respectable NHL two-way forwards, and have been able to provide Vegas’ roster with the same stability they gave their previous teams. William Karlsson had begun to emerge as a similar type of player for Columbus, and he has continued to improve this season with the Knights. He also has nine points in 13 games, which certainly doesn’t hurt, flourishing in an increased role.

Mix those ingredients with strong goaltending and defensive depth, and it becomes increasingly obvious how Vegas has been so competitive right out of the gate.

Marc-Andre Fleury (three wins, 2.48 goals-against-average, .925 save percentage) is a proven winner and Stanley Cup champion. Malcolm Subban (two wins, 2.06 GAA, .936 SV%) and Oscar Dansk (three wins, 1.78 GAA, .946 SV%) were two of the top three goaltenders picked in the 2012 Draft, and have flashed that potential early on when called upon to take the reins in emergency situations. I’m familiar with scoring by committee, but goaltending by committee is a new one on me, and it has worked for Vegas to this point.

Now, Maxime Lagace hasn’t looked particularly good. That’s unsurprising, because, well, he’s the fourth goalie on the depth chart. He did turn in a solid performance again the Bruins on Thursday night, however.

The fact that Vegas’s top three puck stoppers have performed so admirably could be a sign that their goaltending depth is scary good – or it could just be a small sample size. We’ll have to wait and see. And the craziest part about all this is that they traded Calvin Pickard, the goaltender who would have been the most obvious replacement for Fleury when he was injured.

There’s certainly a lot to like on defense as well. Nate Schmidt was never going to get the amount of ice time he probably deserved in Washington. A strong skater and puck mover, Schmidt was buried on the Caps’ depth chart but he’s been given an opportunity to play a bigger role with the Golden Knights and has made the most of it. He has seven points in 13 games this season.

Schmidt is not the only blueliner that’s chipped in offensively, however, nor is he Vegas’s top scoring defenseman right now. That distinction belongs to Colin Miller, who has racked up eight points in 13 games. The well-traveled Luca Sbisa also has six points in 13 games from the top of the key.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of all is Brad Hunt, who has seven points (all assists) in the seven games he’s played for Vegas this season. And don’t underestimate the addition of Shea Theodore to the lineup. He may very well be the best puck-moving defenseman in the organization, and he’ll get his chance to show it now that he’s been called up.

All of this is happening despite a situation revolving around Vadim Shipachyov that can only be described as “disturbingly bizarre,” a barrage of goaltending injuries and a handful of players being counted upon to play key roles for this team that are struggling to find some consistency – Brendan Leipsic (four points in eight games) and Brayden McNabb come to mind. Cody Eakin has also been somewhat inconsistent, though he does have seven points in 13 contests.

From a personnel standpoint, it’s easy to see why Vegas isn’t a pushover. But the true killer component to the Golden Knights’ game is their team speed. All you have to do is watch this team skate and whip the puck around in the offensive zone, and you’ll be mesmerized by their speed and chemistry.

There are very few players on the Knights that don’t move well, and that makes them tough to contain when they’re constantly pushing the pace. For slower teams especially, this can be a nightmare. Full marks have to be given to the coaching staff for developing a system and strategy that integrates the working components of the roster in a highly effective manner.

I would also say that Vegas probably has somewhat of a built-in advantage because there’s little to no intel available on them, so teams don’t have as much material to prepare with and on which to base a plan of attack. The reason why the Knights can take advantage of this but past expansion teams might not have been able to is because those teams were so woefully horrendous that the lack of gameplay footage was hardly an issue for opposing teams.

Vegas, on the other hand, boasts solid NHL depth, and though its roster admittedly lacks star power, it’s good enough to be competitive. The Golden Knights are harder to play against than Columbus and Atlanta were. You really have to strategize and plan for a game against the Knights. So, I think the element of surprise has definitely been somewhat of a factor, and it’ll be interesting to see how they fare as their opponents’ familiarity with them increases.

In summary, the Golden Knights probably won’t blow the rest of the league out of the water. But it would be a much bigger surprise if they managed to freefall into an abyss, which is a tremendous accomplishment for any team in its first NHL circuit.

Follow Daniel Friedman on Twitter @DanJFriedman